By Wendy Helfenbaum, AARP, November 10, 2020
Simple strategies to protect from COVID-19, mold, radon and other air pollutants.
Working from home, schooling from home and colder weather mean people are spending more hours a day indoors than before the coronavirus pandemic began.
All that time inside makes keeping your indoor air pollutant-free more important than ever. If you're working on-site or in an office, you can decrease the risk of contracting the coronavirus there, too.
Indoor air quality can be tainted by common home pollutants like asbestos, radon, mold, household chemicals and cigarette smoke; in some parts of the country, the smoke from wildfires can add to the problem. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that indoor air might be two to five times more polluted than outdoor air.
Easy strategies like proper ventilation and low-cost fixes like air purifiers and filters can all help. While green plants may look nice, experts say they don't have much impact on the air quality in your home. Here are some ways to clean up your home's air environment. Improve ventilation Most people don't think about indoor air quality unless they experience health symptoms that can include headaches, aggravated allergies, elevated asthma, fatigue, coughing, dry eyes and skin rashes.
"We know that particles — aerosols or small solids or liquids suspended in the air, like dust, smoke, smog or oil from cooking — have negative health effects ranging from respiratory lung disease to cardiovascular issues,” says Delphine Farmer, an associate professor of chemistry at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.
An indoor air quality monitor will tell you how many particles you have in your house — though be skeptical of those that claim to detect everything — but you can also just use your nose, suggests Farmer. "If there's a smoke event or you live near a busy road, you can generally smell or see that the air quality isn't good,” she says. Inexpensive fixes can make a big difference, says Jamie Gold, 60, a wellness design consultant in San Diego and author of Wellness By Design. Start by opening a window (unless your area is experiencing smoke from wildfires) — a strategy recommended by the EPA to improve ventilation and lower the risk of contracting COVID-19.
"It's ideal to have the best-ventilated space and as much fresh air as you can get. That's true during a pandemic, and it's true in general,” says Gold. Make use of properly installed bathroom or kitchen fans, too. Without proper venting from the kitchen to the outside, your home can be filled with grease, food odors and smoke, she adds. "If you're not using bathroom ventilation, you can have mold and mildew buildup,” Gold says. “Use fans if they're working well and replace them if they're not." 6 Habits That Improve Indoor Air Quality
Clean cooking vents regularly so they work effectively.
Turn ceiling fans on.
Use HEPA filters in your HVAC system and change them every 6 to 12 months.
Wipe down bathroom surfaces after showering.
Remove shoes and boots at the door to reduce the amount of chemicals and particles brought into the house.
Wipe moisture from windows and sills.
Focus on air filters and purifiers
Use efficient air filters for your home's HVAC system and change them every six to 12 months to improve indoor air quality. Look for high-efficiency particle air (HEPA) filters but avoid ones that use UV light, which can generate ozone, a serious air pollutant, cautions Farmer. Ditto for filters with ionizers or hydroxyl radical generators.
"They don't do anything that the plain HEPA filter doesn't, plus they have the potential to introduce toxic molecules into your indoor environment,” she explains.
Portable air purifiers can filter out pollutants in a room and, along with best practices recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, can be part of an overall plan to guard against germs, bacteria and the COVID-19 virus, according to the EPA. Purifiers pull air through a HEPA filter, explains Farmer, and even the most affordable models effectively clear out aerosols.
Kathy Przywara, 55, takes medication daily for asthma, and right now living in Mountain View, California – a wildfire zone – is challenging. She runs her newly purchased air purifiers constantly.
"When there are active fires and smoke is blown into the valley, I have more asthma symptoms,” says Przywara, senior community director for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, which celebrated national Indoor Air Quality Month in October by launching a new interactive healthier home resource with tips for reducing allergy and asthma triggers.
“You can also just buy a box fan and duct-tape a filter onto it, which works really well,” adds Farmer.
If you live in an area where the outdoor air is quite contaminated — say, by wildfire smoke — upgrade the filter in your HVAC system, says Farmer. Minimum Efficiency Reporting Values (MERV) measure a filter's ability to absorb larger particles, and you'll want to get a filter with as high a MERV value as your HVAC system will handle, which will result in cleaner air.
Prevent mold and mildew
Lowering the relative humidity in your house is essential to preventing the growth of mold, bacteria and viruses, says Doug Hoffman, 71, executive director of the National Organization of Remediators and Mold Inspectors (NORMI), a nonprofit in Abita Springs, Louisiana. NORMI educates the public and trains professionals to identify and remove toxic mold.
"Typically, mold, bacteria and viruses thrive in environments where the relative humidity is higher than 60 percent or lower than 40 percent, so stay within that range,” says Hoffman, who suggests using ventilation fans, vacuuming regularly and making sure you have fresh air coming into the house.
For an in-depth look at the humidity environment in your home, a professional may do swab or aerosol testing, particulate counts, and relative humidity and temperature measurements to create an indoor air quality (IAQ) profile. This can be used to personalize a home solution if problems are found, explains Hoffman. For a 1,500- to 1,700-square-foot home or condo, expect to pay between $600 and $1,200 for a comprehensive analysis.
To fix mold issues, experts usually sanitize to lower the microbial count. That may involve fogging the space and wiping it down, or using air purification technology. In severe cases, remediation — removing affected materials — might be required.
Get relief from radon
As we move into the winter season, radon poses another risk to indoor air quality. This naturally occurring radioactive gas is found in most soil types, and can move up through the ground into your home through the foundation. When present in large amounts, it's the second-leading cause of lung cancer, notes Gold.
"It's invisible, odorless and present in many homes at the lower level,” she says. “You may have more people in your home right now — college kids back from school or an elderly relative — or you're using your basement as a work-from-home space."
Radon detectors are inexpensive and can be purchased online or at your local hardware store. Professional radon services, which are often more accurate, can also evaluate whether there's radon in your home.
In Boulder, Colorado, David Naidu, 54, and his wife, Daniela, 51, took advantage of their city's free radon test kit, and took readings over several days.
"We discovered the radon level in our apartment was high, so our landlord agreed to hire a radon mitigation company,” says Naidu.
To reduce the level of radon, the company increased the ventilation of gas below Naidu's concrete floor, blowing it out of the apartment through a hole drilled into the wall. The couple are relieved the issue has been resolved, especially since they are also in a wildfire zone.
"The overall air quality in our area has been less than desirable, with smoke and haze clearly visible,” says Naidu. “We purchased two air purifiers with HEPA filters for our home, which run at least six hours per day. We've noticed that the air inside our home seems much cleaner."