A certified asthma & allergy friendly® product in general terms means that the product – whether it may be consumer electronics, bedding or building materials – has been tested against a strict set of standards to ensure its effect on the indoor environment is such that it is a better choice for those impacted by asthma and allergies.
You may say “I don’t have asthma or allergies, so these Certified products are not for me..” but hopefully this article will change that opinion and demonstrate that certified asthma & allergy friendly® means healthier indoor air for everyone.
In this article we will highlight and discuss:
- What is healthy indoor air and indoor air quality?
- The immediate effects of poor indoor air
- The long-term effects of poor indoor air
- Sources of indoor air pollution
- What is the asthma & allergy friendly® Certification Program?
- How Certified products improve indoor air quality for everyone
The National Institutes of Health guidelines state people with asthma should assess their home environment and improve indoor air quality, so it makes sense for those affected to choose asthma & allergy friendly® certified products for their indoor spaces. But surely this advice should be for those of us without asthma, or indeed any form of lung disease, also.
If the global pandemic has taught us anything at all, it has taught us that good air quality, especially good indoor air quality is paramount to all of us. Indeed, a recent report in The Lancet predicted that climate change events like wildfires, rising pollen, ill-health due to rising humidity and the presence of harmful particulate matter in our air, will lead to a death toll that will outstrip that of the coronavirus. So it is time for all of us, not just those impacted by asthma, to assess our environment and improve our indoor air quality.
Using certified asthma & allergy friendly® products in your home is an easy, reliable way of taking control of your indoor air and helping prevent against potential health effects.
What is healthy indoor air and indoor air quality?
According to the EPA, Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) refers to ‘the air quality within and around buildings and structures, especially as it relates to the health and comfort of building occupants’.
Poor indoor air quality can cause or contribute to the development of a wide range of infections, lung cancer and chronic lung diseases including asthma and allergies. People who already have lung disease are more vulnerable to these diseases but poor indoor air quality can cause health issues for those with absolutely no underlying conditions too.
Health effects from indoor air pollutants may be experienced soon after exposure or it may be years later.
Immediate effects of poor indoor air
Immediate health effects that may be experienced from inhaling poor indoor air include irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, headaches, dizziness, and lethargy. Sometimes the treatment is simply eliminating the person’s exposure to the source of the pollution, if it can be identified. Soon after exposure to some indoor air pollutants, symptoms of some diseases such as asthma may show up, be aggravated or worsened.
The likelihood of immediate reactions to indoor air pollutants depends on several factors including age and the existence of any underlying medical conditions. In some cases, whether a person reacts to a pollutant depends on individual sensitivity. Some people can become sensitized to biological or chemical pollutants after repeated or high level exposures. And anyone can develop asthma or allergies at any stage of their life, even after many years of being exposed to the allergen with no problems whatsoever.
Sometimes the best response to these immediate health effects is simply to remove the pollutant to improve the indoor air. The identification of the cause often requires some detective work and keeping a diary of symptoms can be helpful.
Long-term effects of poor indoor air
Other health effects may not be evident until years after exposure has occurred or they may be as a result of long or repeated periods of exposure. These effects can be severely debilitating or fatal and include some respiratory diseases, heart disease and cancer.
Asthma is one of the many well-known long term health effects that may develop after years of exposure to poor quality indoor air but there are many others. Hypersensitivity pneumonitis is an allergic reaction to dust or chemicals that causes inflammation of the alveoli and bronchioles. In this condition, chronic inflammation as a result of the immune system reacting to the allergic reaction leads to very serious illness. Avoiding exposure to dust or chemicals is critical to prevention and treatment.
Chronic Pulmonary Obstructive Disease (emphysema and chronic bronchitis) happens when the lungs become inflamed, damaged and narrowed. The main cause is smoking but the condition can be caused by long-term exposure to poor quality air.
Because these long-term effects don’t show up until years later it is impossible to know at the time that the pollutant is causing damage. This is why it is so important to try to improve the indoor air quality in your home even if symptoms are not noticeable. Prevention is key.
So now that we know that healthy indoor air is better for all of us, how do we achieve it?
