Something in the Air

Commonly Overlooked IAQ Hazards in Homes & Offices & What to do About Them

You can't see the hundreds of thousands of particles that are in each breath of air you take. No, these particles are not water vapor. They are actual pieces of everything from seemingly benign dust to bacteria, viruses, lint pet dander, pollen...even mold spores. They are so light they easily become airborne and will float around in the air for days!

Most people have reasonably healthy bodies that efficiently take care of, and expel these contaminants. Some of us don't. Like fingerprints, we are all different with different immune systems and different sensitivities.

Remember, we are not talking about hazardous gasses, lead, Radon or asbestos here. Those maladies are rare. This is the actual junk that you are breathing all of the time!

According to the American Lung Association's 2005 State of the Air report, more than 152 million Americans, or 52 percent of the population, breathe dirty air. The Environmental Protection Agency ranks poor indoor air quality as a top five environmental risk to public well-being.

Less than 20 percent of Americans believe that indoor air can be as polluted as outdoor air. Yet a home's indoor air quality can be five times worse. The most common symptoms of poor indoor air quality are headaches, fatigue, depression, allergies and poor concentration.

But poor indoor air quality is one risk that you can do something about.

The following tips focus on easy and inexpensive ways you can "clear the air" so to speak and likely improve your health and your quality of life.

  • Have your HVAC system cleaned. It's the respiratory system of your home or office. Removing the build up of soil including hair, lint, etc...from the inside of your ductwork is recommended to help improve the system's efficiency and promote better indoor air quality.

Furnace and duct cleaning alone can't guarantee an improvement in the way you feel. The solution is found in taking a series of steps to eliminate allergens and other airborne irritants that are bothering you or those people you care about.

Here are some other important steps to take to improve your air. All of them focus on source removal to correct the problem and appear in no particular order.

Clothes Dryers: Moisture spilling into an attic or under a dark porch or into a crawl space is the perfect invitation for mold. Always vent your dryer to an open outdoor area. There are three major things wrong with clothes dryers.
  1. They are inefficient. They suck in the air you paid to heat your home, heat it more and then blow it right outside.
  2. Poor maintenance clogs dryer exhausts which forces lint back into the indoor air through splits and loose connections.
  3. According to the EPA, most fabric softener dryer sheets contain chloroform, camphor, phthalates and other chemicals that can damage our respiratory, nervous, and reproductive systems. While most of the fumes go outdoors, the residual chemicals on the dryer sheets coat the clothing with these potential toxins. Liquid fabric softeners are better because they are rinsed out during the wash cycle.

Mold: If you've got mold, you've got a problem. There are a multitude of conditions that contribute to mold growth. Your primary mission is to eliminate all sources of unintended moisture in your property. Here are some of the more common causes all related to water intrusion.
  • Broken sprinkler line, frozen hose bib, leaky roof, pipe
  • Broken or no gutters and downspouts. Other negative drainage into the structure including window wells
  • Leaky roof or flashing
  • Any interior plumbing supply or drain leak, especially slow leaks that keep wood and other organic materials wet
  • Condensation in bathrooms, on walls, on cold pipes or the inside of windows in the winter can be enough moisture for mold to thrive
  • Improperly restored flood that gets re-wetted

Poor ventilation: Non-existent or rarely used bathroom exhaust fan, kitchen hood fan not used while cooking. Your exhaust fan should send moisture outside during and after cooking or a hot shower. If you don't have a bathroom fan, put one in. Wire it to a timer or slave it to the light switch. Ideally, the fan should run during the shower and continue to run for a few minutes after to clear the humidity.

Clear steam (and odors) from cooking in the kitchen by using the range hood. If not available, try placing a small fan to blow air out the kitchen window.

Air purifiers, cleaners, filters, whatever... The right type really works! The wrong type can harm your lungs! There are several types of consumer air filtration equipment available. Some units use a combination of types.
  • Source removal - True HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Arrestance) where the air is virtually strained through a very fine filter to remove nearly everything but gasses.
  • Charcoal filters are often used as pre-filters to protect HEPA filters. The Carbon absorbs and traps gasses very well, but lose their efficiency within a few weeks.
  • Ionizers - Usually tall, thin and very quiet. Marginally effective.
  • Ozonators - Generates Ozone gas which can improve air quality, but is very harmful for humans to be exposed to during use.
  • UV (Ultra Violet) light bulbs are another feature you can get. They are designed to kill part of the germs as they pass by the light.

Ionic (ionizing) air purifiers work by charging the air with static electricity causing smaller particles to clump together. These clumps now have sufficient charge and mass to either stick to walls and surfaces or to drop to the floor due to gravity. Oh yes, a small amount of soil is also attracted to the charge plate in the air cleaner which you can wipe off. Ion generators also emit small amounts of ozone.

Ozone gas is used to combat smoke odors and organic putrefaction. It is a constituent of smog and is unhealthy to breath. Ozone air purifiers are not very effective and are irritating to the respiratory system and mucous membranes including the eyes.

To further complicate matters, when Ozone is used around lemon-scented cleaning products (D limonene) or other terpenes or solvents, the combination results in the formation of hazardous Aldehydes.

