We all need air. Oxygen is vital to life. However, air contains much more than oxygen. With each breath, we might be inhaling fungal spores, bacteria, viruses, and trace gases. In this modern era, fumes from toxic synthetic chemicals may piggyback as well.
It’s no wonder that indoor air quality (IAQ) has become a huge public health concern. From diagnosing facilities with “Sick Building Syndrome” to discovering respiratory risks in our homes, scientists are realizing that IAQ is a critical health factor.
what’s really in the air we breathe, and how can we ensure better indoor air quality?
The REAL Reason for A Case of the Mondays
Also called the Monday blues, Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) refers to the various neurological and metabolic effects from HVAC pollutants. Many microbes circulate through a building’s ductwork, which tends to be dirty and damp —the perfect breeding ground for bacteria, viruses, and mold. The latter is a particularly serious issue, as it can include neurotoxins that impair one’s cognition.
So if you’ve ever worked in an office building where everyone seemed sluggish, irritable, and confused on Mondays, SBS was probably the reason why. When we go home for the weekend, our bodies recover from the toxins. Come Monday, though, we’re right back in the thick of it.
SBS isn’t limited to commercial buildings, though. It’s often more common there because the ductwork is immensely vast and complex — and therefore, hard to clean. Many facilities also contain equipment that releases carbon monoxide, ozone, and other poisonous gasses. Even in trace amounts, these can have serious neurological repercussions.
Thankfully, scientists and engineers are recognizing the problems with poor IAQ in commercial buildings. THey’re investing in high-efficiency filters, advanced sterilization techniques, and better purification to remove the threat. Cracking down on indoor smoking, high-VOC paints, and pests has also helped.
Is your home safer, though? After all, we tend to cook, burn candles, and play with pets at home — and we often don’t have the advanced HVAC systems of office buildings. So while we may not be breathing in all our coworkers’ germs, we could be vulnerable to a dangerous mix of noxious gases, allergens, spores, and trace chemicals.
The Problem with Indoor Air
Outdoor pollution is one thing. While it’s never ideal to breathe in smog or airborne pollution, the atmosphere is also huge. If we preserve our forests, plants absorb massive amounts of carbon dioxide. The rest dissolves into the oceans, and at a certain point, volatile gases dissolve into a broad atmospheric mix.
Indoors, though, it’s another story. Indoor air is circulated and recirculated, often with little egress. Fresh air is restricted from entering the building, and when it does, it’s heavily filtered. Worse, it may pick up chemical or microbial traces.
Most indoor air passes through HVAC systems. If those systems aren’t well maintaIned, microbes such as Legionella that breed in condensation can easily hitch a ride. Indoor air quality can also plummet as fungal spores keep circulating rather than dispersing into the wind. Allergens such as pet dander and pollen also stick around, clinging to ducts and surfaces.
In sum, indoor air runs through a closed system. This is a problem because the natural elements aren’t there to absorb, collect, or break down pollutants as normal. Worse, artificial structures such as HVAC ductwork are the perfect breeding ground for harmful microbes. Outdoors, you’d be unlikely to encounter a Legionella population that presented any sort of threat.
So, how can you resolve issues with poor indoor air quality?
Filter, Then Purify Your Indoor Air
Filtration is just what it sounds like: filtering out particles from the air. It’s essentially a fish net, but instead of catching aquatic life, it strains dust and dander.
Unfortunately, viruses, bacteria, and fungal spores can pass right through. Cooking releases fumes of carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and other toxic chemicals that linger in the air. Even small amounts can trigger health effects.
Worse, many of our household items contain latent chemicals such as formaldehyde, brominated compounds, or VOCs that vent into our breathing air. Have you ever endured that “new furniture” smell after buying a mattress or armchair? Those are gaseous forms of preservatives and flame retardants that circulate within your home much longer than they would outdoors.
That’s why you should purify your air in addition to filtering it. Some people invest in UV sterilizers to obliterate any microbes riding the breeze. A standalone air purifier can also help eliminate pollutants. If nothing else, open a window to let in the fresh air.
However, keep in mind that indoor environments often exclude outdoor air by design. It’s up to you to maintain good circulation. Activities such as cooking, painting, varnishing, and cleaning typically release gasses and particulate matter that could present a health risk. As a general rule, if you feel a little woozy or sniffly during it, it’s bad for your IAQ.
Boosting your ventilation can help. The EPA recommends at least 0.35 air changes per hour, at least 14 cubic feet per person per minute. In other words, your home should release at least a closet’s worth of air for each resident every minute.
Household Cleaning Techniques
We know no one likes to hear this, but the cleaner your home, the better. Allergens and pollutants love to linger on bedclothes, upholstery, curtains, and even stuffed animals. A layer of dust on your walls, electronics, and art can easily trigger asthma and other conditions. In other words, it’s time to break out the dustcloths and laundry detergent!
However, be wary of many traditional cleaning products, as they often contain Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and fumes that will linger in the air. Burning candles or installing air fresheners can compound the problem if they’re not made from natural fragrances and other ingredients.
Here are some pointers for a cleaner, greener household:
Wash bedding and drapes in water at least 130° F. This kills dust mites and many other allergens.
Invest in a HEPA filter. High-Efficiency Particulate Filters in your air conditioner, vacuum cleaner, and air purifier trap and eliminate more allergens than simple sweeping or HVAC would do.
Use a dehumidifier. Microbes love moist environments. Therefore, the best way to eliminate fungal spores and harmful bacteria is to reduce moisture. A dehumidifier can do the trick. Plus, it often makes the air feel cleaner and fresher so you’re less tempted to break out the phthalate-filled candles.
Weatherize your home. Yes, you want to let in fresh air… but not pollen or mold. Seal any cracks in your doors or windows to boost your energy efficiency and keep out harmful spores.
Poor indoor air quality contributes to respiratory distress, fatigue, neurological issues, and many other ailments. Unfortunately, most buildings aren’t designed to ward off pollutants. And as you need to protect yourself from pollen and microbes, it’s tempting to seal yourself in. However, that can create a new set of problems.
The best approach is to both welcome fresh air into and cleanse the atmosphere within your building. Robust HEPA filters, air purifiers, and ventilation systems help circulate your air, improving IAQ without exposing you to pollutants. And whenever possible, eliminate the source. The fewer chemicals and materials that release fumes, the cleaner your indoor air will be.
In sum: skip the fancy air fresheners and invest in a quality air purifier. A good IAQ is both pleasant and healthy for your family.