Winter’s cold is still here, the windows have been closed for months, the heat is running and the humidifier appears to have found a permanent home in the bedroom. It can be tough to keep the air inside homes of high quality during the winter.
With spring right around the corner, it will soon be time to crack open the windows and allow some clean, fresh air inside. This will be a welcome change from breathing the stagnant and possibly dirty air that has been circulating in your home for the past several months.
Clearing the air
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), indoor air quality refers to the quality of the air in a home, school, office or other building environment. Indoor air quality is important to consider because Americans, on average, spend 90% of their time indoors, in which the concentration of some pollutants are often two to five times higher than it is outdoors.
Indoor concentrations of some pollutants have increased in recent decades because of factors including energy-efficient building constructions and increased use of synthetic building materials, furnishings, personal care products, pesticides and household cleaners. Cooking, some beauty products, insulation and heating and cooling appliances can also adversely impact indoor air quality.
“Even if it appears to be clear indoor air, it can be heavily polluted,” says Christoph Burkhardt, CEO of OneLife, an air-purifier manufacturer. “The most harmful particles are too small to be seen, which often means we feel safer than we actually are.”
Burkhardt says the most common air pollutants include dust, pollen, gaseous compounds and chemicals, viruses and bacteria. The EPA lists pet dander, mold, lead, asbestos and pesticides, as well.
“Just take vacuum cleaning as an example,” Burkhardt says. “While we want to get rid of dust, we actually push lots of fine dust into the air when we use a vacuum cleaner.”
Smoke from any combustion, including cooking without proper ventilation, is one oft-overlooked source of indoor air pollution, he adds.
“What many people do not realize is that burning candles or cooking release very harmful particles,” he explains.
Short- and long-term exposure to air pollution can lead to a wide range of health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, reduced lung function and respiratory infection and asthma, as well as symptoms like coughing and respiratory tract irritation, Burkhardt adds.
Breath of fresh air
As it turns out, clean air is easier to come by than one might think.
“The best way to clean indoor air is to use an air purifier in combination with proper ventilation,” Burkhardt says. “Most air purifiers are able to effectively eliminate several types of indoor air pollutants. Nonetheless, there are massive quality differences between air purifiers. You want to make sure you get the right device for your setting, room size, allergy or respiratory exposure, pets in your home, and many more. A good air purifier will take all these factors into account before starting to clean your air.”
Tony Abate, vice president and chief technical officer at AtmosAir Solutions, headquartered in Fairfield, Connecticut, says a best-practice strategy is to add layers of protection to improve and maintain good indoor air quality.
“Place walk-off mats just outside and just inside all doors,” says Abate, a certified indoor environmentalist as designated by the Indoor Air Quality Association and the American Air Quality Council. “Avoid carpeting wherever possible.”
He also advises cleaning with EPA-registered disinfectant products; using high-quality air filters, and changing them regularly; and performing air duct cleaning at least once every five years.
“Indoor air quality monitors are available that can tell at a glance the air contaminants present, and their levels compared to accepted guidelines,” Abate says. “Anyone can be affected by bad air quality.”
Air-Scrubbing Plants: Myth or Reality?
Many people believe that plants can improve indoor air quality, and this concept — known as phytoremediation — has been propagated by numerous websites. While plants definitely remove carbon dioxide from indoor air — it is, after all, what plants breathe — their ability to filter volatile organic compounds such as benzene, trichloroethylene and formaldehyde is questionable.
While researching the ability of plants to cleanse air in space stations, NASA made some discoveries concerning the role that houseplants may play on Earth, according to the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors. NASA researchers found that plants absorb airborne substances through tiny openings in their leaves, but roots and soil bacteria are also part of the purification process.
It might, however, take a relatively large number of plants per square foot to impact air quality. NASA concluded that an 1,800-square-foot house requires 15 to 18 houseplants in 6- to 8-inch diameter containers to improve air quality; and some plants are more effective than others at removing specific toxins from the air.
“Plants are beautiful and they certainly do a lot for our well-being and health at home,” Burkhardt says. “When it comes to cleaning our air though, most of what people think about plants are urban myths. Plants suffer from air pollution almost as much as we do. Rather than eliminating it, they get covered in it, limiting their ability to produce and output clean air after.
“Quite plainly, it’s a myth that plants could be used to improve your indoor air quality.”
“Some plants have been known to add to the oxygen content of the air and some buildings have installed Plant or Green walls for those benefits, but in general plants will not significantly improve air quality,” he says.
That said, cultivating houseplants has few if any negative impacts on health and well-being, so grow as many plants as you want.