How to make air in your home as safe and clean as possible

Ensure high-quality air by keeping tabs on pollutants, dust, humidity, illnesses

A girl stretches with her arms in the air after waking up in front of a window of sunshine

Poor air quality indoors can lead to the development of infections, lung cancer and chronic lung diseases such as asthma, according to the American Lung Association.

Items of concern include asbestos, bacteria and viruses, building and paint products, carbon monoxide, carpets, cleaning supplies and household chemicals, cockroaches, dust mites and dust, floods and water damage, formaldehyde, lead, mold and dampness, nitrogen dioxide, pet dander, radon, residential wood burning, first- and secondhand smoke, and volatile organic compounds.

“The quality of the air we breathe is so important to our health and well-being,” said Sanford Health respiratory therapist Darcy Ellefson. “During the coronavirus pandemic, we have all been told to stay home and social distance.”

Related: Can house plants improve indoor air quality?

But, she added, that doesn’t necessarily mean staying locked up in your house with the windows closed and no outside air coming in.

“Whenever you are in your home for long periods of time, you potentially are exposed to more of harmful indoor environmental elements,” Ellefson said. “This might include viruses, especially if someone who lives in the home is sick.”

Whether you’re concerned about the coronavirus, chemicals, pets or allergies, precautions can help ease your mind.

Cleaning up your air

Some common sense things you can do to have safer indoor air:
  • Make your home a smoke-free zone. This includes cigarettes, pipes, cigars and e-cigarettes.  Smoke and vapor from these devices irritate the lungs, paralyze the cleansing mechanisms of your airways and make you more prone to develop respiratory infections.
  • Have your home checked for radon gas. This colorless and odorless gas can lead to cancer.
  • Install a carbon monoxide detector, and have your furnace serviced yearly.
  • Be wary of cleaners. Some may contain volatile organic compounds that can be irritants to your lungs. Simple soap and water or vinegar and water are the safest cleaners. Both bleach and ammonia can be harmful. Mixing bleach or ammonia with other cleaning solutions can be toxic. Never mix bleach and ammonia together.
  • When remodeling, make sure you have adequate ventilation, wear an N95 mask or have a professional assist.
  • If getting new carpet, have the carpet rolled out and off-gassed before having it installed.
  • Use your bathroom and kitchen exhaust fans, if vented outside, to increase the airflow in your home.
  • If you suffer from outdoor allergies, keep the windows closed in your home and the air conditioning on.
  • Avoid lit candles, scents, aerosols, wood-burning fireplaces, etc. If you can smell it or see it in the air, it lands in your airways and can cause problems.
  • Take your breathing or allergy medications as directed by your health care provider.
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes, wash your hands, and clean frequently touched surfaces to help stop the spread of germs.

Ideal humidity

Aim for the right amounts of humidity.

  • The air in your home should range from 30% to 50% humidity.
  • If your windows have moisture on them, it is too humid. If the humidity is too high, mold and dust mites may thrive. Both can cause allergies. Mold also causes an unpleasant smell and can discolor surfaces.
  • If you get a shock when you touch something, it is too dry. If the humidity falls too low, the people in your home may suffer dry eyes and may develop throat and sinus irritations. Dry air dries out your mucus membranes in your nose and makes it easier for viruses to take hold.
  • Keep the basement dry. Remove items that have been water damaged.
  • The simplest way to measure humidity is with a gauge called a humidistat. These gauges often come packaged with thermometers. You can usually buy one in a hardware store for less than $10.

A variety of appliances can change the air quality in your home.

All about air filters

Purpose

Air-filtration systems pull mold, pollen, dust mites and other particulates out of household air.

The best systems use HEPA (high-efficiency particulate absorption) filters that have multiple pleats that trap tiny particles. This filter can be installed professionally in the duct next to the furnace fan. They also are available as portable room units.

Another kind of unit, the electronic cleaner, is especially good at sweeping mold and pollen particles from the air. They catch them on an electrically charged plate.

The type of air cleaner known as an ionizer makes electrically charged ions that bond to particles in the air and causes them to cling to walls, ceilings and drapes.

Filter systems improve air quality by removing pollutants. HEPA systems can be up to 99.9% efficient in removing floating particles from the air. Compare this with regular furnace filters. These have an efficiency of only 10% in removing lint from the air. For a filtration system to be fully effective, it needs to run 24 hours a day.

Health benefits

A good air-filtration system can make a difference for people with severe allergies or asthma. It’s not as necessary for the average person. Keep in mind that studies have not proven that any filters dramatically reduce allergy or asthma symptoms. The best possible benefit may come from HEPA filters.

