Published on July 22nd, 2008 | by Stephanie Evans3
Freshen Up Your Indoor Air
On hot, smoggy, high-pollution advisory days, we are often encouraged to play our part to alleviate the problem by carpooling, taking public transit, or considering alternative transportation like walking and cycling.
While so many focus on outdoor air pollution, few realize that
indoor air pollution is a major problem. In fact, the US EPA ranks
indoor air pollution among the top five risks to environmental health. Here are some strategies for enhancing the air quality of your enclosed environments:
Indoor air pollution is, on average, two to five times worse than outdoor air pollution. In the case of a new construction or renovation project, indoor pollution can be as much as 100 (even 1,000) times worse!
Considering that Americans spend close to 90% of their time indoors—whether at home, the office, or at school—the quality of our indoor air can have a significant effect on our health and well being. Poor air quality can trigger asthma, allergies, headaches, nausea, and other health symptoms that can make everyday life a challenge.
Sources of indoor pollutants are fairly commonplace in our homes. Potential contributors include second-hand tobacco smoke, pets, fireplaces, stoves/ovens, furnishing/finishes, and moisture/leaks. By controlling the sources of indoor contaminants, we can limit our exposure to mold, mildew, pet dander, particulates, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and other chemicals in our spaces.
Many people live with poor indoor air quality (IAQ) because they do not recognize the warning signs or are not able to identify the source of the problem. Good indicators that you may have IAQ problems include musty or chemical odors, visible leaks or water damage, and allergic reactions or other health-related symptoms, such as those listed above.
Follow these simple steps to avoid IAQ problems at home:
- Turn on hood fans when cooking
to help expel fumes. Cooking, especially on a gas stove, releases
chemicals that can contaminate the air, such as carbon monoxide. Use
the fume hood fan when cooking and make sure it is vented directly
outside the house.
- Turn on the exhaust fan when showering
to limit moisture build up. Run the bath fan during showers to remove
the heat and humidity; if you don’t have a bathroom fan, a small
portable fan will do the trick. And keep the shower curtain or bathtub
sliding door open after bathing to increase air circulation.
- Clean regularly to prevent dust, dirt, and pet-hair accumulation. A clean house is
a healthy house. Every day, dirt and dust collect in our home. We
track it in on our feet and shed it from our clothes and skin. These
particles can become airborne, contributing to the pollutants and
biological contaminants in the air. Regular cleaning can help limit
- Install low emitting furniture and finishes.
New or recently installed building materials and furnishings can emit
VOCs. Look for products that are certified for low chemical emissions,
and open windows when using paints, adhesives, sealants, and other
materials that tend to offgas during installation.
- Use cleaning products that do not emit chemicals into
the air. Many products used to wash floors, countertops, and windows
can offgas toxic or irritating chemicals. Avoid dangerous chemicals by
selecting products that are certified for low levels of chemical
- Open windows to allow fresh
air into your space. To achieve energy efficiency, we seal up our
buildings and tend to keep our windows shut, trapping pollutants
inside. From time to time, it’s good to open the windows and allow
fresh air to move through our spaces, flushing out any stale or
- Maintain your HVAC filters
as instructed. Check, clean, or replace furnace and air filters
regularly, at least every two months. Consider installing a “high
efficiency particulate” (HEPA) filter.
Many people live with poor indoor air quality (IAQ) because they do not recognize the warning signs or are not able to identify the source of the problem.
Numerous green building programs, including LEED, have made IAQ a fundamental component of their programs. One of the most effective means for improving IAQ is specifying low-emitting materials. By targeting the source of VOCs, a designer can have a tremendous impact on providing a healthy indoor environment for building occupants.
Volatile organic compounds are defined as organic chemical compounds that have high enough vapor pressures under normal conditions to significantly vaporize and enter the atmosphere—or, in short—any organic chemical that can become airborne. Common sources of VOCs include paints, solvents, photocopiers, carpeting, and furnishings.
While some materials tend to off-gas more than others, it is important to consider that products are rarely used alone—a typical office includes flooring, furniture, wall covering, adhesives to install these products, etc. When products are used in combination, the total of all VOCs emitted from various products needs to be minimized.
An effective IAQ management plan recommends:
- Installing wet products before dry and using 100% outdoor ventilation in lieu of central HVAC systems during installation
- Sealing up any vents/ducts during the construction process to prevent dust and chemicals from entering the central duct system, which keeps contaminants from accumulating and then circulating throughout the building once it’s occupied.
- Advising construction workers to separate and cover any construction materials that may off-gas.
A heightened awareness about IAQ, consumer demand for green products, and the acceptance of LEED and other green building programs continue to drive manufacturers to develop better products and to seek third-party certification. A leading verifier of product emissions is the GREENGUARD Certification Program, which establishes standards for test methods, allowable emissions levels, product sample collection and handling, testing type and frequency, and program application processes and acceptance.
Currently, more than 125 manufacturers participate in GREENGUARD’s Certification Program, representing 20 different industries and more than 150,000 certified products. This level of industry participation highlights the importance of third-party certification.
As more green products enter the marketplace, product certification becomes more important in order to help people make the best choices and validate manufacturer claims. Green building guidelines, such as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), and local ordinances are specifying certified products to help specifiers achieve green initiatives and to help consumers make informed decisions about the products they bring into their homes.
But finding “green” products is not always easy. With numerous claims and certifications in the marketplace, it can be challenging to find the one that is best for your project or home….
- Ask questions—All products will not meet all environmental criteria, so select products based on what is most important to you and your project
- Look for third-party verification with recognized eco labels, such as Energy Star, GreenSeal, FSC, GREENGUARD, EcoLogo, among others
- Use public resources or lists to qualify certification programs and products (USGBC, EPA, GreenSpec)
There are many things we can do indoors that have a positive influence on our habitat and a lasting impact on the overall environment. Beyond seeking out products designed to boost your IAQ, try these techniques to enhance your environment and conserve resources:
- Capture daylighting.
During the day, harvest natural daylight by opening blinds and pulling back curtains to allow sunlight inside. This will minimize the need ro turn on lights. On the flip side, during hot summer months, you’ll want to lower blinds and shades to help keep spaces cooler by keeping light out.
- Change a lightbulb.
Despite the old joke, changing a light bulb is easier than you think. A compact fluorescent light bulb (available in most hardware stores) uses 60 percent less energy than a standard incandescent bulb, thereby saving nearly 300 pounds of carbon dioxide a year, cutting lighting costs by 75 percent, and lasting more than eight times longer. Replace your traditional bulbs with CFLs.
- Conserve water.
Water is a precious natural resource that we definitely take for granted. A typical household of four uses 260 gallons of water each day. To conserve water: turn off the faucet when brushing your teeth, time your showers (and make baths a special occasion), only wash full loads of laundry and dishes, install low-flow showerheads and faucets, consider dual flush toilets or smaller tanks, and collect rainwater to water your plants.
Article Contributors: Laura Spriggs