First, consider the sources of the air pollution.
Then choose the best product available to minimise and control that source.
Sources of Indoor Air Pollution
Indoor pollution sources that release gases, particles and biologicals into the air are the main cause of indoor air quality problems in homes. Inadequate ventilation and high temperature or humidity can increase indoor pollutant levels.
Some sources, such as building materials, furnishings and household products like air fresheners, release pollutants in a continuous fashion. Other sources, such as smoking, cleaning and cooking, release pollutants intermittently. High concentrations of these pollutants can remain in the air for long periods of time after some of these activities.
It is recommended that sources of pollution are removed where possible e.g. removing candles/air fresheners from the home and storing paint and other chemicals outside of the main living areas such as in a garage or shed.
Key sources of indoor air pollution include:
- Dust and particles: Dust acts as a sink or reservoir for numerous toxins, allergens and irritants that pose serious threats to our health, including chemicals, dust mite, fibres, particulate matter, bacteria and viruses. Known compounds in dust account for only a small fraction of the toxicity found in tests of household dust. So scientists reason that a substantial number of unknown contaminants in dust exist that could pose health risks.
- Polluted air from outside: This enters through vents, open doors or windows and inadequate seals. It can contain outdoor air pollutants such as such as particulate matter, pollen, pet dander and lead. Particulate matter, or PM, refers to small solid or liquid particles floating in the air, made up of different substances like carbon, sulphur, nitrogen and metal compounds. Fine particles (PM2.5) and ultrafine particles (PM0.1) are particularly harmful to health as they can penetrate deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream.
- Pests and domestic animals: Primarily dust mites, cockroaches, mice, rats, cats and dogs.
- Cleaning Products: Contain volatile organic compounds (VOCS), fragrances, irritants and flammable ingredients. Household cleaning product ingredients are many and varied and largely unregulated in the United States. Manufacturers are not obliged to list all the ingredients on the packaging; anything that constitutes less than 2% of the product can be omitted.
- Insulation and building materials: May contain VOCs including formaldehyde, flame retardants or isocyanates. Insulation can release dust and fibres and become moldy over time. Aging insulation is a potential source of pests.
- Bedding, plush toys, soft furnishings: All may provide a perfect home for dust mite.
- Paint, paint strippers: May contain potentially harmful VOCs.
- Air fresheners, candles: May produce potentially harmful VOCs.
Now we are aware of the sources of indoor air pollution, we need to minimise them by using the best product available. We believe the best products available are CERTIFIED asthma & allergy friendly® products.
What is the asthma and allergy friendly® Certification Program?
Developed by Allergy Standards Limited (ASL), the asthma & allergy friendly® Certification Program was created to scientifically test and identify consumer products that are more suitable for people with asthma and allergies.
Over $50 billion a year is spent across the world on products claiming to reduce asthma and allergy symptoms. However, there are many manufacturers who claim their products are asthma and/or allergy friendly or are better for your health than another product but rarely do they provide sufficient scientific proof to back up these statements.
Terms such as ‘hypoallergenic’, ‘natural’ or ‘pure’ should not be taken to mean free of allergen or harmful chemicals. In fact, terms such as hypoallergenic, natural and fragrance free can be used as marketing tools and require no testing or proof of effectiveness at all. There is no Federal standard by the FDA or the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) that governs these terms and they can be used on virtually any product. This was made particularly clear when Palmolive ‘Pure and Clear’ soap used the term hypoallergenic, despite the fact that the soap contained a chemical so harsh that it was named by the American Contact Dermatitis Society as the allergen of the year in 2013.
Similarly, in the context of allergen avoidance, the terms ‘eco’ and ‘organic’ should be approached with caution. These terms indicate that the product is good for the earth, not necessarily for the human and have generally not undergone testing from the perspective of general health or asthma and allergy triggers. A cleaning product that is fragranced with “natural” oils for example may imply that it is a better choice for the consumer that has concerns about health. However, a chemical called limonene (naturally found in the oil of citrus fruit peels) is widely used as a fragrance ingredient in cleaning and personal care products. Significant rates of allergic contact dermatitis to this fragrance have been reported.
