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Indoor Air Quality

I’m not sure if indoor air quality has gotten worse over the last couple decades or whether we’ve just gotten smarter about recognizing that some of our health issues can be attributed to the quality of the air in our homes. Maybe it’s the fact that we seem to spend more time indoors than our ancestors did. Whatever it is that’s bringing this issue to the forefront, the facts remain that the air inside our homes can be more polluted than the air outside, and it can be harmful to our health and even fatal. This is particularly true for the most vulnerable: the elderly, children (who breathe in twice as much air for their size as adults do) and people with respiratory problems. I do know that the solution has been around forever – identify, eliminate, ventilate. Let’s look at some of the most common sources and easiest solutions.

IDENTIFY

The obvious of course is cigarette smoke. There are others that can cause health problems – radon, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), mold, allergens, pet dander, insects. And then there are those we don’t know enough about yet or may affect people differently – cleaning products, carpeting, certain cabinet woods, air fresheners, hobby supplies. Anything that has a smell is off-gassing something. The question is whether you or someone in your family has a sensitivity to that compound or might develop one.

ELIMINATE

There are obvious solutions that are easy to implement and then there are some that will require the help of professionals.

  • Cigarette smoke – don’t smoke in the house and don’t let others smoke in your home.
  • VOCs – the one heard about most often is the VOCs in paint. Low- or no-VOC paints are available at all hardware and paint stores in every color that regular paint is available in and don’t cost much more. Look for the label on the can or ask the paint consultant at the counter to help you find low-or no-VOC paint.
  • Mold – watch the humidity level in your home, the basement, or the crawlspace.
    • Make sure your gutters are cleaned out and that downspouts drain at least five feet away from your house.
    • Check that the landscape around your home slopes away from the foundation. The goal is to make sure water drains away from your house, not toward it.
    • Install a dehumidifier.
    • Use a bath fan while showering or bathing and let it run for at least 20 minutes after you finish taking a shower.
    • Use a kitchen exhaust fan while cooking and make sure it vents to the outside. Most microwave fans just recirculate the air, not vent it.
  • Pet dander, allergens – vacuum often, change the bag on the vacuum cleaner, dust often with a microfiber cloth or other tool that requires no polish or wax.
  • Cleaning products – use natural products such as vinegar and baking soda whenever possible. There are all kinds of books and articles about natural home cleaning products available at the library, on-line or at bookstores.
  • Carbon monoxide and radon need special attention since both are colorless, odorless, tasteless and deadly.

Radon
Radon is a naturally occurring gas that comes mostly from the soil. It is colorless, odorless, and seeps into your home through cracks, gaps and holes. The Surgeon General has determined that radon is the #2 cause of lung cancer in the United States, second only to cigarette smoke. It can be a problem anywhere and in any type or age of home. Your brand new house could be fine while your next-door neighbor’s 20-year-old home could have a serious problem or vice versa.

Testing for radon is relatively easy. You can have a professional come in to take care of the testing or you can purchase a radon test kit and collect the samples yourself. You will still have to send them off to a lab to get the results. Considering that this really is a matter of life or death, it’s a small price to pay to be sure your family is safe.

Carbon Monoxide
Carbon monoxide (CO) is a by-product of combustion, or burning. Besides cigarettes, common causes of carbon monoxide in a home are unvented gas appliances like gas fireplaces and gas heaters. Other common sources within a home include poorly operating gas stoves, furnaces, or water heaters. A blocked chimney is another that’s difficult to spot without the help of a professional.

One not often recognized as a potential source is an attached garage. Fumes from a vehicle or other gas-powered equipment such as the lawn mower can remain long after the equipment is shut off. It’s also very common to start the car in the garage and let it run for awhile while it warms up, cools down or you run back into the house to get something you forgot. Then you back out and shut the door. Now the carbon monoxide is trapped inside the garage where it can gradually seep into your home.

Exposure to low levels of carbon monoxide over time can result in flu-like symptoms including headaches, dizziness, nausea, etc. A sure sign that you need to check into this further is that the symptoms will disappear when you leave your home. HIGH LEVELS WILL KILL IN A SHORT AMOUNT OF TIME.

Carbon monoxide is easily detected by a carbon monoxide detector. It can be a basic model that hangs on the wall or ceiling like a smoke detector, a combination smoke and carbon monoxide detector, or a digital model that displays the CO level and records them over a period of time. If possible, purchase one with a display since low level exposure over a long period of time can be just as harmful as a short-term higher dose.

Placement should be outside bedrooms, in any room with a gas fired appliance, and near the entry to an attached garage. The weight of carbon monoxide is so close to air that the best answer for whether it should be placed high or low is to follow the manufacturer’s instructions. And pay attention to the expiration date. They do expire.

VENTILATION

Just about everything you do in your home can contribute to stagnant, polluted indoor air. Besides eliminating the source, the proper amount of ventilation will help solve this problem. The key is to control where that air comes from and how much you let in. After all, swapping your polluted indoor air for dirty air from the crawlspace or the attic is certainly going to defeat the purpose.

Ventilation can be done several ways.

  • Open a window or door. Seems simple enough unless it’s 95° outside with a relative humidity level somewhere around 95%. Opening a window is not a reliable, controlled method of ventilation but it’s better than nothing.
  • Mechanical ventilation. Mechanical ventilation systems are designed to control where the air comes from, where it goes, how much enters and how much leaves. It includes exhaust fans like bath or kitchen fans, systems that connect to your ductwork and operate off your HVAC system controls, and stand-alone systems that have their own controls. There are times and places where one of these approaches, or a combination of them, will work better depending on the home and the habits of the occupants.

If you have a concern over the indoor air quality inside your home, please contact us. We would be glad to evaluate your particular situation and health concerns and design a system that would work best for you.