Signs That You Need to Test Your Indoor Air Quality
(And How to Do It)
Physical symptoms caused by poor indoor air quality could be ambiguous and wide ranging, including everything from allergies, to sinus conditions, to headaches, to respiratory irritation. But when symptoms do persist, checking a home’s air quality and air circulation might have great benefit.
The indoor air quality of your home is a key part of you and your family’s overall health, because indoor air quality health effects can be wide ranging and have a long-term cumulative effect.
Indoor air quality isn’t always easy to spot the way that a burst pipe or a broken refrigerator is – unlike those household appliances, there’s no switch you flip only to find out your indoor air quality is broken. In the busyness of modern life, it’s often easier to think that smell is coming from the neighbors or the headaches you experience are from your stressful job. But indoor air quality plays a key role in our long-term health, and as we spend up to 90% of our lives indoors, having good indoor air quality is important.
Know What Your Indoor Air Quality Is
In most homes, both urban and rural, people have become much more environmentally conscious than ever before. And while much is made of the air quality outdoors and around the world, we often overlook the air quality inside our living space. It really shouldn’t be that way, especially since we spend so much of our waking hours indoors. The bigger question is how to ensure that indoor air quality is at an acceptable standard. The best way to start is with an air quality test.
Most every home could use an air quality test, including those that seem to be just fine. The truth is, a homeowner doesn’t have to wait for physical symptoms to arise before exploring the indoor air environment. For that matter, symptoms could be ambiguous and wide ranging, including everything from allergies, to sinus conditions, to headaches, to respiratory irritation. But when symptoms do persist, checking a home’s air quality and air circulation might have great benefit.
In the majority of homes, dust and debris is commonplace. And this could be anything from plain dirt, to plant materials, to skin particles, to home cleaning off-gases. For those with respiratory issues, polluted indoor air may be playing a part, especially when irritation is exacerbated. Even furnace filters have their limits – and poor maintenance can easily contribute to poor air quality. In cases where furnace filters clog up quite quickly, an air quality test might diagnose a problem.
Knowing what your indoor air quality is and why it’s important is the first step to having a healthier, safer home. Indoor air quality refers to the condition of the air inside of and around the building, especially as it relates to the comfort and health of the occupants within. Indoor air quality health effects appear when parts of the systems that support a high level of indoor air quality are faulty or broken. Some of these systems include your Heating, Ventilation and Cooling systems (HVAC), fans, HEPA filters, windows, doors, and moisture barriers.
Indoor air quality is more than just clean smelling air, it’s also about keeping allergens and pollutants out, while constantly refreshing and renewing the air within. When indoor air quality health effects appear, it can be the first symptom of a larger problem within your home.
High Off-Gas Levels in Your Home Can Make You Sick
Off-gassing is the release of chemicals from the things we bring into our homes, or that our homes are actually made of. In drafty old houses with lots of air changes it wasn’t much of a problem, but as we build our houses tighter for energy efficiency, these chemicals can build up inside. The craziest part of it all is that we go out and buy them without knowing what’s in them, and often stockpile them in the bathroom, the tiniest room of the house with the worst ventilation.
Poor indoor air quality can affect your health in a number of ways, and research has shown that certain toxins or chemicals can build up in people’s systems and cause trouble years down the road. Children, elders, or people who suffer from chronic illness or weakened immune systems are particularly vulnerable to poor indoor air quality which can worsen symptoms or complicate existing illnesses.
While the symptoms of poor indoor air quality health effects are broad, there are a number of them that can be mistaken for other illnesses such as colds, influenza, or allergies. They are:
- itchy, watery eyes
The key sign that your trouble may be with indoor air quality health effects is that they often completely disappear as soon as you leave the room or building.Indoor air quality health effects can be experienced at any time, by any person. But when indoor air quality is a problem in your own home, these effects can become serious. Air pollution can affect asthma, COPD, or allergies, but also heart conditions like angina; it can even be a contributing factor to heart attacks or strokes. Air pollution from some pollutants like asbestos or bacteria like legionella (which causes Legionnaires’ disease) can be fatal.
Some indoor air quality health effects may show up after one exposure, while others take repeated exposure to cause symptoms, which often makes it difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of the problem.
