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photo by joaobambu

When we think of air quality, most of us probably think of how dirty the air is outside, but did you know that the air in our homes and workplaces is typically two to five times more polluted than outdoor air–even in urban areas; with the volume of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) consistently 10 times higher than outdoors? And it’s estimated that most Americans spend 90% of their time indoors and only 5% outdoors (the other 5% is spent commuting)?

What Causes Indoor Air Pollution?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the main factors in indoor pollution are combustion sources, building materials and furnishings, household cleaning and personal care products, central air systems, and outdoor pollution making its way inside (mostly tracked by foot).

Combustion sources are what we cook and heat our homes with–oil, gas, wood, etc. Building materials and furnishings, especially those made up of pressed wood products (particle board, plywood, mdf) can contain formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is also used to add permanent-press qualities to clothing and draperies.

I think it’s commonly known that many mainstream cleaning and personal care products contain hazardous materials, but did you know they can emit pollutants into your home just by sitting in the cabinet?

Why Should This Matter to You?

Okay, so enough trying to freak you out with facts and statistics, why should you care about all of this? It’s easy to hear statistics and shrug them off because they have no obvious connection to our lives. Improving indoor air quality (IAQ) is the EPA’s top goal and rightly it should be. IAQ affects both our short-term and long-term health.

Ever had a mysterious cold or allergies that just didn’t seem to improve with medication? The immediate side effects of poor IAQ often mirror the symptoms of a cold or other viral diseases, making it hard to determine the cause. Other symptoms may include headaches, dizziness, and fatigue. Generally, if you feel better after leaving a particular indoor environment, there’s probably some sort of pollutant you’re body is trying to alert you about.

The long-term affects can include respiratory diseases (like asthma, which is on the rise), heart diseases, and cancer. But how many people will ever know their illnesses were caused by the air in their own homes and workplaces when nobody’s talking about it?

And nobody’s talking about it because there’s no one out there to tell us better! Instead, we have commercials telling us our homes need to smell better with artificial air freshners, and we need to clean with products we can smell so that we know our homes are clean, the list goes on and on.


So What Can You Do About It?

Short of buying all-new, all-natural furnishings and completely rebuilding our homes, there’s not a heck of a lot we can do to completely eradicate our homes of indoor pollutants. The easiest ways to improve indoor air quality are to prevent from adding to them and negate the pollutants already there. Here are my tips to get you started:

1. Be picky about what you bring in your home from now on. Make informed decisions about what  furniture, cleaning products, and everything else that crosses your threshold. What is it made of? Will it likely off-gas toxins? Do your research before you buy. We are the guardians of our homes–no one out there is regulating our personal indoor air quality–it’s up to us to make it safe to breathe!

2. Open the windows. I used to hate when my mom would open all the doors and windows to the house in the mornings, I was always too hot or too cold. But now I do the same thing! Granted, with extreme weather conditions it’s not reasonable to have the windows open all day long, but we can manage to open them for at least part of the day (or night) most the year round. Ventilating your home is one of the best ways to get all those pollutants out.

3. Add some greenery–and I don’t mean fake (that would probably make it worse). Studies have shown that certain types of plants are superheroes at sucking up the junk and purifying the air in our homes. You could also buy an air purifier, but those are often way more expensive, and, besides, houseplants add more life to a room! For more on specific plants that work harder to improve indoor air, check out How to Grow Fresh Air: 50 House Plants that Purify Your Home or Office by B.C. Wolverton, the man behind all those NASA studies about the effect of plants on indoor air quality.

In the end, we do have to resign ourselves somewhat to the fact that we live in an imperfect world. But that doesn’t mean you have to stop there! Here are some resources to help you learn more about indoor air quality and addional steps you can take to improve the health of your own home:

  • An Introduction to IAQ by The Environmental Protection Agency–they also have specific information about individual pollutants. 
  • Check out the Healthy Home Tips provided by the Environmental Working Group–and this article they share about Indoor Air Pollution. The EWG is a great resource for anything you could possibly want to know about environmental issues. 
  • Track down a copy of Planet Home which gives room-by-room details of all the ways you can improve the health of your home (I’ll be sharing a more in-depth review of this book later).

And, just to add, my home is by no means pollutant-free, but I have begun to implement these steps in an attempt to improve the air quality for my own family. As mothers, it’s easy to feel like we need to do it all (whatever all means to us in particular), and I know that I can’t. But I can do my best to give my family a loving and healthy home–and so can you, just take it one step at a time!

disclosure: the above book links are affiliate links. if you wish to purchase either book a minute portion will go to maker mama–a great way to show your support and appreciation as i work on growing my blog!