Houseplants like this dracaena help keep the air in your home clean by filtering out toxins.
Indoor air pollution is one of modern society’s deadliest silent killers. Responsible for premature deaths from stroke, ischemic heart disease, COPD, acute lower respiratory infections in children and lung cancer, indoor air pollution was linked to 4.3 million deaths in households cooking over coal, wood and biomass stoves in 2012, according to the World Health Organization.
While few of us still use these type of unfiltered cooking methods in our homes today, the risks of poor indoor air quality are real, especially as more and more chemicals, in the form of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), are introduced into our homes through furniture, cleaning products, paints, building materials and other manufactured products. VOCs are linked to eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches, loss of coordination and nausea, and damage to the liver, kidney and the central nervous system. Some are known to cause cancer in humans. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates concentrations of VOCs are generally two to five times higher indoors (and sometimes up to 10 times) than outdoors.
So, what can you do about it? Other than remove offending items, which can be difficult and in some cases impossible to do, there are some simple steps you can take to help make the air quality in your home cleaner. Here are five things you can do to help combat indoor air pollution:
Most homes have some type of HVAC system (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) and these actually do a lot of the work for you, typically filtering 100% of the air in your home twice each hour (while running). A good air filter will capture large particles like household dust, lint, dust mites, pollen and pet dander, small particles like bacteria and mold spores, as well as smoke, smog and microscopic allergens. They can also filter out particles that can carry viruses and odors. Most manufacturers recommend you change your filters every three months. There is certainly no harm in doing it more often, though, and if you have a full household—children, pets, lots of people coming in and out—inspect the filters every month or two and replace them if they look full.
Speaking of HVAC systems, you can circulate the system’s fan without actually heating or cooling. Some smart thermostats, such as the Nest, offer the option of scheduling the fan to come on at certain times when the heating or cooling is off. If you don’t have this option, you can just manually turn it on and off, which is good to do once or twice a day to help circulate and freshen your indoor air, especially if you can’t do step number 3 …
Open it up! Open windows and doors, turn on kitchen and bathroom exhaust fans, and activate fans in windows or in the attic—anywhere you can to get the air moving through your home. Cross ventilation works best, so open the front door and back door to help the new, fresh air push out the old, stale air. If you live in a very cold or very warm climate, chances are your home is shut up tight, and there are probably only a few months each year when you can do this. Take advantage of those times, and open everything up whenever you can to give your home’s air a good cleaning.
In the late 1980s, NASA conducted a study to find out which plants were effective air purifiers, because they wanted use them to filter the air in space stations (where they really can’t open windows!). The study found that many houseplants actually absorb harmful chemicals, so by adding a few of these to your home you have your very own natural air purifies. A few of the best performers include: spider plants, peace lilies, dracaena, ficus, aloe vera and Boston ferns, all of which help eliminate formaldehyde, which is one of the nastiest VOCs, among other toxins.
We introduce chemicals into our home nearly every time we bring manmade items into it. VOCs are present in paints, stains, plastics, furnishings, upholstery, carpets, synthetic building materials and cleaning products, to name just a few! Look for products that advertise low or no VOCs to help reduce the off-gassing that occurs when you bring new items into your home.
Jennifer Tuohy is a mom with a passion for sustainability and technology who writes for The Home Depot. She experiments with different ways to help her family be more eco-friendly, including picking and changing the furnace air filters in her home and using LED light bulbs to save energy.
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