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  • Writer's pictureJen Nickel

What's in the air you're breathing?

Updated: Mar 23, 2020

Looking at the indoor air quality in your home and how it affects your health and wellness

We’re all aware of the outdoor air pollution problems we experience in large cities and due to our highways full of gas-fueled cars. But have you thought about the quality of the air in your own home?

On average, North Americans spend 90% of their day indoors, and many of us have no idea what the air quality is in our homes

In fact, indoor air is actually more polluted than the outdoor air! With little air movement and home construction becoming more air-tight and efficient, the air in our homes quickly becomes stale and contaminated by a number of indoor sources. These sources can include VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and other toxins like formaldehyde off-gassing from furniture and finish materials, naturally occurring radon leaching through the foundation, mould spores induced caused by hidden leaks, or other pollutants produced through our cooking and cleaning products. Without proper ventilation or filtration, we are constantly breathing in these compounded toxins, which can lead to or aggravate a number of health concerns, particularly asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

sustainable quality wood furniture
The bedroom is one of the most important spaces to consider indoor air quality

Ideally, when designing a new home, air quality would be a high priority, and systems would be integrated to monitor and control indoor air quality. A well-designed home is constructed to be air-tight and efficient, and will use an air exchange system that meets a minimum air change rate (ACPH: air changes per hour) based on the size of the home, to ensure that there is always enough fresh air in the home.

But not everyone is designing and building a new house from the ground up. So, what can we do about this indoor air quality problem in an existing space?

The first step to improving indoor air quality is to understand what's in our air.

With so many published studies and research on indoor air quality, we know we can’t just assume that our indoor air quality is safe. In order to find out what is in the air in your house, you need to test it through a professional service, or with an air quality monitoring device. Air quality monitor systems can identify and monitor the levels of toxins that are in your air, including dust, allergens, chemical pollutants, gases and humidity. Once you know what is in your air, you can take specific steps to improve it.

Aside from dealing with these specific air quality contaminants, here are a number of things you can do to improve the general air quality in an existing home, from small simple steps you can take right now to major changes you can implement during a renovation:

1. Open your windows!

The number one way to immediately improve quality of the air in your home is to open your windows and bring in fresh air. Make a plan to open your windows on a regular basis to naturally ventilate your home and exchange that stale, polluted air for fresh outdoor air. Even in the winter you can open your windows for a few minutes at a time to refresh the air in your home.

2. Get an entrance mat

Your shoes visit many different places as you go about your daily routing. And they can pick up all sorts of toxins along the way. When you bring your shoes into your home, you're also bringing in the dirt and toxins which then can affect your air quality. A simple way to reduce this is to have a mat outside your door to remove as much of the dirt as possible. And another one inside the door to catch the rest. Don't walk through the house with your shoes, and keep a bench near the door to encourage everyone to take off their shoes when entering the house.

3. Use non-toxic cleaning and cosmetic products

All of the chemical products that we bring into our homes will add to the pollutants in our indoor air. Cleaning products can contain all sorts of toxic chemicals, including known carcinogens, and in cosmetic products, there can be many hazardous ingredients that are not required to be disclosed. Use natural products that have healthy and sustainable ingredients or make your own. The basic building blocks of a multitude of home-made cleaners are as simple as vinegar, baking soda, lemon and essential oils.

4. Change your air filter

Depending on where you live and the equipment in your home, there's a good chance that you have a filter in your HVAC system. Systems that use forced air (as opposed to radiant heating systems) will use an air filter that needs to be changed regularly. By using a good quality filter and changing it regularly, you can dramatically improve the quality of your air. Look for an activated carbon filter, which can actually trap particles as small as bacteria and reduce odours in your home. It's important to make sure that you install the filter properly. (make sure the arrows on the filter match the arrows on your system!) and replace them every 4-6 months.

5. Introduce plants in your home

Plants naturally improve the air by absorbing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen through photosynthesis. They can also absorb many other gases. Though it is not significant enough to be your first line of defense, plants can absorb a number of VOC’s such as benzene and formaldehyde. Start with an easy-to-grow snake plant!

6. Invest in an air purifier

An air purifier or air cleaner is a device that uses a filter to remove a number of different contaminants from the air to improve the air quality. There are portable air purifiers that can be easily plugged in and located in any space, or some that are integrated into the HVAC system to clean the air of the whole home. Air purifiers are a great option particularly for allergy or asthma sufferers.

7. Look for finish materials that are non-toxic and low VOC

Flooring materials and paint typically cover about three quarters of the exposed surfaces in your home and are huge culprits of off-gassing VOC’s and other toxins. When renovating or simply re-painting, look for finish materials that are natural and non-toxic, like hardwood, bamboo, wool carpet, linoleum and natural paints. Avoid products that are primarily petro-chemical products like vinyl flooring, synthetic carpets and latex paints. Learn more about healthy finish materials:

8. Choose furnishings that are non-toxic and low VOC

Though stain resistant fabric treatments, like Scotchguard, sound like a good idea, they are actually a bath of chemicals that your fabric is coated in, many that are known carcinogens. Look for natural fabrics, natural latex foam and sustainably harvested wood.

If you need help designing a healthy home or choosing natural and sustainable materials, contact INVISION Design Solutions to find out more about how we can help you with your project.

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