So before you invest a lot of money, make sure you take other steps first. In general, families with allergy problems should first look for and eliminate or control the source of the problem such as pets, rugs, dust mites and moldy areas in the home.

Disadvantages

Air-filtration systems must stay strictly maintained. Changing the filters according to the manufacturer’s instructions is key to the success of the system. Also, these systems are no substitute for good indoor hygiene. If you have a cat, dog or old rugs, if your house is dusty, or if you leave your windows open, the filtration system can’t do its work well.

Some systems with smaller motors are noisy, especially for the bedroom. They don’t turn the air over as quickly and as well as larger units.

In the case of ionizers, the particulates that were sent clinging to your walls, ceilings, and drapes fall off in a few days. Then they are back into your breathing environment.

It is important to note that some electronic filters like an ionizer can produce ozone. Ozone is a lung irritant.

All about dehumidifiers

Purpose

Dehumidifiers remove moisture from the air. This curbs the growth of mold and dust mites. Dehumidifiers are particularly useful in parts of the house where humidity collects, such as damp basements.

Dehumidifiers draw air over cold coils, condensing out its moisture, before passing the air over warm coils and back into the room. (Air conditioners also take a certain amount of moisture out of the air, but dehumidifiers do this much more efficiently.) The condensed water drips into a container in the unit that has to be emptied. The water can be directed to a drain by means of a hose.

Home dehumidifiers remove between 10 pints and 50 pints of water from the air each day. The amount depends on the relative humidity. The capacity of a unit is measured by the number of pints it can remove in a 24-hour period at 60% relative humidity and at 80 degrees.

Harmful dust mites, those microscopic organisms that particularly make allergy and asthma sufferers feel worse, thrive in high humidity. They live in your bedclothes, your drapes, your rugs and the air in your home. Removing excessive moisture from indoor air helps control these pests. Dehumidifiers also can help limit mold and bacterial growth.

Health benefits

Dehumidifiers are critical for households in humid climates with very old people or very young children, or for families with a history of allergies or asthma. In their first two years of life, children spend a lot of time on the floor or rug. If you have a 10-year-old rug, it likely has a host of dust mites that thrive in the high humidity. And the more you get exposed to something to which you have an inherited leaning to be allergic, the more likely you are to become allergic to it. It could be mold, bacteria or dust mites.

Disadvantages

Mold can grow in the drainage areas of a dehumidifier. Regularly clean the water basin with bleach. Also, smaller units may not dry out the air satisfactorily all the time. You should consider choosing a larger capacity unit like one rated at 50 pints a day or more. You can always turn it down.

All about humidifiers

Purpose

Humidifiers are of great use during winter in cold climates where home heating systems are in constant use. This dry air can dry out and irritate your eyes, throat and lungs. It can also dry your skin. Besides that, you may find the wood in your house drying out. This can create gaps between floorboards, loose furniture joints and windows that rattle in their frames.

Humidifiers come in two types:

  • The evaporator type forces air over water inside the unit and blows the evaporated water into the house.
  • The atomizer type of humidifier breaks up water droplets and makes a mist that then dries up as it spreads throughout the house. To break up water into a mist, some of these humidifiers use a rotating device like a blade or brush. In the case of an ultrasonic humidifier, a disc that moves back and forth at about 1.6 million times per second does the job. The water is changed into fine droplets.

Humidifiers can be built into your central heating system and use the furnace ducts to spread moist air throughout your home. If you have a closed heating system like electric baseboards, you can have a central humidifier installed with its own fan and duct for spreading the humidified air.

Portable humidifiers vary in size and efficiency. Tabletop units can usually handle only single rooms. Larger console models can be set up in central locations to spread moisture to a large area of the house.

Health benefits

Humidifiers are recommended for people who live in areas where houses must be heated for a good portion of the year. They also help those who live in very dry climates. Humidifiers may help those suffering from sore throats, headaches, nosebleeds and coughs related to dry air. In general, a moist house is more comfortable than a dry one.

Disadvantages

Humidifiers are not easy to use. All units, portable as well as those installed in central heating systems, must get cleaned thoroughly. Otherwise, they tend to become contaminated with mold and bacterial growth that may be blown through the house. Stop the humidifier and call your health care provider if you develop any respiratory symptoms that you feel are related to the use of a humidifier.

Clean portable and central units according to manufacturers’ instructions.

Ultrasound humidifiers tend to leave a fine white dust about your rooms. The tiny droplets they give out evaporate and leave behind calcium carbonate and other minerals present in the water. Use distilled (not de-ionized) water in the humidifier to prevent this. Distilled water, however, is fairly expensive.

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Posted In Coronavirus, Ear, Nose & Throat, Pulmonology, Wellness

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