Tuesday Tip: 7 ways to improve your indoor air quality

Illustration of a kitchen with house plants, a soy candle, natural dishwashing liquid, and moving clouds in the windowFor most of November, CREDO’s home city of San Francisco was submerged in smoke drifting south from the massive Camp Fire, the most destructive wildfire in California history. For weeks Northern California had the worst air quality in the world, as air pollution levels consistently registered in the “very unhealthy” range.

We learned a lot about air quality last month, including some things we didn’t know about the quality of the air indoors. We were surprised to learn that the air inside the typical home can be up to five times more polluted than the air outside—information that is especially relevant as winter sets in and we spend more time indoors.

Fungal spores, fumes from cooking and toxins that off-gas from paints, varnishes, cleaners, mattresses, carpeting, furniture, and building materials all pose a threat to your health. They can cause headaches, asthma, allergies, nausea, crankiness, even cancer.

If you’re concerned about the air in your home, here are seven tips to mitigate indoor air pollution and breathe easier.

Open the windows

This is a simple, effective way to clean your air at home. It may be briefly uncomfortable if it’s cold outside but opening your windows for even 5 minutes every day can significantly reduce the accumulation of indoor air pollution.

Another way to circulate air and get the toxins out is to install fans in your attic, bathroom, and kitchen. This is particularly important if you live in a damp climate where mold is a problem. A dehumidifier will also help. Aim for a target of under 50% humidity.

Get more plants

Houseplants are air-cleaning workhorses. They pull all sorts of toxins and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) out of your indoor atmosphere, including CO2, formaldehyde, benzene, and xylene. Some of the best plants for cleaning your air are aloe, bamboo palm, spider plant, English ivy, and philodendron.

Houseplants also produce oxygen, which helps you sleep well. And they release phytoncides, which boost your white blood cell count and neutralize microorganisms in the air. To keep your plants in peak condition, read our post on healthy houseplants.

Choose non-toxic cleaners

“Clean” is not what you get when you use most mass-market cleaning products, because those products contain toxic chemicals that contaminate your air and threaten your health. Instead, choose green cleaning products. Or make your own from ingredients like vinegar, baking soda, citrus juice, and essential oils.

Service your fuel-burning appliances

Make sure to maintain your gas heater, stove and oven, furnace, water heater, and other fuel-burning appliances. They can leak carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide if not regularly serviced.

Air out new furniture

Most large furniture pieces are made with fabrics, glues, varnishes, and fire retardants that off-gas VOCs and cause all sorts of health problems, from headaches and dizziness to cancer.

If your furniture is packaged when it arrives, remove the packaging outdoors and let the furniture air out as long as is realistic, preferably in the sun. Or put your new furniture in a seldom-used room, open the windows and air it out there. Use fans to increase air circulation.

When you can, choose floor samples, which have likely been sitting out and off-gassing their VOCs for some time. Or look for non-VOC furniture.

If you have kids or you’re particularly sensitive to airborne chemicals, consider pulling up any carpeting you have in your home. It can emit VOCs for five years or more.

Clean your ducts and change your filters

The ducts in your forced-air heating system may also be forcing in mold spores, dust, and other contaminants. You’ll need a professional to clean your ducts but you can change the furnace filters yourself. Do it every three months and use the thickest filter you can find.

Avoid (most) scented candles

Winter is a great time to light a scented candle and get cozy. But if your candles are made of paraffin, you’ll be getting a lot of nasty byproducts with that pleasant aroma. Paraffin wax is a petroleum derivative and candles made from it waft highly toxic benzene and toluene into the air when burned.

The wicks of many scented candles contain heavy metals like lead and emit them when lit—as much as five times the amount of lead considered dangerous for children. The artificial perfumes and dyes used in many candles are also hazardous and the petro-soot from paraffin candles is the same soot found in exhaust from diesel engines.

A far better alternative is beeswax. Beeswax candles release negative ions when burned, which helps clean the air by binding with positively charged pollen, dust, dirt, and other pollutants, weighing them down and causing them to drop from suspension.

Soy candles are another option but most soy candle companies use a blend of soy and paraffin and legally label their candles “soy.” Look for 100% soy candles. Also look for non-GMO soy candles.

Air pollution is the world’s single largest environmental health risk. We tend to think of it as an outdoor problem but indoor air pollution is a serious threat to your health, because the air indoors is typically worse and because we spend as much as 90% of our time inside. Follow the seven tips above to ensure the air in your home is as clean as you can make it.