UV light does kill some germs. The problem is, most of the air does not get exposed long enough to the killing rays as the air whizzes by. Eventually, UV light will help to kill airborne germs with multiple passes through the system.

Rx: Buy a true HEPA model. Only this kind of filter (as opposed to HEPA-"type" or HEPA-"like") is designed to remove virtually all airborne particles (99.97% of particulate at as small as .3 microns (that's one-third of one millionth of a meter). And HEPA filters do this without producing potentially harmful by-products.

We like the large Honeywell model. For convenience, get the model with the timer. Expect to invest around $200. Yes, you'll have to change the pre-filter every couple of months, but the expensive HEPA elements can now be washed and reused.

Avoid features like UV light, ionizers or ozonators. Source removing HEPA air purifiers in the bedroom and living areas greatly improves the air quality and generally improves breathing for asthma or allergy sufferers, as well as those with other respiratory sensitivities. They filter out mold spores, lint, dust mite feces, animal and human dander, pollen and a variety of other bioaerosols such as viruses and bacteria as well as radiation particles.

Don't try to get by with smaller "bathroom" units or end-table models of air cleaners. They have very little impact on particulate removal and the filters clog right away. This is a case of bigger is better. Select a large model about the size of the nightstand. While they rate air purifiers by how large of a room they will clean, you want to look for the CADR (Clean Air Delivery Rate). The closer you get to 300 cubic feet per minute, the better.

And let 'er run...on as high of a setting as possible. They tend to be a bit noisy on the highest setting, but some people actually learn to appreciate the "white noise" the unit puts out. My mother, for example, was on medical Oxygen and claimed she could not sleep without that "soothing" sound and gentle breeze.

What's your Bag? Most people change the vacuum cleaner bag when the machine quits sucking. Frequent vacuuming with a high-efficiency (HEPA filtered) vacuum cleaner goes a long way toward helping your IAQ. But more efficient collection bags fill up fast. We recommend changing them out when they are no more than half full. You'll be impressed with how quickly you can vacuum when the thing is working properly!

Expect to spend a few hundred dollars for a good vacuum. Again, true HEPA filtration is key here. Don't get a bagless. You'll spend more time dusting yourself off every time you empty the cup than you will vacuuming. Plus, you can't help but breathe in some of that junk even if your outdoors. Good 3 stage bag type models also use a micro-fine paper filter liner to protect the HEPA element longer.

"Honey, go out to the garage and warm up the car." Even with the garage door open, it's dangerous to run an automobile in a garage--especially when it's attached to the house. When you step out of your house into your garage, cool air comes in through the door. Deadly carbon monoxide fumes come in with this air. Making matters worse, when you start a cold engine the fumes are very concentrated.

So when you start your car, back it out immediately leaving the overhead door open for a couple of minutes to clear the air. Make the door from your garage to your home airtight and install an automatic door closer.

Combustion type furnaces cause more carbon monoxide poisoning in homes than all other heating sources combined. Cracked heat exchangers, clogged chimneys and back-drafting are the primary causes.

The heat exchanger is made of thin metal and is the only barrier between the air you breathe and the combustion gasses. If this metal gets too hot, tiny cracks form breaching the barrier. A very dirty furnace filter will cause the furnace to over-fire and crack the heat exchanger. (repeated expansion and contraction as the unit cycles). This is a very dangerous condition!

The combustion process takes a lot of air. All newer systems have a special duct bringing outdoor air in, but older systems need air too. Be sure to provide some fresh air to the furnace, either by installing a duct or simply by keeping a nearby window open an inch or so.

Quarterly filter changes (use good pleated ones), annual inspections, and a good furnace and duct system cleaning every few years will keep your furnace running great and protect you and your family from deadly Carbon Monoxide gas.

Mistake: Your home's been cleared for lead - but not radon.

The dangers of lead poisoning are well-known, and lead paint has been phased out of housing construction nationwide. But few states regulate another contaminant--the leading cause of lung cancer after cigarette smoking: radon. Nearly 1 out of 15 homes in the United States (one in 3 or 4 in Montana) is estimated to have elevated levels of the radioactive gas that can seep from soil into a home's foundation. (Find more details about your county at

Fix it: Test your levels. Low-cost kits that measure radon for about a week are available at hardware stores or by calling (800) 767-7236. Keep windows closed and place the kit at your home's lowest surface for an accurate reading. If your levels are 4 pCi/L (picocuries per liter of air) or higher, test again.

Schedule it: An appointment with a specialist. If results are the same, call your state radon office (find yours via and arrange for follow-up tests. "You may need to install a ventilation system," says R. William Field, PhD, professor of occupational and environmental health at the University of Iowa. "Or it could be as simple as sealing cracks or areas where pipes enter the home."

Check these items at the door to help keep your home's air clean:

Cigarettes are obviously poor IAQ contributors. Smoke, gasses and sticky nicotine are not the only things that smokers contaminate the air with. Particles stick to smoker's clothing. When a smoker steps out for a cigarette, have them wear a "smoking jacket" that stays out on the garage or porch.

