Indoor Air Quality as a Health and Safety Concern
Most people are aware of the health effects of poor outdoor air quality. The smoggy skylines, puffs of smoke, and unnaturally pink clouds from wildfires can all be visual cues that indicate concerning outdoor air quality. However, many people are unaware that indoor air actually contains 2 to 5 times as many pollutants as outdoor air. This fact is especially concerning for two main reasons. Firstly, recent studies show that humans spend approximately 90% of their time in indoor settings. Secondly, poor indoor air quality can be harder for people to spot. Since indoor air pollutants can be dangerous to both your physical and mental health, it is especially important for homeowners to learn more about indoor air quality standards.
Ensuring Good Indoor Air Quality for Better Health and Safety
Indoor air quality is a key component of a home’s performance, and it can impact the physical and mental health of homeowners, their families, and any visitors. Whether you are a prospective home buyer or an established homeowner, it is necessary to ensure good indoor air quality standards for better health and safety. The first step of ensuring healthy indoor air, though, is to learn about what it means. Below, take a look at these key points about indoor air quality.
What Does Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) Mean?
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA), “Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) refers to the air quality within and around buildings and structures, especially as it relates to the health and comfort of building occupants.” These health and comfort issues can arise immediately, after only a single instance of exposure, or they may develop over a long-term period.
Indoor Air Quality is a component of a larger environmental concept, called Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ), which according to BPC Ventilation is “best described as the conditions inside a building.” IEQ does not refer to just air quality itself, but to the entire indoor environment—including issues like availability of natural lighting, types of manufactured lighting, quality of the acoustics, and, as previously mentioned, the air quality. As BPC Ventilation says, “The best way to think about the differences in IAQ and IEQ is that IAQ is about the air that we breathe, whereas IEQ is about what we breathe, see, hear and feel inside a building.” There are, of course, major similarities between the two concepts; and the largest similarity of all is their shared importance for occupant health and wellbeing.
The Significance of Good IAQ To You?
It may be harder to see poor indoor air quality than it is to see outdoor air quality, but you can feel its effects throughout the body, mind, and home. Homeowners may feel migraines, eye strain, and increased cases of asthma and other respiratory diseases such as COPD. Homeowners may also experience lethargy and fatigue, lowered mental health, and higher rates of cancer due to exposure to carcinogens.
These issues not only have an impact on the body and mind, but they also cause occupants to be less comfortable in their own homes. As a homeowner or resident of a home, you deserve to feel comfort, shelter, and well-being in your home. When your home is uncomfortable to live inside—and you find yourself feeling curiously better whenever you leave—then it’s time to take serious steps to improve your indoor air quality.
How Do Pollutants Get Into Your Home?
If you’ve determined that your home is experiencing poor indoor air quality, you might find yourself wondering how the situation digressed to this extent. There are a number of ways pollutants can get into your home, including poor ventilation, leaks, excess humidity, and poor temperature control. Below, we will discuss the main causes of indoor air problems.
The Causes of Indoor Air Problems
Products and materials can often release pollutants in the house. If there is poor ventilation in the home, these pollutants can then build up indoors rather than filtering out of the house.
Common Air Pollutants
Unfortunately, many of the most common household products and materials are guilty of emitting high levels of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) that are extremely unhealthy for occupants. As the American Lung Association explains, “VOCs are gases that are emitted into the air from products or processes,” and breathing these gases “can irritate the eyes, nose and throat, can cause difficulty breathing and nausea, and can damage the central nervous system as well as other organs.” Some VOCs are also carcinogens that can increase the rates of cancer.
The U.S. EPA lists the following dangerous pollutant sources: fuel-burning combustion appliances, tobacco products, asbestos, newly installed flooring and upholstery, certain pressed wood products that are used to make cabinetry or furniture, household cleaning products, personal care products, and more. Furthermore, many pollutants (such as radon and pesticides) can come into the home from outdoor sources and then become trapped inside due to poor ventilation. As a homeowner, it is important to be aware of which products and materials emit the most pollutants in your home.
As mentioned above, inadequate ventilation can trap pollutants inside a home. Like humans, a home should be able to “breathe” properly by completing a certain amount of air exchanges each day. These air exchanges ensure that unhealthy air properly circulates out of the walls.
Furthermore, homes should control these air exchanges rather than have them occur randomly. As the U.S. EPA explains, “Outdoor air can enter and leave a building by: infiltration, natural ventilation, and mechanical ventilation. In a process known as infiltration, outdoor air flows into buildings through openings, joints, and cracks in walls, floors, and ceilings, and around windows.” With natural ventilation, on the other hand, the U.S. EPA states that “air moves through opened windows and doors.” Finally, with mechanical ventilation, the U.S. EPA states that “there are a number of mechanical ventilation devices, from outdoor-vented fans that intermittently remove air from a single room, such as bathrooms and kitchens, to air handling systems that use fans and ductwork to continuously remove indoor air and distribute filtered and conditioned outdoor air to strategic points throughout the house.”
What do these processes have to do with indoor air quality? Well, if a home has polluted air infiltrating inside the walls through cracks, and it doesn’t have enough natural ventilation to encourage airflow through windows or doors, and it has inadequate mechanical systems to manage the healthy and strategic exchange of air to each room—then it only makes sense that the pollutants in the home will remain in the home. Furthermore, these pollutants will only continue to build up and get worse over time.
How Indoor Air Pollution Can Affect Your Health
Indoor air pollution can affect your health in several serious ways. Some of these issues may arise right away after a single exposure. Other issues, however, may become exacerbated over time. Below, you can learn more about both the short-term and long-term detrimental effects of indoor air pollution.
