The Invisible Toxins in Your Living
The air inside your home can be 5 times more polluted
than the air outside—and even more dangerous for your health.
Breathe easier with these simple yet important tips.
By Winnie Yu, Prevention
You pride yourself on keeping your home clean and safe. But the
biggest threat to your well-being isn't visible to the naked eye.
Pollution in your home is often 2 to 5 times higher than it is outdoors,
according to the EPA. "The air in your house contains pollen,
mold, and ozone that leach in from the outdoors, as well as pet
dander and pollutants from household cleaning products," says
Ted Myatt, ScD, a senior scientist at the consulting firm Environmental
Health and Engineering, Inc.
Come winter, weatherproofing combined with heated, dry air can boost
indoor pollution levels even higher by sealing in airborne toxins
and lowering levels of humidity. The combination of the two can
pose an even greater risk. "Exposure to indoor pollution is
associated with allergies, severe asthma, hospitalizations for cardiovascular
and respiratory disease, and even heart attacks," Dr. Myatt
Considering we spend about 60% of our lives in our homes, it's time
to clear the air. Make these moves today and breathe easier.
[Find six ways to freshen the air at prevention.com/indoorair.]
Crack a Window
Opening up windows when it's freezing outside sounds, well, cold
(and costly). But sealing a house too tightly doesn't allow the
entry of new oxygen or the escape of carbon dioxide that you exhale.
As a result, your body doesn't get the amount of oxygen it needs,
and you end up feeling tired and lethargic, explains Matthew Waletzke,
a certified building biology consultant in Long Island, NY. He adds,
"Oxygen levels can be especially low in a sealed bedroom after
a night's sleep."
Clear the air: Open your bedroom windows
for 5 to 10 minutes after you wake up in the morning and again before
you climb into bed at night; this is enough time to let carbon dioxide
out and oxygen in without chilling the rest of your house.
Clean Up What You Bring Down
Dragging winter blankets out of the attic and lugging decorations
up from the basement stirs up dust, triggering allergy symptoms
such as itchy eyes, wheezing, and congestion, says James Sublett,
MD, chief of allergy at the University of Louisville School of Medicine.
Clear the air: Take boxes outdoors to wipe off the dust, then wipe
them down (along with what's inside) before you bring them back
in and plop them in the front hall. Wash any blankets or linens
in hot water before you use them (same goes for winter clothes that
can go in the washing machine). You can also put on an N95 dust
respiratory mask (available at drugstores) before you head to the
attic or basement, Dr. Sublett says. It'll shield you from 95% of
airborne particles that set off sneezing fits, but you'll probably
still want to dust off boxes if you plan on taking off the mask.
[Is your laundry making you sick?]
Use Common (Candle) Sense
Scented candles, especially the industrial strength (and size) that
many people light around the holidays, give off more than fragrance—studies
show they produce tiny bits of pollution known as particulates that
can inflame the respiratory tract and aggravate asthma, Dr. Sublett
says. This is especially true if some of the dust you kicked up
unearthing Grandma's decorations is still floating around. "Allergens
like dust can hitch a ride on particulates, enter deep into your
lungs, and make breathing more difficult," he explains.
Clear the air: Stop burning candles, especially the ones inside
large jars, which tend to send even more particulates into the air,
says Jeffrey May, principal scientist at May Indoor Air Investigations
in Tyngsborough, MA, and author of My House Is Killing Me! If the
holidays aren't the same for you without that soft, candlelit glow,
choose unscented tapered candles, and place them far from vents
and other air sources.
[What you don't know about your electronics might be killing you.]
Turn Off Ventilation Fans
Exhaust fans work by sending the stale indoor air outside and replacing
it with fresh air. However, running powerful fans such as commercial-size
kitchen fans, large exhaust fans, or bathroom fans all at once (especially
for an extended period of time) can redirect exhaust gases that
may include deadly carbon monoxide fumes produced by gas or oil
heaters back into the house instead of up and out the flue, explains
Max Sherman, PhD, a senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National
Clear the air: Turn exhaust fans off as soon as they've done their
job, or consider replacing a manual switch with a timer to limit
unnecessary use. Install carbon monoxide detectors as well; they're
just as important as fire detectors.
[How safe is your kitchen? Are non-stick pans safe to cook in?]
Replace Filthy Filters
The upside to winter's drier air is that it makes it difficult for
mold to grow. But existing mold from damp basements and lingering
spores in air-conditioning systems can become airborne (and stay
there) if all the windows are closed, May says. Mold can irritate
your eyes, cause congestion, and worsen existing respiratory problems.
Clear the air: Change your heating system filters every 3 months,
Dr. Sublett says. Filters act like armed guards, holding hostage
pollutants that feed mold—such as human skin cells, pollen,
and pet dander—so they can't escape into your indoor air.
May recommends a filter with a minimum efficiency reporting value
(MERV) rating of at least 8. Check the packaging. And have a professional
service your heating system annually. Summer may be the best time—that
way you can fix problems before you need the heat.