Dry cleaning
Traditional cleaners use perchloroethylene, a chemical shown to cause cancer in animals. Look for a shop that uses silicone or carbon dioxide instead (some are listed at greenearth and Always try to air your un-bagged garments outside for a couple of hours before putting them in your closet.

Powders? Yes, powder. There are countless products provided in powered form. Not to mention, the dust from emptying a vacuum cleaner bag. From beverage mix to baking soda -- cosmetic powder and spray antiperspirants to construction materials such as plaster, cement and adhesives; fine powders aerosolize (become airborne) easily and when they appear in your breathing zone, they're are sucked into and coat your lungs.

In addition to dirt, mud and grime, pesticides and lawn chemicals can be tracked indoors where they stick to your carpet, eventually making their way into the air. If you use these products, remove your shoes at the door. But leave your socks on. Oils from your feet will leave a sticky residue on your carpeting making it soil more quickly.

Burning firewood releases harmful gases and tiny particles that enter your lungs and blood-stream. Use your fireplace sparingly with fuels such as manufactured fireplace logs. Make sure your chimney is clean and the damper open wide to take gasses up and out.

While some newer candles burn fewer chemicals than traditional paraffin wax, all candles off gas some amount of soot and other contaminants. Avoid scented candles which contribute to poor indoor air quality and don't buy cheap candles from foreign countries as the wicks likely contain lead. Best bet is to not burn candles in your home or office at all.

Essential Oils
Many people believe that effusing essential oils can help to "purify" the air and make them feel better. There is a myriad of sources for this group of aromatic chemicals, the most popular being lavender, eucalyptus, and tea tree oil.

There is little real data to support either the benefits or the disadvantages to using such products. However, one study looked at the changes in levels of carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2), total volatile organic compounds (TVOCs), particulate matter (PM10) airborne fungi and bacteria before and after evaporating essential oils. Average CO concentrations increased by three times, CO2 increased about 20%, TVOCs doubled but PM10 was slightly lower.

The anti-microbial reduction of airborne microbes, a primary effect claimed by the use of many essential oils, could only be found during the first hour after the evaporation began.

Tea tree oil emits the highest levels of volatile components including the family of terpenes which can be harmful to one's health as they react with secondary pollutants such as Ozone. This reaction produces Aldehydes (Formaldehyde) which we know is very harmful to breathe.

Dust Mites
Dust mites are everywhere. The conditions you provide them with regulates their population. They live in your bed eating your dead skin cells (yes, we humans are sloughing off an unbelievable amount of dead skin all of the time). They like the temperature, the moisture (from your body) and the entrée.

Here's the best ideas for dealing with dust mites and many other allergens.
  • Don't make your bed! Expose your sheets and pillows to fresh air for awhile after rising to help evaporate body moisture from the bedding.
  • Buy new pillows every year. Pillows are one of the worst air quality offenders by providing a comfortable home for critters to grow.
  • When you go to bed, imagine your head hitting your pillow, clouds of skin flakes, dust mite feces and body parts poof up into the air where you breath it in. Worse, you often have your nose stuck right in the pillow while you're sleeping. No wonder you wake up with a stuffy nose.
  • Have your mattress professionally cleaned at least once a year. Turn your mattress over (if possible) every six months.
  • Keep the relative humidity indoors below 50%. Dust mites love humidity. So does mold, for that matter.

Have your carpets cleaned using a low moisture system. Your carpeting should be dry within two hours after cleaning. When shopping, ask for hypo-allergenic products if you know you're sensitive to certain odors.

Get rid of the cleaning and other household products you are not ever going to use. Or at least, close the lids on them and move them from the cabinet under your kitchen sink to a corner of the garage.

While you're out in the garage, look around. See any gas cans with the cap off the spout? How about insecticides, pesticides and fertilizers? Any solvent covered rags? These products are frequent contributors to poor air quality, ill health, and could even be a fire hazard.

On Women & Asthma
Cleaning can make you sick. If you have asthma, put down your broom and stop dusting. Cleaning can be bad for your health!

Women with asthma are more prone to respiratory infections, even if they use what are considered to be mild household cleansing products, according to the result of new research.

The researcher focused their study on women because they are primarily responsible for cleaning chores at home. Also, asthma affects women more severely and kills more women than men.

Researchers at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine came to this conclusion after conducting a 12-week study in which they compared the health effects from using household products in two groups of women. Half had diagnosed asthma and the other half didn't.

Both groups showed ill-effects from using the household products but they were more severe in the women with asthma, they reported.

"Women in both groups exhibited increased upper and lower respiratory tract symptoms in response to cleaning agents rated mild in toxicity, suggesting a subtle but potentially clinically relevant health effect of long-term, low-level chemical exposures," reported the researchers. However, there was a "significantly statistical difference" is the effects on the health of the women with asthma.

More than 20 million American women have asthma.

And last but certainly not least...

Get plenty of fresh air! Fling open the windows like grandma used to do at every opportunity! Contaminants tend to build up indoors often concentrating the pollutants up to 10 to 100 times that of outdoor air. Flush the place out regularly!