These small chemical compounds are common in many household items like wood, perfumes, paint, cleaners, glues, and solvents. They may be stable as a liquid or solid, but when exposed to air, they rapidly become gaseous and can become problematic for your indoor air quality.
Here are some of the worst offenders of off-gas and volatile organic compounds in the home:
Particle Board and Plywood
Judging by words of the American Chemistry Council, Formaldehyde is positively benign, a natural part of our world. And it is, in small doses. Unfortunately, it is part of the glue that holds particle board together, the stuff our houses and furniture is made of. It is a recognized carcinogen and causes eye and nose irritation. But hey, it’s a natural part of our world.
The best way to avoid formaldehyde is to buy used, whether it is an older home where it has had the time to off-gas, or furniture that has stood the test of time. Or, buy solid wood furniture instead of particle board.
Here is a completely useless product that does nothing but add VOCs to your clothing. Chemicals include chloroform and pentanes, which the Material Safety Data Sheet suggests can cause eye and skin irritation. Ultimately, anything that is designed to make your clothes smell nice is releasing compounds you don’t want in your house. To reduce wrinkles, static and drying time, use dryer balls instead.
There really are few products stupider than air fresheners, which are actually designed to pump chemicals into your home. The NRDC notes that 75% of houses now use them. Most of them are pumping out phthalates, the gender bender hormone disruptor that is the main villain in vinyl. The NRDC says:
Phthalates are hormone-disrupting chemicals that can be particularly dangerous for young children and unborn babies. Exposure to phthalates can affect testosterone levels and lead to reproductive abnormalities, including abnormal genitalia and reduced sperm production. The State of California notes that five types of phthalates—including one that we found in air freshener products—are “known to cause birth defects or reproductive harm.” Young children and pregnant women should be especially careful to avoid contact with these chemicals.
To enhance the scent in your home, you can use essential oils and a diffuser instead of chemical sprays. They’re safe and natural, and smell much better, anyways.
Example: These Lagunamoon Essential Oils are premium grade, natural and 100% pure. The set includes lemongrass, peppermint, orange, lavender, eucalyptus, and tea tree.
Nail Polish Remover With Acetone
Breathing moderate-to-high levels of acetone for short periods of time can cause nose, throat, lung, and eye irritation. It can also cause intoxication, light-headedness, dizziness, confusion increased pulse rate, nausea, vomiting, and shortening of the menstrual cycle in women.
Use an acetone free nail polish remover instead. A good quality remover without acetone can get the job done!
Example: I use this Pure Vitality Beauty polish remover, and it has never let me down. It’s free from acetone, acetate, ethyl lactate & petroleum chemicals (and it’s cruelty free).
Many products have the flame retardant triphenyl phosphate in the insulation on their wiring; it is an endocrine disruptor that off-gases when the device heats up.
It is suspected that overheating a teflon pan can lead to the release of Perfluorinated chemicals that cause “teflon flu.”
Laser Printers and Copiers
The printing process releases ozone, which causes irritation to nose, throat and lungs.
Individuals who have preexisting lung problems, such as emphysema, bronchitis, or asthma, are even more at risk for the effects of ozone (O3). Children are also more susceptible to the effects of ozone (O3) and can increase their sensitivity to allergens.
It is hard to know where to start with this one, so many of them are full of VOCs. That’s why people get “spring cleaning headache” from inhaling them all.
The US Department of Health and Human Services maintains a household products database where you can look up the ingredients of almost every product sold in the country. It is disturbing reading.
The EPA has noted that levels of organic pollutants can be 2 to 5 times higher inside homes rather than outside. Most of the cleaners we use are not needed; vinegar and baking sodas are good substitutes.
If, like me, you can’t stand the smell of vinegar, try one of the many natural cleaners on the market. They are pleasant to use, and most are very effective.
I have used several of Aunt Fannie’s products, as well as Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day products, and have been satisfied with all of them so far. There are many options, so get rid of your toxic cleaners and replace them with natural choices – it’s an easy change.
Getting Rid of VOCs
There really are two ways to deal with the buildup of VOCs:
* Don’t use products that have them in the first place, and
* Provide lots of fresh air to get rid of them.
