Americans spend about 90 percent of their time indoors, where pollutant levels may be two to five times—and occasionally more than 100 times—higher than outdoor levels. Although pollutant levels from individual sources within the home, such as bath mats and cleaning supplies, may not be a significant health threat by themselves, their cumulative effects can pose serious health risks, says the Environmental Protection Agency. Some symptoms, such as a fever, may mimic those of colds; you may feel them immediately. Others problems, such as cancer and respiratory diseases, may not crop up until years later. Fortunately, there are some simple steps you can take to clear the air, says Bill Cunningham, an indoor air quality certified professional and product manager for Lennox Industries, a Texas-based manufacturer of whole-home heating ventilating and air conditioning systems. Here, 12 surprising ways to start.
Plastic bags and packaging trap the fumes that new products, such as TVs and computers, emit, says Cunningham. Exposure to these chemicals can trigger or worsen allergies, causing a runny nose or itchy eyes. Open new products outside and let them air out for about a half hour before bringing them into your home, suggests Cunningham.
Take your clothes out of the plastic bags and hang them on a clothesline or in your garage for 30 minutes. Perchloroethylene, a suspected carcinogen, is widely used to dry clean clothes and recent studies shows that people breathe low levels of this chemical in homes where dry cleaning in stored and when they wear dry-cleaned clothes, according to the EPA.
If you step directly out of the shower and onto a bathmat, you may be unintentionally creating a health hazard. These rugs can hold onto moisture—especially in a humid environment like the bathroom—which encourages mold growth, says Cunningham. According to the EPA, biological contaminants, such as molds and mildews, release disease-causing toxins that can trigger wheezing, rashes, dizziness and sinus infections. “Routinely clean your bath mat and hang it over something to dry, like you would a towel,” suggests Cunningham.
When guests come to stay, they may be bringing more than their luggage. It’s not uncommon for clothes, shoes and bags to carry residual allergens, such as pollen and pet dander, says Cunningham. To avoid a sneezing fit, put visitors’ coats and shoes in a closed-off room and after they leave, use a vacuum with a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate) filter or a double-layered bag.
Keeping greenery in the house is a great natural way to purify indoor air…unless you overwater it. Stagnant water, especially in warm, humid homes, is a prime environment for allergy-inducing mold. Be sure to discard any water that drains into the saucer. In terms of air temperature, many molds grow well in an environment between 70 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit, so err on the cooler side, and, depending on the season, keep the relative humidity in your home between 30 and 60 percent.
“Changing furnace filters is one of the most overlooked items for homeowners,” says Cunningham. A clean filter helps reduce the amount of dirt and dust circulating in the air and also maximizes the efficiency of your furnace, saving your money on your heating bills. Standard one-inch filters should be changed once a month; others can sit for up to a year if they’re larger. When in doubt, look at the backside, says Cunningham. “If grey or brown debris has pushed through, it’s definitely time for a change.”
Dust mites—the most common trigger of asthma and allergy symptoms—thrive in bedding and soft furnishings, according to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology. They recommend encasing mattresses, box springs, comforters and pillows in allergen-proof covers. Bedding should be washed weekly in hot water (130 degree Fahrenheit) and dried in a hot dryer.
Even if they’re closed, these products can leak volatile organic compounds (VOCs), gases that can cause respiratory tract irritation, headaches, dizziness and more, according to the EPA. “The best thing to do is put them in sealed containers and store them outside in the garage or another area that has better circulation,” says Cunningham. The EPA also recommends throwing away old or unneeded cleaners—just don’t toss them straight in the garbage can. Communities often organize special days for the collection of toxic household wastes.
Many of these products contain one or more VOCs, including some that are considered toxic by law, according to a University of Washington, Seattle study. What’s worse, you could be using them to mask an underlying problem that needs to be addressed, such as mold, says Cunningham. Instead of spraying something into the air, open a window, simmer some fruit or spices on the store and check to make sure your home is at an optimal humidity level.
“We associate the smell of fresh paint with things that are new and good,” says Cunningham. “But it’s an irritant.” According to the EPA, paint strippers, adhesive removers ad aerosol spray paints contain methylene chloride, an organic compound that causes cancer in animals and is also converted to carbon monoxide in the body, which can trigger symptoms related to carbon monoxide exposure. Many paint supplies also contain benzene, a human carcinogen. If you’re repainting a room, use low-VOC paint and open windows or use an air purifier to ensure maximum ventilation. The EPA also recommends buying limited quantities of these products if you only use them occasionally so you don’t have to store them in your house.
If you use a gas stove, check the flame: A persistent yellow tip could be a signal that the stove is emitting pollutants, according to the EPA. Ask your gas company to adjust the burner so the flame tip is blue. Using an over-the-stove fan that ventilates to the outdoors can also go a long way to reducing pollutants during cooking.
With all these sneaky health hazards floating through your home, buying an air purifier seems like the obvious solution, right? Wrong. “Some portable purifiers actually emit ground-level ozone,” says Cunningham, which can cause shortness of breath, chest pain when inhaling deeply and wheezing and coughing. Unfortunately there is no easy way to figure out which products are non-ozone, so you’ll have to do little digging. If the store or dealer you’re buying it from doesn’t know, check the company’s website.