If you’re trying to embrace a green living lifestyle for you and your children, you’ve likely taken a good, hard look at your household chemicals, cleaners, cosmetics, etc. There are certainly plenty of toxins in those products. But what about the house itself? We often think of our houses as passive structures, but they are actually their own ecosystems. They live, they age, they even breathe! And they get sick.
Don’t worry — no need to call an exorcist. You can detox your house yourself. The first step is to understand how houses work and how to make them thrive.
Indoor Air Quality (Or Lack Thereof)
Many people assume their houses are sealed off from the outdoors, completely self-contained. However, your home is essentially a giant filter. It draws in air, recirculates it, and expels it. Your house is a membrane between the interior and exterior environments. And if that membrane is blocked, you’re family is breathing stale air. On the flip side, all your household chemicals could be polluting the air outside.
Indoor air quality (IAQ) is a primary concern of building science. As we’ve studied the chemistry and physics of buildings, we’ve learned just how important IAQ is to human health. For the past few decades, people have gradually spent more time indoors. This was partly due to concern about outdoor pollution such as smog. Now, though, we know that indoor levels of pollutants are more than 100 times higher than outdoor levels! Everything from mold spores to bacteria and viruses to smoke to vapors from toxic materials can spread throughout a building — then get trapped there, continuing to accumulate and circulate.
Even if you live a relatively green lifestyle, the normal activities of cooking, bathing, etc. can affect your IAQ. For example, cooking releases sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen dioxide — all of which can be harmful to you and your children, if not expelled quickly. High humidity in your home creates favorable conditions for mold, mildew, and microbial growth. The dust we produce as we naturally shed dead skin cells and hair can feed dust mites and bacteria. Even passing gas releases, well, gas into our indoor air. Gross, we know, but all those particulates and gasses would fade into the atmosphere — if not for the massive structures trapping them indoors.
All the synthetic materials in buildings emit gasses as well. Everything from linoleum to paint and varnish to particleboard can release Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), as well as glycols, formaldehyde, and toluene. These chemicals have been linked to skin/eyes irritation, respiratory distress, muscle fatigue, neurological issues, endocrine disruption, and cancer.
Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) is a documented phenomenon in which people become chronically ill due to low IAQ. Symptoms include coughs, headaches, nausea, fatigue, skin irritation, and neurological/mood issues. Sometimes called “Monday Fever,” this condition frequently affects office workers who are breathing in microbes and particulates from poorly filtered HVAC systems. In serious conditions, people may contract Legionnaire’s, a dangerous form of pneumonia caused by legionella bacteria growing in the cooling towers.
While much research has been done on commercial buildings, it’s likely that SBS can affect residential properties as well. Anywhere there is a buildup of moisture, particulate matter, and gasses, there is potential for the air to become toxic. And unfortunately, many buildings are designed to keep outdoor air out — without considering the pollution within.
The Importance of Filtration and Ventilation
Especially in the pandemic era, there has been a big push to improve IAQ. Building renovations often remove hazardous materials (e.g. asbestos insulation) and replace them with healthier alternatives (e.g. VOC-free paint). Many companies are investing in scuff-proof flooring rather than relying on varnish. New air filtration systems include High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters and UV sterilization that continually trap and destroy allergens and pollutants.
In addition, the building itself must be properly ventilated. There are two methods: mechanical, such as an impeller fan that draws air up and out of the building, and natural, such as when you open a window. Both types of ventilation help dispel toxic vapors and particulates. Mechanical filtration systems remove humidity and aerosolized gasses from incoming air, but it’s just as important to vent air from the building.
Ventilation is critical to good IAQ because it reduces the moisture levels in a building. This discourages legionella, mold, and other harmful microbes from growing. By lowering indoor temperatures, you can minimize the warm, wet environments where bacteria thrive. Also, the AC system doesn’t have to work as hard, so you won’t have excessive condensation that could breed Legionella.
Lower temperatures and humidity also help rid buildings of dust mites. These organisms live a third of their lives in bedding, carpet, and upholstery, where they thrive on human dander. Their droppings have been linked to asthma. As all 13 species of dust mites prefer warm, humid environments (75°F-80°F, humidity levels of 70-80%), improving your IAQ can also keep mites at bay.
Good ventilation promotes a continual exchange of gasses, removing particulates and vapors from the building. This also reduces humidity, helps cooling systems work more efficiently, and brings in fresh oxygen. Ideally, the HVAC system filters both incoming and recirculating air as well. HEPA filters and other methods trap
Hopefully, your workplace and children’s school is taking steps to improve the IAQ in its buildings. But how can you put these practices into action for your home?
Detoxing Your House
Many older homes are known for being drafty. While bad for your energy efficiency, this could help reduce indoor air pollution. That said, older homes may have residual lead, asbestos, and other toxins. Often, they use gas-powered stoves and furnaces as well,
On the flip side, newer homes are designed to be airtight — and that’s not always a good thing. Limiting the exchange of indoor and outdoor air can allow pollutants to build up indoors. And even modern HVAC systems will struggle to perform if they’re constantly inundated with dander, smoke particulates, VOCs, and so on.
Newer homes also tend to use open-concept layouts, large windows, and doorless rooms. While this may seem to promote circulation, it often leads to hot spots, which can trigger your furnace or AC to turn on prematurely. Be sure that your thermostat is located in a central location, and close the doors to any rooms not in use. If you can afford it, a modulating HVAC system can ensure even air circulation and temperature.
Also, be mindful of cooking vapors and particulates, which can more easily spread throughout the home in an open-concept layout. It’s crucial to contain and expel kitchen air as quickly as possible.
Follow this checklist to boost your home’s IAQ and reduce your risk of SBS and pollution:
Home Air Quality Best Practices Checklist
Use high-efficiency filters in your furnace and AC system. Replace monthly.
Get your system inspected regularly. Look out for dust buildup on the coils that can impair their function and create ripe environments for Legionella.
Always use the exhaust fan while cooking.
If you’re cooking something with a lot of smoke or steam (e.g. stir-frying), consider opening a window.
Replace gas-powered stoves with electric.
Never cook with kerosene, biomass, or coal indoors.
Vacuum frequently, especially under the bed and anywhere dust mites may thrive. Use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter.
Wash your families bedding and curtains in hot water (at least 130° F) to remove mites and bacteria.
When vacuuming, run the “Fan Only” setting on your AC unit to help expel dust that’s kicked up.
Consider replacing carpets with wood or tile. (If opting for vinyl flooring, be mindful of possible chemical emissions and look for greener alternatives.)
Choose zero-VOC or low-VOC paints when repainting walls or furniture.
Check doors and windows for leaks. If replacing, look for double-glazed windows or insulated glass units.
Consider replacing drapes with blinds or rollup shades to keep your home cool without inviting dust mites.
Your families home’s comfort is greatly affected by the level of pollutants and microbes moving throughout it. Even if you clean your surfaces and belongings with eco-friendly chemicals, you may have harmful allergens and chemicals circulating in the air. Good ventilation and filtration can improve your home’s indoor air quality. That’s not only better for the planet but also better for your children’s health! And the good news is that you don’t necessarily need fancy equipment to boost your IAQ. A few smart decisions for your home’s systems and maintenance can instantly make a difference.
This article is inspired by an interview with Marla Esser Cloos, a green home coach and the host of the Green Gab Podcast.