by Tara Sharp
Most of us tend to think of air pollution as something that occurs outdoors where car exhaust and factory fumes proliferate, but there’s such a thing as indoor air pollution, too. Since the 1950s, the number of synthetic chemicals used in products for the home has increased drastically, while at the same time, homes have become much tighter and better insulated. As a result, the EPA estimates that indoor pollutants today are anywhere from five to 70 times higher than pollutants in outside air.
Luckily, there are many ways to reduce indoor air pollution. We all know that buying organic and natural home materials and cleaning supplies can improve the air quality in our homes, but there are several other measures you can take as well.
How pollutants get into our homes
Potentially toxic ingredients are found in many materials throughout the home, and they leach out into the air as Volatile Organic Compounds, or VOCs. If you open a can of paint, you can probably smell those VOCs. The “new car smell” is another example of this. The smell seems to dissipate after a while, but VOCs can actually “off-gas” for a long time, even after a noticeable smell is gone.
We all know to use paint and glue in a well-ventilated room, but there are many other materials that don’t come with that warning. For instance, there are chemicals, such as formaldehyde, in the resin used to make most cabinets and plywood particle board. It’s also in wall paneling and closet shelves, and in certain wood finishes used on cabinets and furniture. The problems aren’t just with wood, either. Fabrics—everything from draperies to upholstery, bedding, and carpets—are a potent source of VOCs.
The good news about VOCs is that they do dissipate with time. For that reason, the highest levels of VOCs are usually found in new homes or remodels. If you are concerned about VOCs, there are several products you can buy that are either low- or no-VOC. You can also have your home professionally tested.
How to reduce VOCs in your home
Make smart choices in building materials.
- For floors, use tile or solid wood—hardwood, bamboo, or cork – instead of composites.
- Instead of using pressed particle board or indoor plywood, choose solid wood or outdoor-quality plywood that uses a less toxic form of formaldehyde.
- Choose low-VOC or VOC-free paints and finishes.
Purify the air that’s there.
- Make sure your rooms have adequate ventilation, and air out newly renovated or refurnished areas for at least a week, if possible.
- Clean ductwork and furnace filters regularly.
- Install air cleaners if needed.
- Use only environmentally responsible cleaning chemicals.
- Plants can help clean the air: good nonpoisonous options include bamboo palm, lady palm, parlor palm, and moth orchids.
- Air out freshly dry-cleaned clothes or choose a “green” cleaner.
Fight the carpet demons.
- Choose “Green Label” carpeting or a natural fiber such as wool or sisal.
- Use nails instead of glue to secure carpet.
- Install carpet LAST after completing painting, wall coverings and other high-VOC processes.
- Air out newly carpeted areas before using.
- Use a HEPA vacuum or a central vac system that vents outdoors.
- Clean up water leaks fast.
- Use dehumidifiers, if necessary, to keep humidity below 60 percent.
- Don’t carpet rooms that stay damp.
- Insulate pipes, crawl spaces, and windows to eliminate condensation.
- Kill mold before it gets a grip with one-half cup of bleach per gallon of water.
We hope this information is helpful. If you would like to learn more about VOCs and indoor air quality, please visit: http://www.epa.gov/iaq/.