9 Ways To Reduce Air Pollution Inside Your Home
Air pollution isn't just an outside issue. Melinda Williams shares how relatively simple changes can make a big difference to your indoor air quality
Indoor air pollution is literally an invisible problem. It’s easy to think of air pollution as something that exists outside — on busy city streets, in the smoker’s corner of parking buildings or beer gardens, or spewing in smoggy clouds from industrial areas.
But a surprising amount of that air pollution makes its way inside, and even more is generated within our homes, by our cooking and heating appliances, released from solvent cleaning products and scented candles, off-gassed by our furniture, surface finishes and walls and flourishing as mould and fungal spores in damp areas.
A 2017 report by the Building Research Association of New Zealand (Branz) noted that although indoor air quality was identified by the United States Environmental Protection Agency as one of the top five environmental hazards in the Western world, New Zealand lags behind when it comes to research, public knowledge and programmes to address the issue.
Given our country’s high levels of asthma, rheumatic fever, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and high excess winter mortality, more needs to be done, especially because relatively simple changes can make a big difference.
This has been a glorious summer for New Zealand — hot, sunny, with a few well-timed rainy days to keep everything growing. The balmy weather has produced a boom in seasonal flowers, with one of the most spectacular blooms in many years. This has been great for bees, but less so for sufferers of seasonal favourites like hay fever and asthma.
“Hay fever is a common allergy in New Zealand, with approximately 20 per cent of Kiwis affected, and it lasts about 34 weeks, so it probably feels never-ending to sufferers,” says Letitia Dwyer, who is the NZ Asthma & Respiratory Foundation’s chief executive, the organisation that manages the Sensitive Choice programme in New Zealand.
Many people think asthma and allergies are triggered by air outside the home — according to a recent survey by vacuum, fan and Hepa-filter manufacturer Dyson, only 36 per cent of people are aware that pollen can affect them inside their home.
“One in six Kiwis (more than 700,000 people) live with a respiratory condition, so it’s important we keep the indoor air we have control over as clean as possible,” says Dwyer. On that note, here are nine ways to reduce the air pollution inside your home.
1. CHECK A ‘POLLEN CALENDAR’ BEFORE OPENING WINDOWS
Believe it or not, calendars tracking when and in which plants pollen is most active exist, and can be a good way to determine when it might be a high-pollen day. Mornings are worst for pollen, which is usually released between 5am and 10am. Sudden thunderstorm events (which aren’t uncommon in summer) can also stir up pollen counts in dangerous ways — in Australia in late 2016, 10 people died of asthma attacks following a freak thunderstorm event on a high-pollen day with strong winds. Check out a local pollen calendar here.
2. AVOID PRODUCTS THAT EMIT VOCS
Volatile organic compounds are gases that can have health effects including nausea, headaches, allergies, and skin irritation, and have been linked to increases in certain types of cancer. When you smell that “fresh” smell from new paint, new furniture or a new car, that’s actually VOCs being released from the paint, interior foam of the sofa or mattress, or plastic lining of your car. Not so good.
Look for low or zero-VOC water-based paints, zero-emission wallboards and plywood, natural furniture and wood restoration oils and don’t be afraid to ask retailers and manufacturers to provide information about the VOC levels of their furniture. Many retailers have a shocking lack of knowledge on the issue.
3. KEEP PETS OFF FURNITURE, ESPECIALLY THE BED
It’s not actually pet fur that causes the most issues for allergy sufferers, it’s dander (shed skin particles) that floats through the air unseen and can be (eww) inhaled. If you have hay fever allergies, letting your pet sleep in the bedroom with you will likely contribute to your troubles. On top of the dander they drop on your duvet, they may also bring in pollen stuck to their fur.
4. DUST WITH A WET OR ELECTROSTATIC CLOTH AND VACUUM REGULARLY
Cleaning windows is one of the most boring jobs there is, but it’s a hidden source of mould. Don’t stop at cleaning the windows themselves — wipe the sills clean with a wet cloth (mould grows on dirt, and pollen and dust can accumulate here) and check the curtains and blinds for signs of mould growth. Washing curtains in the bath with white vinegar in the water will help kill mould growth, although unfortunately, it won’t remove the dark staining.
5. DO YOUR BEST TO CLEAR THE AIR OF ALLERGENS, EVEN TINY ONES
Allergy stimulants such as pollen particles vary in size and some are so ultra-fine that you can’t see them with the naked eye. Whereas many articles tout the benefits of indoor plants for helping “clean the air”, the reality is that plants do a minimal job and to really reduce harmful microscopic allergens and chemicals, you need a Hepa filter. Many vacuum cleaners are equipped with these, so vacuuming frequently will help. Or if you can afford one, an air purifier with a Hepa filter, like the Dyson Pure Cool purifying fan, can be worth the investment, making (in my experience) a noticeable difference in allergen reduction, especially in the bedroom.
6. AVOID STRONG CHEMICALS AND FRAGRANCES
Scented candles enjoy a strong association with “wellness” but they could actually be making you unwell. In addition to releasing smoke particles, the fumes they emit can contain harmful chemicals. Use them sparingly, and ideally not in the bedroom, and choose ones made from soy wax with natural essential oils. Room deodorising sprays (particularly pine-scented ones), spray-on sunscreens and strong chemical cleaning products can also be sources of indoor chemical air pollution.
7. INSTALL A RANGE HOOD, PARTICULARLY IF YOU COOK WITH GAS
Toasting, roasting, chargrilling and frying can release airborne particles that can get into your lungs, and the combustion of gas can release carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and formaldehyde into the air. Opening the window isn’t usually enough to clear the air of these pollutants — an externally vented range hood that’s properly sized to your cooktop is far more effective.
8. MINIMISE EXPOSURE TO FIREWORKS, BARBECUES, BRAZIERS AND OPEN FIRES
Smoke is a common asthma trigger and is not good if you suffer from a respiratory condition. During the summer season, when we love to barbecue and sit around open braziers, it’s important to keep upwind of the smoke, and to close nearby windows so that the smoke doesn’t get into the house. During the winter, open indoor fires and open gas-burning heaters (particularly unflued ones, which should be avoided at all costs) can cause similar issues.
9. DURING THE HOLIDAY SEASON BE CAREFUL NEAR REAL CHRISTMAS TREES
You’ve probably already disposed of or put away your Christmas tree for this year, so now’s the time to resolve to be more conscious for next year. Pine is highly allergenic, and asthma and allergy sufferers are best to avoid handling them — they can cause skin rashes and breathing issues. If you store your artificial tree in a garage or loft, make sure it’s covered with a blanket or boxed up securely to avoid dust accumulation.