Exposure to indoor pollutants can cause immediate eye, nose, and throat irritation. Homeowners may also find that they have developed a headache or grown suddenly tired. Furthermore, a homeowner may find themselves developing dizziness. It is important to note that not all people will react to indoor pollutant exposure in the same way. For example, individuals who suffer from certain underlying conditions, such as asthma, will likely have a stronger reaction when exposed to pollutants.
According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, some short-term effects can arise shortly after the exposure rather than right at the exact moment. An individual may develop “symptoms of some diseases, including asthma, hypersensitivity pneumonitis, and humidifier fever,” after breathing in the pollutants. However, if you have already left the environment responsible for these symptoms, you may have trouble looking back and identifying what happened. Therefore, it is important to pay attention and take the time to replay your movements throughout the day, so that you can properly determine cause and effect.
“Other health effects may show up either years after exposure has occurred or only after long or repeated periods of exposure,” the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission explains. For example, people with poor indoor air quality standards experience higher rates of respiratory and heart diseases. Studies also show that individuals who are exposed to carcinogens are more likely to develop certain types of cancer. Furthermore, an occupant’s mental health can worsen over time, leading to increased symptoms of depression.
How to Measure IAQ in Your Home
Considering the seriousness of both the short-term and long-term health effects of poor indoor air quality, it is important to learn how to measure IAQ in your home.
Indoor Air Quality Sensors
Indoor air quality sensors are becoming more affordable for homeowners who want to monitor their own indoor air quality. While homeowners should always have a carbon monoxide sensor and radon detector in their homes, there are also VOC sensors available that can measure the concentration of Volatile Organic Compounds present in the house, as well as carbon dioxide meters. Advancements are also occurring in this field with the incorporation of smart technology that will automatically adjust a room’s ventilation levels if a sensor detects a high level of pollutants.
SuperTech HVAC provides insight into where sensors should be placed to encourage the most accuracy. The company encourages homeowners to place sensors in the common areas of the home. However, they state that sensors should “not be placed above floor fans or personal heaters,” and that “the sensors need to be out of direct sunlight and away from induction units.” Finally, SuperTech HVAC explains that wall-mounted sensors are much more accurate than ceiling or floor sensors. Before placing a sensor, it is important to speak with the manufacturer to discuss proper placement. Since some pollutants are heavier than others, which causes them to accumulate at different heights in the room, sensor placement may vary depending on which pollutant you are monitoring.
How to Improve Air Quality Inside Your Home
Utilize Natural Ventilation
We cannot overstate the importance of proper ventilation in a home. Along with installing a high-quality mechanical ventilation system, homeowners should also take steps to utilize natural ventilation. This process includes keeping your windows open whenever possible, especially during activities you know will emit a high amount of pollutants—such as painting, paint stripping, or cooking.
Many architects are also designing homes using techniques that maximize a home’s ability to naturally ventilate itself. Examples include strategic window placement and the angle of the building itself. If you are purchasing a new construction home, ask about how ventilation can be encouraged from the very start of the home’s design.
Increase the Greenery In and Out of Your Home
There are different air cleaners available on the market that range in sophistication and price. However, one of the most effective air cleaners is far more organic: a plant. Plants can improve air quality by releasing oxygen. However, if you suffer from allergies that are triggered by plants, it is best to keep your greenery outdoors. It is also important not to overwater any houseplants that you do keep inside, as the buildup of water can lead to moisture problems.
Install a Mechanical Ventilation System
In order to prevent pollutants from building up inside with no reprieve, homeowners should invest in a high-quality mechanical ventilation system. Furthermore, homeowners should make sure this ventilation system adequately brings in fresh outdoor air to promote air exchange rather than simply recirculating stale indoor air. This will lead to a comfortable and healthy home.
Maintain Good Indoor Hygiene
One of the most basic rules of indoor air quality is to keep your house clean. According to Harvard, “A clean house may be a healthier house, because good indoor hygiene can greatly cut down on dust and animal dander.” Harvard goes on to encourage homeowners to focus on regularly vacuuming floors using a vacuum that has a HEPA filter to eliminate allergens and dander. Homeowners should also take steps to wash bedding, drapes, and other textiles at hot temperatures. Finally, decluttering the home can help eliminate dust that triggers allergies.
Though it is always a good idea to regularly clean your home, you should be wary of the contaminants emitted by many household cleaning products. Many common cleaning products produce heavy Volatile Organic Compound emissions. By choosing low-VOC cleaning products, homeowners can better control contaminant exposure. Furthermore, homeowners should take steps to block contaminants at the source of the emission. For example, according to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, “Some sources, like those that contain asbestos, can be sealed or enclosed; others, like gas stoves, can be adjusted to decrease the amount of emissions.” Regardless of the specific technique, though, it is generally a better idea to control contaminants at the source if possible, rather than relying exclusively on ventilation. This is because ventilation requires more energy consumption. Controlling, blocking, or removing the pollutant at the source will have less impact on the environment.
Monitor the Humidity or Temperature Levels
High levels of moisture and humidity can lead to mold growth in the home, which has many serious health effects. Furthermore, studies have shown that excess humidity and high temperatures can exacerbate the release of formaldehyde. By monitoring the humidity of your home and investing in a high-quality HVAC system that will help maintain consistent, moderate temperature levels, you can greatly strengthen your indoor air quality.
Improve Your Health and Safety with Better Air Quality Indoors
Whether you are currently in the market for a new home or have lived in your home for years, there are ways to improve your indoor air quality. Indoor air often gets overshadowed by outdoor air issues, but indoor environments are actually more susceptible to unhealthy pollutants that can cause both mental and physical health problems. Humans in this decade spend more time indoors than any period previously, and it is time for homeowners to do everything possible to improve the health of their homes.
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