Boosting the Air Quality in your Home

Did you know that pollutants from outside air can become trapped in your home including molds, dust, toxic gases and wildfire smoke? These days Canadians spend approximately 90 percent of their time indoors, where the concentrations of some pollutants are often 2 to 5 times higher than typical outdoor concentrations.

Not to mention all the home pollutants that build up within the home itself such as:

Combustion sources: tobacco, wood and coal heating and cooking appliances, and fireplaces can release harmful combustion byproducts such as carbon monoxide.

Cleaning supplies, paints, insecticides, aerosol hair sprays & air freshners: introduce including volatile organic compounds directly into the indoor air. Concentrations of volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) are at least 10 times higher indoors than outdoors. (International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health)

Building materials: from aging materials (like asbestos fibres released from building insulation) or from new materials (e.g., chemical off-gassing from pressed wood products, carpets, paints, fabrics).

As well as as radon, mold, and pet dander.

The WHO states, “Household air pollution was responsible for an estimated 3.2 million deaths per year in 2020, including over 237 000 deaths of children under the age of 5. The exposure leads to noncommunicable diseases including stroke, ischaemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and lung cancer.”

There are many well documented studies showing the side effects if poor air quality in our homes — The US Environmental Protection Agency shares these studies:

The link between some common indoor air pollutants and health effects is very well established in this report:

  • Naturally occurring Radon is a known human carcinogen and is the second leading cause of lung cancer.
  • Carbon monoxide is toxic, and short-term exposure to elevated carbon monoxide levels in indoor settings can be lethal.
  • Episodes of Legionnaires' disease, a form of pneumonia caused by exposure to the Legionella bacterium, have been associated with buildings with poorly maintained air conditioning or heating systems.
  • Numerous indoor air pollutants—dust mites, mold, pet dander, environmental tobacco smoke, cockroach allergens, particulate matter, and others—are “asthma triggers,” meaning that some asthmatics might experience asthma attacks following exposure.

With the average human breathing approximately 10,000 litres of air per day, it is of utmost importance to ensure healthy air quality indoors. 

How to boost the Air Quality of your Home

According to the Verdantix Global Corporate Survey 2020, 59% of real estate executives are planning to make new investments in air quality sensors and analytics in the wake of COVID-19. 

Increasing proper ventilation helps remove indoor air pollutants. Open windows and doors when weather permits, and use exhaust fans in kitchens and bathrooms to expel stale air. Always use your kitchen fan when cooking on the stove, whether gas stove or electric. 

This also includes regularly maintaining your HVAC systems: Clean or replace air filters in your heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system according to the manufacturer's instructions. This helps ensure that the system operates efficiently and filters out pollutants effectively.

Consider using air purifiers with HEPA (High-Efficiency Particulate Air) filters to remove particles such as dust, pollen, pet dander, and mold spores from the air. They are also effective at filtering many viruses and bacteria.

There are DIY air filter systems you can look into. Some common designs are to place one filter flat against the fan, two filters taped with cardboard to form a triangle against the fan, or even more filters taped against the fan to form a cube. The Washington Department of Ecology and Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation have posted tutorial videos to help users construct DIY air cleaners: one-filter design and two-filter design.

To maximize filtration, choose a high-efficiency filter, preferably rated Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) 13 or higher, and align the arrows on the filter with the direction of the air flow through the fan. Try to get a good seal between the fan and the filter.

If you use a DIY air filter system, follow these safety tips:

  • Use a newer model box fan (2012 or later) and look for one with a UL or ETL safety marking. These newer models have added safety features. Fans built before 2012 may pose fire risks. If you must use a fan built before 2012, do not leave it unattended or use it while sleeping.
  • Follow the box fan manufacturer’s instructions.
  • Have extra filters on hand and change the filter when it appears dirty or starts to release smoke odours. During smoke events, filters may need to be changed every few weeks or days.

Regularly clean your home to minimize dust and other allergens. Vacuum carpets and rugs frequently, using a vacuum cleaner equipped with a HEPA filter. Dust surfaces with a damp cloth and mop hard floors regularly. If you have pets, regularly groom them to reduce shedding and dander. Vacuum and clean pet areas frequently to minimize allergens.

Avoid smoking indoors as we know cigarettes contains numerous harmful chemicals. While you are at it, many household products emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can contribute to poor air quality. Choose low VOC or VOC-free products whenever possible, including paints, cleaning agents, and furnishings. As well as limit synthetic fragrances in air fresheners, candles, and cleaning products; try for natural alternatives or fragrance-free options.