That’s why every new house should have a heat recovery ventilator, every stove should have a real exhaust fan that vents to the exterior (not those silly recirculating noisemakers) and every bathroom should have a high quality exhaust fan that actually gets used, (not the ten buck noisy ones that most builders put in and people hate using).
Moisture Build-up and Mold
Sometimes you see it, but sometimes you don’t: mold is often not visible to the naked eye, but it has a recognizably musty smell and it’s important to have it promptly -and professionally- removed.
Interestingly, most homeowners aren’t aware enough of the negative effects of moisture build up in various parts of the house. Moisture is simply a stepping-stone for mold or mildew to develop, even in a small sized washroom space. And while mold may look unsightly, an infiltration could be the first sign of a health risk. In any home, it’s wise to watch for the beginnings of mold, but for extra measure a high quality air test will be able to pinpoint the exact source and extent.
Found worldwide, mold is an important type of fungus. But when it grows indoors, toxic strains can proliferate and cause serious indoor air quality health effects that can make people seriously ill. Mold is often found after a water leak or flood, and can destroy construction materials and objects as well as cause health trouble.
Mold is often not visible to the naked eye, but it has a recognizably musty smell and it’s important to have it promptly -and professionally- removed.
If you suspect that your home has a mold problem, you can pick up a mold testing kit to see if you need to call a professional for mold removal. Keep in mind that a mold testing kit is for mold only, and does not test for any other volatile organic compounds or off-gas. For that, you will need a comprehensive test.
This odorless, invisible gas is produced by appliances that use fossil fuels, such as your furnace or gas stove. Carbon monoxide can build up in your home and it prevents your body from using oxygen efficiently – resulting in tiredness, dizziness and headaches. If the concentration is high enough, you can die. While plug-in and battery powered testers are available, have your heating and cooling systems checked by a professional yearly, and ensure appliances are correctly vented.
Every home should have a carbon monoxide detection device on every level of the home. If the home has an attached garage a CO detector should be installed in the room that shares a door with the garage. In the case of CO, monitoring is better than testing.
Here’s How You Can Be Proactive About Your Indoor Air
You can test your home’s indoor air quality quite easily on your own with a testing kit. If a specific problem is found, you can then assess whether you can handle the issue or need to call the appropriate professional to take care of it.
My husband and I did this testing in our home, and it was a simple process, which saved us from paying a professional for a service call to do the testing for us (using a similar testing device).
There is a good variety of indoor air testing kits available to consumers these days, so there is really no reason to feel you have to call someone if you suspect your home’s air is causing health problems.
We used the Home Air Check, and were very satisfied with it. Their testing device provides a comprehensive picture of chemical levels that you are breathing when in the home. It also indicates a level of actively growing mold present in the home. Since these chemicals are tested simultaneously, this sophisticated analysis becomes less expensive than arranging for a professional to come out charge you for their time and several separate tests.
Also, the samples are collected without the use of toxic chemicals, so there are no health risks using Home Air Check. We were happy with the level of completeness, sophistication, prediction, and value of Home Air Check.
This is how the testing process works:
You use a small sampling device to collect an air sample in your home. The sampling time takes about 2 hours. Full instructions are included in the kit (and it is very straightforward).
After the sample is collected, you return the complete kit to the Home Air Check laboratory, where they analyze the air sample using sophisticated state-of-the-art analytical instrumentation for hundreds of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) that can be found in home air. In addition, they look for 21 specific mold compounds that can be generated when mold is actively growing in a home.
A detailed report is then generated. In this report will be a Total VOC concentration level – a total of all the VOCs found in your home. The US Green Building Council recommends a TVOC level of less than 500 ng/L to be considered a healthy environment. (The median US home is about 1,200 ng/L.) A total concentration of Mold VOCs is also listed. Generally, this number should be less than 8 ng/L or you have active mold growth you need to find.
The report also includes a Contamination Index, which gives you a prediction of which sources or materials in your home may be responsible for these contaminating chemicals, such as gasoline, paint, adhesives, odorants, personal care products, etc. Home Air Check emails you the report within 5 business days of receipt of your air sample. You can then use their phone or chat line support to answer any questions you have and to help you improve your air quality.
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I hope this article provided you some practical information.
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