Could there be air pollution inside your home? Here's what to look out for
It's discomforting to realise that air pollution can be coming from inside your home. Here's how to identify and rid yourself of the risks.
Think about the phrase “air pollution.” Are you picturing black plumes curling out of factory smokestacks and the tailpipes of idling vehicles? Something to worry about outdoors, that is, not inside your home?
Not so fast: Air pollutants could be within your own walls too, seeping from your basement, even that new couch, and their threats range from eye irritation to an increased risk of cancer, and maybe even death.
Don’t panic (really). Once you recognise the threats, you can often clean up the air in your home without too much trouble. And as the pandemic may force us to be at home more than ever, now is a good time to make sure your everyday air is as clean as possible.
Here are some of the most common indoor air concerns – and how to deal with them.
First, the bad news: There’s definitely mould in your living space. Mould, an umbrella term for a variety of fungi, lives everywhere, and you can’t get rid of it. The good news is that it won’t mushroom up to problem levels without moisture, and that you can control.
The biggest issue with out-of-control growth is that mould shoots invisible allergens into the air, causing sniffling, wheezing, eye irritation or rashes in many people.
Mould poses even more risk for those with underlying conditions, triggering asthma attacks, exacerbating chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and sometimes causing fungal infections in immunocompromised individuals.
If you have a mould infestation, you probably already know it. “If you can see it or you can smell it, you’ve got a problem,” said Scott Damon, health communication lead for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) asthma and community health branch.
The only solution is prompt cleanup, a task you can probably handle yourself in small areas (10 feet square or less) but one that will demand professional help for larger ones.
Carefully check references if you do hire a contractor, as scammers sometimes claim they can fix mould problems.
It’s much better to keep mould at bay in the first place by finding and fixing leaks and minimising dampness. Often the problem is “a leaky roof or window, or a broken pipe,” Damon said. “But it can also be high humidity – use a dehumidifier to bring down that humidity level.
And it’s important that you ventilate the more humid parts of your house, like the bathroom, laundry and cooking areas.”
Flip on exhaust fans while showering, cooking or running the dishwasher, and make sure your clothes dryer vents outside.
VOLATILE ORGANIC COMPOUNDS (VOCS)
A slew of different chemicals fall into the catchall term VOCs (including formaldehyde and benzene), and because they’re found in thousands of different products, from paint to carpeting to furniture to glue, it’s likely that some are off-gassing into your home’s air right now.
Short-term, inhaling high levels of them can cause eye and throat irritation, nausea, headaches and dizziness; long-term, it’s linked to cancer and damage to the nervous system, liver and kidneys.
One of the biggest sources of formaldehyde in particular is new building materials, said Dr Arthur Chang, chief medical officer for the CDC’s division of environmental health science and practice. New particleboard, plywood, adhesives, paints, varnishes and carpeting are all common offenders.
If you’re not living in a brand-new house, you can still be exposed by painting or renovation projects, new furniture, and some household cleaners, disinfectants and cosmetics, among other things.
One of the best defenses is to keep levels low in the first place by looking for “low- or no-VOC” or “low formaldehyde” labels when shopping for paint, couches, mattresses and wood products (also check ingredient lists for “urea” and avoid those products).
If a new purchase has that sickly chemical smell, put it in a garage or on a patio to let it off-gas for a few days; wash new drapes before hanging them.
Some VOCs are water soluble, so humid air will speed off-gassing; a dehumidifier can help tamp things down.
Ventilation is essential: If you’re painting, cleaning, or doing other home projects, make sure the space gets plenty of outside air.
THE COMMON DEFENSE: FRESH AIR
Speaking of ventilation, you may have noticed that all of the above pollutants have something in common. Namely, we can mitigate them with a good influx of fresh outdoor air to prevent the nasty stuff from building up.
The newer your living space, the “tighter” it probably is – that is, the fewer cracks and holes there are to let outdoor air seep in. This is a good thing for energy efficiency, but it also increases the risk of pollutants hanging around in your indoor air.
“Increase fresh air exchange whatever way you can,” Chang said. “If it’s feasible, open the windows, even for a short amount of time.”
Adding a few gusts of outdoor air every day will dilute any air pollutant in your home and is an easy, effective step to take during the long indoor season to come.
By Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan © The New York Times
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.