Here are a few DIY natural cleaning solutions —

All-Purpose Cleaner:

  • Mix equal parts white vinegar and water in a spray bottle.
  • Add a few drops of essential oil (such as lemon, lavender, or tea tree) for a pleasant fragrance (optional).
  • Shake well before use. This solution is suitable for cleaning countertops, surfaces, and floors.

Glass and Mirror Cleaner:

  • Combine 1 cup water and 1 cup distilled white vinegar in a spray bottle.
  • Optionally, add a few drops of essential oil for a fresh scent.
  • Shake well before use. Spray onto glass surfaces and wipe clean with a lint-free cloth or newspaper.

Oven Cleaner:

  • Sprinkle baking soda liberally over the oven surface.
  • Spray or sprinkle water onto the baking soda to create a paste.
  • Let it sit overnight or for several hours.
  • Scrub away the grime using a sponge or scrub brush, and wipe clean.

Bathroom Cleaner:

  • Mix equal parts water and distilled white vinegar in a spray bottle.
  • Add a few drops of tea tree oil or your preferred essential oil.
  • Spray the solution onto bathroom surfaces, including sinks, tubs, and toilets.
  • Let it sit for a few minutes, then scrub and rinse with water.

Carpet Stain Remover:

  • Mix equal parts water and white vinegar in a spray bottle.
  • Spray the solution onto the stained area and let it sit for a few minutes.
  • Blot the stain with a clean cloth or sponge.
  • Repeat if necessary, and then rinse with water.

Wood Furniture Polish:

  • In a small bowl, mix ¼ cup olive oil and ¼ cup white vinegar.
  • Add a few drops of lemon essential oil for a fresh scent (optional).
  • Apply a small amount of the mixture to a soft cloth and gently polish wood surfaces.

You will want to also maintain optimal humidity levels (between 30% and 50%) to prevent mold and mildew growth. Use dehumidifiers in damp areas and address any water leaks or moisture issues promptly. Also test for radon and carbon monoxide as they are invisible gases that can have serious health implications. Install detectors for both to ensure their levels remain within safe limits.

Last but not least, increasing your indoor plants is a wonderful way to purify the air by absorbing pollutants.

Here are some plants known for their air-purifying properties:

Snake Plant (Sansevieria trifasciata): It is effective at filtering out formaldehyde, trichloroethylene, benzene, and xylene.

Spider Plant (Chlorophytum comosum): This plant is known to remove formaldehyde and xylene from the air. It's also safe for pets.

Aloe Vera (Aloe vera): Aloe vera not only has healing properties but also helps to clear formaldehyde and benzene from the air.

Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum): This plant can help remove formaldehyde, benzene, and trichloroethylene. Keep in mind that peace lilies are toxic to pets if ingested.

Boston Fern (Nephrolepis exaltata): It can help remove formaldehyde and xylene from the air. Boston ferns require high humidity, so they are beneficial in areas with moisture.

English Ivy (Hedera helix): English Ivy is known to filter out formaldehyde, benzene, xylene, and toluene. It can be grown in hanging baskets or placed on shelves.

Bamboo Palm (Chamaedorea seifrizii): This palm is effective in filtering out formaldehyde, benzene, and trichloroethylene. It thrives in bright, indirect light.

Rubber Plant (Ficus elastica): Rubber plants are efficient in removing formaldehyde from the air and are relatively easy to care for.

Chinese Evergreen (Aglaonema): It is known for its ability to remove toxins like benzene and formaldehyde. It has variegated leaves and can thrive in low light conditions.

Golden Pothos (Epipremnum aureum): Golden Pothos is a popular trailing vine that helps remove formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

There are many commercial level projects happening to support overall cleaner air solutions in condos, apartments and office buildings.
One such research area that is evolving is “green building” design, construction, operation, and maintenance that achieves energy efficiency and enhances indoor air quality. Strategies like using low-emission building materials, optimizing natural lighting, and incorporating green spaces and plants indoors can positively impacting air quality.

City of Calgary is working from the outside in to track air quality and keep us all up to date, so we can better assess when we can open our windows in our homes.

Some parents are working diligently to support local schools air quality by increasing the use of HEPA filters in classrooms, no matter the pushback:

William Bahnfleth, the chair of ASHRAE’s epidemic task force, reviewed the Alberta chapters’ guidance and offered some further advice.

“Even when minimum outdoor air requirements are met and recirculated air is filtered by MERV-13 filters, the total clean air delivery rate to most spaces does not reach recommended levels and should be supplemented by in-room air cleaners,” he wrote in January 2022. "HEPA filter units are a good way to do this.”

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