Third party certification, such as asthma & allergy friendly® certification, is an independent, objective review of a product’s safety and of its performance and therefore results in safer more reliable products. Furthermore, it has no financial interest in the sale of the product and it distinguishes those manufacturers making compliant products from those who do not. Because the testers have the expertise, experience and the testing materials, the certification process can be cost effective and efficient. Manufacturers can sometimes favour the product design over its performance, not have thoroughly tested the product, or may present only partial performance results. Third party certification steps in here and provides this necessary independent assessment.
So, when consumers see the distinctive asthma & allergy friendly® Certification mark on a product, they know that it has been independently tested in accredited laboratories.
What makes asthma and allergy friendly® products the best available products?
Certification by the asthma and allergy friendly® Certification Program means that very strict scientific tests are carried out on the product. Many of these tests are unique to the asthma & allergy friendly® certification and manufacturers voluntarily submit their products for our independent tests to validate the claims they wish to make.
Air Cleaners, vacuum cleaners, HVAC/furnace filters and cleaning products are just a few of the wide range of household products and building materials that are CERTIFIED asthma & allergy friendly®.
Choosing an effective air cleaner means considering the following factors:
- It is important that the air cleaner can remove allergens from the air, and that these are captured in the filter of the air cleaner, not just redistributed around the room.
- Different allergens act differently in the air because they have different sizes and features, so the air cleaner must be capable of removing particles of different sizes.
- Emission of ozone from the air cleaner must be within the Code of Federal Regulations Guidelines.
During the asthma & allergy friendly® certification testing, an air cleaner is challenged with indoor allergen levels that are representative of those found in both air and surface sampling of typical homes. In other words, the environment it is tested in is similar to that in your home or my home. In fact the chamber used for testing resembles a standard living room, complete with table, chair and carpet. Linoleum is also used so that different floor coverings are included in the simulation.
Our Certification criteria require that an air cleaner demonstrates a reduction in airborne allergen of 75% or greater. This is done by collecting and filtering the air in the room after running the air cleaner for an hour. For thoroughness, the walls and surfaces of the room are sampled too.
The filter of the air cleaner is tested to make sure that at least half of the allergen removed from the air is captured in the filter. This way, it is certain that the air cleaner effectively removes the allergen from the air and does not just simply redistribute it onto surfaces around the room. This is something that other standards don’t address, meaning that allergen removed from the air may actually be lying on surfaces and not safely captured by the filter.
This whole process is done not one, not two, but three times to ensure accuracy and it is also measured against a control room where no air cleaner was used.
Some air cleaners release harmful levels of ozone. Ozone can cause irritation and inflammation of the airways in healthy people, and it can cause more serious effects in people with asthma. The Code of Federal Regulations sets a limit on ozone emissions from indoor air cleaning devices (limit of 0.1 mg/m3). Only air cleaners that have met this standard can be certified asthma & allergy friendly ®.
It’s a pretty standard requirement for a vacuum cleaner certified by most well-known third party certification programs that the vacuum cleaner reduces allergens from a carpet but some certifications go further, and in particular asthma & allergy friendly® surpasses this basic requirement in a number of ways.
Firstly, asthma & allergy friendly® considers airborne particle levels during vacuuming. Vacuuming, as a result of room disturbance, may contribute to an increase in airborne allergen, exposing the operator. Our certification has strict limits in place for airborne particles and airborne allergens during vacuum cleaner operation. This is something that many other certifications don’t take into account.
Secondly, leakage of particles from the vacuum cleaner is assessed by testing seals, filtration and other components. The retention of vacuumed material in the vacuum cleaner is integral to certification and only those cleaners that meet strict levels will be certified.
The performance of the vacuum cleaner as the dust reservoir fills up or the filter begins to clog with dust particles may become impaired. As part of the assessment, the suction loss is measured.
Emptying of the vacuum cleaner bag may contribute to an increased exposure to airborne allergen and particles, especially when the emptying happens in an enclosed space. Our standard includes an assessment of both airborne particles and airborne allergens. This test is specific to asthma & allergy friendly® certification.
