When we think about air pollution, most of us visualize big industrial plants billowing out smoke. Most people believe that they’re safe from these pollutants when they’re inside their homes. But in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Indoor air pollution is just as big of a problem for your health.
In fact, according to a study by the Environmental Protection Agency, indoor air pollution in the United States can be up to 100 times worse than outdoor air.
Every day, you inhale about 11,000 liters of air. The air you breathe circulates throughout your entire body, providing critical fuel to internal organs, including your heart, lungs, kidneys, and liver.
If the air that you breathe is polluted, in a matter of moments, you’re introducing toxins into every cell of your body.
What symptoms should you look out for?
Many people find themselves complaining of recurring nasal congestion, difficulty sleeping, fatigue, or sneezing – without realizing that these are common symptoms of exposure to indoor air pollution. Other symptoms may include wheezing; irritability; itchy throat, nose, or skin; dry or watery eyes; hives; coughing; and even stomach aches.
While these common ailments can be uncomfortable, they are relatively mild compared to the problems that air pollution can cause in the long run. Indoor air pollution has been linked to serious illnesses including cancer, heart disease, and lung disease. According to the World Health Organization, children are particularly vulnerable to the health problems that can arise from indoor air pollution.
Where does this indoor air pollution come from?
Pollutants found within your home originate from both internal and external sources. Within your home, your air could be contaminated by:
- Cleaning products
- Mold and dampness
- Air fresheners
- Perfume and deodorants with synthetic fragrances and other chemical compounds
- Gas stoves, ovens, and dryers
- Candles and fireplaces
- Burnt food
- Cooking on Non-stick cookware
- Pet Dander
- Insect control chemicals
- Tobacco products
- Termites, cockroaches, and dust mites; including their droppings
- Chemical found in building materials, such as asbestos, formaldehyde, and lead
- Outgassing of toxic volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) from house paint, carpet and furniture
- Bacteria and viruses
The most common external sources include pollen, dust, and pollutants that come in through ventilation systems and through open doors and windows. As well, many homes are contaminated with radon, which can come through the cracks in basements and crawl spaces.
What can you do to protect yourself?
These are some of the steps you can take to reduce the levels of pollutants in your home:
- Never let anyone smoke indoors.
- Keep indoor humidity under 50% by ensuring that exhaust fans in kitchens, bathrooms, and laundry rooms vent to the outside. Installing vents and attic fans can help too.
- Make sure gas burning appliances are fully vented to the outdoors.
- Never store chemicals, paints, or solvents in the basement or an attached garage.
- Only buy ‘green’ furnishings, upholstery, and carpeting that do not contain formaldehyde.
- Use low volatile organic chemical (VOC) paints which emit fewer toxins.
- Vacuum or sweep regularly to clear out dust mites, pet dander, and debris.
- Use eco-friendly non-toxic household cleaning supplies – or make your own.
- Open the windows as much as possible, even if only for a few minutes.
- Clean or change all the filters in your house regularly – especially those for your heater or furnace, air conditioner, air purifier, and vacuum.
- If you have pets, groom them well.
- Clean any mold that develops on walls or shower curtains, or on sinks.
- Consider purchasing a quality air filtration system.
What type of air filters are available and how do they work?
There are a number of different types of air filters available on the market today and each one has its own benefits and drawbacks. You should evaluate a number of different criteria, including the type of filter used, contaminants removed, the CADR or performance rating, noise level, and the cost of replacement filters.
Here is a high-level summary of what you need to know to help you make an informed choice.
HEPA and Ultra-HEPA
HEPA is an acronym for High-Efficiency Particulate Air. These filters are designed to trap 99.97% of airborne particles as small as .3 microns. Ultra-HEPA filters go even further, removing particles as small as .003 microns (100 times smaller than HEPA).
HEPA filters are the most commonly used air filters and the ones generally recommended by medical professionals. They are virtually 100% effective at removing most particulate matter from the air – including pet dander, mold, pollen, dust mite debris, bacteria and most viruses. Ultra HEPA will capture the smallest viruses and the smallest airborne particulates like smoke. HEPA only does half the job of purifying the air because it does not remove chemicals, gasses fumes, aerosols, and other VOCs.
Charcoal and Activated Carbon
Charcoal and activated carbon complement HEPA by removing contaminants in a gas state that HEPA alone cannot remove. Inexpensive air purifiers found at big box retailers that claim to have a charcoal filter usually only have a thin fabric impregnated with charcoal that at best reduces odors and loses its effectiveness in a matter of days. To effectively remove gasses, volatile organic chemicals, and ozone, look for an air purifier that has a substantial activated carbon filter, which is around an inch thick filled, with little pellets of activated carbon. In order to remove formaldehyde, a concerning contaminant outgassed by building materials, the activated carbon filter material should also contain potassium permanganate, a pinkish mineral that removes aldehydes including formaldehyde from the air.
Electronic filters, also known as electrostatic precipitators and ionic air purifiers, work by putting a positive or negative charge on the incoming air and then capturing contaminants on oppositely charged collection plates. The collection plates can either be metal or plastic. Electronic filters either circulate the air silently without fans or actively with fans. Like HEPA filters, they are not effective at capturing gasses or reducing odors.
The advantages of electronic filters are:
- The collections plates are washable and never need to be replaced; and
- They are generally quieter than HEPA filters.
The disadvantages are:
- They are much less efficient than HEPA filters and require multiple passes of air through the filter to capture all the contaminants;
- They have much lower performance than HEPA filters;
- Many produce trace amounts of ozone which is a lung irritant; and
- They do not circulate enough air to include an activated carbon filter to remove gasses.
For most people, the disadvantages of electronic filters make them a poor overall choice.
Understanding the CADR rating
In addition to looking at the type of filter your system has, you may also want to evaluate the CADR rating of the air purifier. CADR stands for Clean Air Delivery Rate, and it is a standardized system for reporting the effectiveness of a particular air purifier in removing smoke, dust, and pollen from the air. The higher the number, the more effective the air purifier will be.
The CADR for tobacco smoke can be as high as 450. For dust, it is as much as 400, and for pollen 450. It is important to remember that CADR only measures particulate matter (smoke, dust, and pollen). It does not measure gasses, which include VOCs.
The problem with most current air filter options
The most common problem that consumers run into when trying to select an air purifier is finding one that removes a broad spectrum of contaminants, in both particulate and gas form, at an affordable price. Most air purifiers that clean both particulate and gasses can easily cost $1,000+, and are generally only available online or at specialty retailers.
I recently came across a new air purifier called the Air Doctor, which is something of a breakthrough in this regard. I’ve never seen another air purifier, designed for home use, that removes as many different types of contaminants as this new product, at such an affordable price. Click here if you’d like more info on it.
Your body requires air to survive every moment of the day. Clean air is fundamental to your health. When you rid your home air of indoor air pollution and keep it clean, your body will thank you for the rest of your life.
Featured Image: iStock.com/Wavebreakmedia