Indoor Air Quality – Some Serious Home Truths
Sophie casts a critical eye on her own home environment and vows to make some changes…
This is the fourth episode of ‘Sophie’s quest’ a story about places where, surprisingly, air quality may not be as good as expected and brings us on a journey in pursuit of healthy air while balancing the science with everyday life.
By Lifestyle Medical Author Dr. Anna O’ Donovan
It’s Monday morning and with kids safely dispatched, Sophie leans against her closed front door and savors the quiet of the house. She’s working from home today but before she starts, she needs to spend some time focusing on the air quality in her house. All the research over the past few days has really made her think. We spend an average of 90% of our time indoors and unbelievably, indoor air can be two and half times more toxic than outdoor air so it’s a huge issue. But the good news is that Sophie’s home environment is largely under her control.
She was proud of the changes she made when Sean was initially diagnosed with asthma but in all honesty, she could do more. Immediately on learning of his diagnosis she ditched her ancient vacuum cleaner and invested in a highly effective one, certified to be effective against allergies and asthma. It has a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter which traps dust, allergens, mold, pet dander -essentially all the small particles that would have been just recirculated into the air when using her old cleaner. Vacuuming and mopping her floors twice a week has become a habit now and she was secretly pleased with herself for doing it. But she knows it’s not enough. This morning she is going to make a check list of 4 things she can change and initiate by the end of the week.
Task 1: Clean up the cleaning products
Under Sophie’s sink, there must be 15 bottles of cleaning products and every single one smells spring-clean delicious of pine or lemon or some other synthetic fragrance to make her home smell clean. But it’s not clean she is smelling at all -it’s chemicals. Clean doesn’t smell. These chemicals are volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and can cause asthma and allergies. They have also been implicated in fertility problems and cancers. It is good practice to use only the product that’s as strong as you need it to be, ditch the super strength products and use only those that clearly list their ingredients. If fragrances aren’t clearly labeled, assume they are not what you would want in your home or your lungs.
Also on the checklist is to move paints, fuels and solvents to an outside storage area – the shed is ideal – rather than the garage which is connected to the house and doesn’t have good ventilation.
Kids at a neighboring school recently had a science project whereby they learned how to make environmentally friendly cleaning products. They recycled spray bottles and following recipes from an environmental website created floor cleaner, furniture polish, air fresheners and all-purpose cleaners. This would be a great project for her own kids’ school and considering nearly half of all schools in the U.S. suffer from some sort of indoor air quality, it would be a wonderful step forward if the school adopted the use of the greener products.
Task 2: Sort through the soft toys.
A vast collection of soft toys has invaded Sophie’s house since the kids were born. Most of Sean’s now lie unused and unloved in toy boxes and on shelves where they are a perfect home for dust mites and allergens. She is planning a ruthless culling of those ones. Tara’s plush toys are still a part of the family so Sophie will hot wash and tumble dry those that will survive it. The others she will put in the freezer for 24 hours, then rinse in cold water to remove the dead mites. These toys should be vacuumed when she is vacuuming the house too.
It’s not just that toys are potential vessels for dust mite, some can release VOCs, fire retardants, phthalates and even lead. Responsible toy manufacturers thankfully now often have certification marks on labels to help parents ensure these toxins aren’t brought into the house.
Task 3: Get a hold on the mold.
It’s time to check the vents in every room and consider investing in some dehumidifiers. In this damp climate humidity can rise above 50% and this encourages the proliferation of dust mite. Ideally, humidity should be kept between 35 and 50% to will help control mold and mildew. Dryers should be vented outdoors. In bathrooms, where mold can be particularly problematic, fans need to be used, vents checked and visible mold removed with a mild cleaner. Mold is commonly found in damp spaces such as under the sink, in the refrigerator, dishwasher and the shower and of course shower curtains. Shower curtains can also ‘off gas’ so are never a good choice when considering allergy and asthma triggers.
The kids need to be reminded to always use the fan when showering so that air is circulated and moisture reduced. The shower mats need to be washed and dried fully every week. Dirty or damp clothes should not be left in a pile but should be brought straight to the laundry room. This will also reduce pollen from outdoors being spread around the house. Ask family members to wash and wipe down the sink after use rather than leave puddles of water.
Task 4: Go shopping!
Sean’s bedding already has mite proof mattress and pillow covers and Sophie is pretty disciplined about washing his sheets in a hot wash once a week, but she has decided to invest for the rest of the family as well. Millions of dust mite live in our mattresses and pillows and she is pretty certain that the pillow Tara is sleeping on was her first ever pillow. Pillows should be replaced every 5 years so it’s wise buy a high quality one that will withstand frequent washing. Dust mite resistant mattress and pillow encasements will prevent mites getting into the mattresses and pillows and will stop any already present from crawling into your sleeping space. Products that have withstood rigorous testing and are certified as such are always a good investment.
Large Floor mats should be inside and outside every entrance so that the family can wipe off outdoor matter instead of traipsing it indoors. This is such a simple principle and reduces floor cleaning so is a no-brainer. Added to this, ask family to remove outdoor shoes at the entrance.
These are all easy changes and require little more than some diligence and a little work. It’s always a good idea to engage the kids in these tasks (anything to reduce the workload!) and to explain the reasons behind them. If the entire family is on board, Sophie’s goal to control her home environment thereby reducing the allergy and asthma triggers that can be dangerous to her kids will be a whole lot easier.
About Dr. Anna O’Donovan – Medical & Lifestyle Author
Anna is a mum of three children, one with allergies, and she suffers from allergies and asthma herself. She is a qualified doctor and worked as a General Practitioner and as a dentist for a number of years. She is also an award winning author.
Indoor air quality, VOCs, Allergy and asthma triggers, dust mite, HEPA vacuum cleaner, cleaning products, soft toys, air quality, home, allergy insights
“Indoor air quality affects health”: Click here
“Indoor Air Quality, Public Health”: Click here
“The Inside Story: A Guide to Indoor Air Quality, EPA”: Click here