Some areas of the floor may be more difficult for a vacuum cleaner to access and this may lead to accumulation of allergens and fine dust, so the capability of the vacuum cleaner to remove allergen-containing dust from crevices and hard to reach corners is measured and it must remove more than 90% .
HVAC systems work by forcing air through ducts so it is possible that these systems can be a source of particle spread if they don’t have an effective filtration system.
Once again, asthma & allergy friendly® certification likes to take testing further than standard certifications. Of course we test the filter’s allergen removal capability and we always test using test dust containing allergens that are commonly found in people’s homes, like dust mite allergens, cat allergens, and pollen allergens. The test dust also contains dust particles, as fine particles in the air can also have an impact on people with sensitive airways. This is really important because different types of allergens can vary in size – for example pollen allergens can be up to 100 micrometers in diameter, whereas cat allergens can be as small as 1 micrometer. Allergen particles can also vary in how they behave in the air and how sticky they are, and this impacts on how effectively a filter can remove them.
For removal of allergens and particles from the air, we require the following percentages of particles to be removed: Greater than 95% of pollen must be removed, greater than 92.5% of house dust mite allergen must be removed and greater than 85% of cat allergen must be removed. Finally, greater than 50% of particles (particles of 0.3 – 1 micrometer diameter) must be removed.
And then we move beyond most other certifications by testing the filter performance when it becomes loaded with particles, because this is a normal occurrence in a typical home. As the filter becomes loaded with particles and allergens, the air flow may decrease and this can adversely impact on the filter performance and increase energy consumption. Testing is conducted on a used/loaded filter to assess the performance of a loaded filter to make sure it can still perform well. Air flow must not decrease by more than 20% when the filter is loaded (compared to air flow for a clean filter).
Our final test is to check that the seals at the edges of the filter are strong enough that air and particles don’t go around the edges, but instead are forced through the filter where the particles can be captured. Air by-passing around the seals of the filter must remain less than 10% in 30 seconds. This is a test not carried out by standard certifications.
Effective home hygiene includes the regular removal of allergens, toxins, organic material and irritants from fabrics and hard surfaces. However, sometimes the cleaning products used for this purpose can have harmful chemicals that can impact our health. In particular, cleaning products are known to contain many chemicals that can irritate, skin, eyes and airways. One study found that regular use of cleaning sprays has an impact on lung health that could be as bad as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.
We conduct a detailed assessment on all the constituents in the cleaning product, and the concentrations they are present at, to ensure there are no added fragrances that are allergenic or sensitizing, and that their concentration is low enough to warrant no concern for sensitive individuals.
The second element of testing involves measuring the emission of VOCs into the air when the cleaning product is applied to a test surface.
Testing is carried out in an environmental chamber. The cleaning product is applied to a sample surface in the chamber, where the VOCs released over 24 hours. The VOCs released are measured to make sure that the levels remain low throughout this time period.
The third part of testing looks at the product’s functional performance in terms of allergen removal. This test is also carried out in an environmental chamber, where an allergen containing test dust is applied to a surface and the cleaning product is applied as per manufacturer’s instructions to clean the dust. Dry dusting and cleaning with water are used as controls. Allergen reduction from the surface must be greater than 85% when using the cleaning product (compared to either of the control cleaning processes).
It is also important to confirm that the allergen is not just redistributed or blown into the air so the levels of particles in the air during the test are measured. Air samples are also collected to measure the amount of allergen present in the air and these must adhere to strict levels.
Air Cleaners, vacuum cleaners, HVAC/furnace filters and cleaning products are just a few of the wide range of household products and building materials that are CERTIFIED asthma & allergy friendly®.
Other items include insulation, paints, bedding, flooring, air filters, washing machines and humidifiers. All of these undergo similarly stringent tests as the items I have detailed, earning them the asthma & allergy friendly® certification.
Indoor air pollution is one of the top five environmental risks to public health, according to the US Environment Protection Agency. Healthier indoor air for everyone is a necessity if we want to prevent against disease and we believe CERTIFIED asthma & allergy friendly® products are the best choices available to help control and improve indoor air quality.