Step 3: Clean Up Indoor Air

We breathe more than we eat. We breathe more than we drink. We are breathing all the time, but how often do you stop to think about what exactly you are breathing? Probably not nearly as much as how often you consider what else you're putting in your body. Yet, it's no less important, especially for young children who breathe faster than adults – inhaling 50% more air per pound of body weight.

Air pollution is obvious when you're caught in a plume of fumes from a diesel truck or when the wind blows smoke in your face from a camp fire or grill, but even when you can't see the air, it can still be heavily contaminated. Even more importantly, the worst air is generally inside, where most people spend roughly 90% of their time.

Not to worry, it’s typically very easy to improve indoor air quality.

What to Do

The products we use are the source for a substantial portion of indoor air pollution. Because of this fact, it’s essential to know what’s in the products you buy and opt for the most natural and non-toxic choices.

After doing your best to eliminate the source of the pollutants, you should ensure your home is properly ventilated. And the third step, for special situations, is to use an air purifier to capture any lingering risky contaminants.

When addressing odors, use non-toxic techniques to scent and deodorize the house.

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Safety Checklist

  • Ventilate your home by opening windows, even for a few minutes a day. It’s the second best solution after prevention.
  • Use exhaust fans when cooking and bathing. Make sure your fans are vented outdoors. If you don’t have exhaust fans, crack a window.
  • Grow indoor plants, which absorb air impurities. Areca palm, lady palm, bamboo palm, rubber plant, and Boston fern are effective options. Keep potentially poisonous plants out of reach of children and pets.
  • Monitor dust levels in your home. If it seems to build up quickly, you may need to dust more frequently or do a deep cleaning to eliminate sources of excessive dust.
  • Wipe your feet on a doormat or remove your shoes at the door.
  • Check your homes vents, ducts, and heating and cooling filters.
  • Vacuum at least twice a week using a HEPA filter, and/or mop floors.
  • Change your vacuum bag, and be sure it has a clean filter to prevent the spreading of dust, which can be redistributed into the air.
  • Check the air in your home. Test for radon and install carbon monoxide and smoke detectors.
  • Keep Humidity Low in Your Home. Repair leaky plumbing and seal cracks in basement floors and walls. Place dehumidifiers or air conditioners in damp rooms. Clean and/or replace filters regularly. Maintain the humidity level between 30-60%, using a moisture detector (hygrometer).
  • Build safer fires to prevent smoke and particulate matter exposure.
  • Consider how much time you spend in your car and clean up for a healthier ride using these 5 tips.

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Safe Solutions

  • Avoid using conventional paints, cleaning supplies, pesticides, and furniture made from pressed woods that emit harmful chemicals.
  • “Air out” new carpets, home furnishings, and anything else with that “new smell” before indoor use. Better yet – buy safer products that don’t off-gas toxic fumes.
  • Choose personal care products that are fragrance-free.
  • Have your clothes cleaned using “wet-cleaning” or another safer option. If you do bring dry-cleaned items home, let them air-out outside or in a garage for several days before bringing them in.
  • Sprinkle baking soda on your carpet to absorb odors before vacuuming.
  • Freshen indoor air naturally. Use natural herbs and essential oils instead of scented candles or air fresheners.
  • If you deem it necessary, use air cleaners and purifiers with approved HEPA filters. Different homes have different needs. Learn about which product might be right for you using the Consumer Reports Buying Guide.

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More Information

Making homes too airtight can result in harmful particles and allergens being trapped indoors with no means of escape. As a result, the air we breathe indoors may be 2 to 5 times more polluted, and occasionally up to 100 times more polluted, than the air we breathe outside. Indoor air pollution is linked to a host of health effects, including chronic respiratory diseases such as asthma, headaches, nausea, fatigue, liver damage, harm to the immune, reproductive, nervous and cardiovascular system, and cancer. While making homes more airtight and energy efficient has certainly reduced fuel consumption, it often increases health risks - especially for young children, seniors, and those with pre-existing conditions.

One of the most common types of indoor air pollution is a class of contaminants known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, “Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids. VOCs include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have short- and long-term adverse health effects. Concentrations of many VOCs are consistently higher indoors (up to ten times higher) than outdoors. VOCs are emitted by a wide array of products numbering in the thousands. Examples include: paints and lacquers, paint strippers, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials and furnishings, office equipment such as copiers and printers, correction fluids and carbonless copy paper, graphics and craft materials including glues and adhesives, permanent markers, and photographic solutions.”


US Environmental Protection Agency’s Indoor Air Quality Site
American Lung Association 

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  • The indoor air in the typical American home contains over 500 chemicals. According to a study published in January 2009:

* 586 individual chemicals were identified in the air of 52 homes. The pesticides diazinon and chlorpyrifos were found in the greatest amounts and both were found in all of the homes tested.
* Twenty-seven different organochlorine pesticides were detected. p,p'-DDE, a breakdown product of the now banned pesticide DDT, was detected in more than 90 percent of homes.
* Amounts of PCBs were generally low but were found in more than half the houses. They were detected in 56 percent of the 52 homes studied.
* Phthalate chemicals were found at very large concentrations in indoor air.

Researchers were not able to identify at least 120 of the chemicals. I repeat, researchers were not able to identify at least 120 of the chemicals! (Sorry for the repetition, it's just stunning to me that our regulatory system is so flawed that experienced scientists are unable to identify so many chemicals that we are likely exposed to from common household products every day.) Many of these unidentified chemicals had structures similar to fragrance compounds. Fragrances made up the major chemical component of the collected chemicals.

  • The breathing zone of a baby (less than 2 feet above ground) can be more contaminated than an adult’s (4-6 feet) because many contaminants weigh more than air (mercury, pesticides, etc). For example, in one study, the pesticide Chlorpyrifos was found to be nearly four times more concentrated at about 5-10 inches from the floor compared with the air 2 feet or more above the floor in a room with a window open for ventilation.
  • Even though indoor air is typically 2-5 times more polluted than outdoor and we spend about 90% of our time indoors, there have been few studies documenting the health effects of indoor air and there are no regulations as there are for outdoor air or even workplace air. According to an article in the San Francisco Gate: "The U.S. General Accounting Office has called indoor air pollution "one of the most serious environmental risks to human health," yet no agency has authority to control pollutants in indoor air." There are a variety of regulations aimed at limiting outdoor air pollution – and granted, it would be difficult to impossible to have the same types of rules in place for the average home, but at the very least, there could be regulations regarding how many VOCs a product can emit.

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