Something in the air

Something in the Air

Local experts clear the air on how to prevent indoor air pollution

Story by Randi Jo Gause

The term air pollution tends to provoke thoughts of exhaust fumes, factory smokestacks and smog. But if you think you and your family are safe from air pollution inside your home, think again. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that indoor air quality can be anywhere from two to 10 times more hazardous than outdoor air, which is no small matter, since the average person spends 90 percent of their time indoors – clearly a modest estimate for Alaskans during winter months.

From short-term symptoms such as nausea, dizziness and respiratory problems, to long-term effects like cancer, or even death, it's no wonder the EPA has also ranked indoor air pollution one of the top five environmental threats to public health.

If the facts leave you a little shocked, don't hold your breath just yet. Learn how to filter out toxins from your living space using the advice and resources of local experts, so you can breathe easier.

Décor decisions

Because we spend so much time indoors, it makes sense to decorate with health and quality of life in mind. You and your family may be cozying up to hidden toxins lurking on walls, under the sofa cushions and beneath your feet. These chemical concoctions off-gas for years into indoor air, potentially impacting long-term health. Some of the culprits include: Trichloroethylene (found in varnishes, paints and adhesives), formaldehyde (present in carpet additives, foam insulation and furniture made with particleboard) and benzene (found in plastics and synthetic fibers).

Think about phasing out particleboard furniture, such as shelving and office desks, and consider pieces made of natural materials such as hardwood, rattan and iron. If you're planning to remodel your kitchen, choose cabinets made from solid, untreated wood. And why sleep with the enemy? Many mattresses are made with synthetic and chemical-based foams, plastics and artificial fibers, and most box springs are made with chemically treated wood and chemical adhesives. Next time you buy a mattress consider one made from natural fibers and untreated wood.

You know that new paint smell? It usually has something to do with the chemicals added to paint to improve spreadability and durability. These volatile organic compounds (VOCs) evaporate at room temperature and can damage the kidneys, liver and central nervous system, according to the EPA. When shopping for paint, look for one that contains VOC levels of 150 grams per liter or lower.

"Low-VOC paints are designed to perform like conventional paints but without the harmful ingredients to the earth and its people," explains Cheryl Murphy, owner of Hot Elements.

VOCs don't just come from your walls; they can also come from your wall-to-wall carpeting. Opt for natural flooring such as sustainably harvested hardwood, bamboo, cork or tile, and no-emission carpeting of natural fibers such as sisal or wool.

Get your ducts in a row
Something in the air

Don't let uninvited guests make themselves at home in your ductwork. Air ducts offer the perfect environment to harbor contaminants such as dust, pollen, mold and bacteria. After time, this build-up of toxins is circulated back into your home. Even if your home is new, you may have more internal construction debris and dust than a home that is 10 to 15 years old.

Hiring a professional to clean your ductwork will prevent these intruders from infiltrating your home. The process involves using negative air pressure to break loose contaminants, which are then removed using a large vacuum system.

"We have several customers who want their systems cleaned each year because they notice the difference in air quality," explains Keith Periman, owner of J&K Power Vac. "We recommend having residential systems cleaned every three to five years, depending on the number of people in the family, which impacts things like the frequency of opening doors and the amount of laundry."

Suck it up

Although residential vacuum technologies have come a long way, most vacuums still, well…suck.

"All portable vacuums exhaust back into the home," emphasizes Jennifer Krieter, co-owner of Vacuflo-Alaska. "Portable vacuums have bags and filters, and blow fine particles back into the living area."

Instead, experts recommend installing a central vacuum system to remove vacuum waste from the house entirely. The system allows homeowners to plug a portable vacuum head and hose into pre-installed vacuum inlets throughout the house, which then capture dirt using a suction motor and bag placed in a centralized location in the home.

"Central vacuums remove 100 percent of the vacuumed dust and pet hair from the living area so that no bad air is recycled into the home," notes Krieter.

Keep it pure

Using a home air purifier is one of the simplest ways to clear your air of toxins. In fact, the only thing challenging about filtering air using a purifier is filtering out the range of brands and features to choose from.

Ernie Hamm, co-owner of Riehl Sew 'N' Vac, recommends doing your homework first by evaluating the quality of four key features: Hepa filtration, gas and odor control, air volume, and fan speed and noise level.

The IQAir HealthPro Plus is one award-winning example that is edorsed by the medical community. It is capable of eliminating micro-particles, VOCs, harmful chemicals, bacteria and even viruses from the air.

Most air cleaners are only designed to filter the larger airborne particles (0.3 microns and larger), but that size range makes up about 10 percent of all airborne particulates. It's the ultra-fine particles that are much more dangerous when inhaled into the lungs, and can significantly increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes, according to recent studies by the American Heart Association and other medical research organizations. The IQAir is tested and certified to filter down to 0.003 microns – 100 times smaller than what can be achieved by ordinary HEPA technology.

Also, Hamm advises: "Avoid any air cleaner utilizing an ozone generator or ionizer. These have been known to cause health issues and have been taken off the market in many states."

Go au naturale  

Bringing nature indoors — in the form of plants that clean the air — is a beautiful way to boost the healthiness of your home. A recent study by NASA analyzed the ability of plants to create oxygen and filter common toxins (such as benzene, formaldehyde and ammonia), and identified the top houseplants for clearing the air. Among the list of top contenders, they found the Spider Plant, English Ivy, Nephytis, Dragon Tree, Gerbera Daisy, Peace Lily, and Bamboo Palm are some of the most effective natural air purifiers.

Air it out

The growing trend in building energy-efficient homes is good for the environment, but not so great for air quality.

"In Alaska, homes tend to be built air-tight to keep warm," explains Krieter. "Especially in the colder months when people are not airing out their homes, achieving good air quality can be a problem."

Properly ventilating your home can lower the concentration of indoor air pollution and reduce moisture that causes growth of mold and mildew. Running exhaust fans in bathrooms and kitchens after activities like washing or cooking, running window or attic fans, or simply opening windows regularly are all useful methods to increase air circulation.

Out with the bad, in with the good

Think of smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors, and radon testing kits as home security systems for your air. The indoor air pollutants that these systems detect are identified as being among the most dangerous, and a source of sickness and death in thousands of children and adults annually.

As a general guideline, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors should be installed on every floor of your home, tested monthly, and have batteries replaced annually. Home radon testing should be conducted every couple of years, using home kits or by hiring a professional.

Educating yourself to the realities of indoor air pollution is the first step in developing an approach to combating threats to your home's air quality. Increasing consumer awareness has also spurred the development of more air-friendly products, materials and resources designed to help you and your family breathe easier.