Clean Up Indoor Air
From dirt and dust to mold and mites, find out how to reduce these in your home and improve your indoor air quality
As a mental health professional, Angela Riddle has a deep-seated curiosity about how people interact with their environment. As a mother, she grew interested in how the environment affects her family when her daughter, Katie, age 7, began displaying allergy symptoms. And atop Riddle’s list of environmental priorities is indoor air quality.
“Did you ever take a look at what ends up on your dust cloth?” asks Riddle, who lives in Monticello with Katie and husband Jason. “You probably don’t want to know, but you should. You’re not just picking up dust. There’s dander, hair, and all kinds of things that end up in your lungs.”
In fact, hard and soft surfaces—along with mattresses and other bedding—throughout the average household are teeming with unseen microbes, bacteria, dust particles, and other contaminants that can aggravate or even create symptoms and illnesses in both adults and children. Eliminating, or at least reducing, their presence makes all the difference between a healthy indoor environment and one that can harbor more pollutants than the great outdoors.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been studying indoor air quality since the late 1970s. Its findings indicate that indoor air pollution levels can be as much as 2 to 5 percent—sometimes even 100 percent—higher than those found outdoors. Poor indoor air quality has been associated with a litany of maladies from asthma to headaches and chronic fatigue. And because most people spend 90 percent of their time indoors, improving indoor air quality is a very big deal.
According to Jeff Bishop, technical advisor for the Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration Certification, a nonprofit organization that certifies specialized cleaning and disaster restoration professionals, fumes from cooking gas, space heaters, and poorly vented fireplaces all diminish indoor air quality, along with other unavoidable culprits such as dust particles, dust mites, and pet dander.
“The average human being loses 300 hairs and 300,000 skin cells per day besides what pets track in,” says Bishop. “Dust mites feed on all those cells and contribute to a decline in indoor air quality.”
Keeping particle pollutants at bay begins with filtering the indoor air people breathe, says Bishop. Furnace filters are a good start, he says, but even the best of them don’t catch all potential air pollutants and require regular replacement—a chore that homeowners often put off. But there are other ways to give indoor air a filtered boost.
Free-standing air filtration systems are not new to the consumer marketplace, but they’re garnering lots of attention now that indoor air quality awareness is on the rise. These units use fans and filters to remove dust, dander, and other airborne pollutants from the air. But they have their limitations.
“The free-standing air cleaning systems aren’t adequate because they only filter the air in the room in which they are located,” Bishop says. “It takes a furnace-mounted system to get air filtered through the entire house.”
That’s because furnace-mounted air cleaners are positioned inside a home’s heating and cooling system and can snatch particles directly out of the airstream before they exit the system.
Dust, dirt, and other particles aren’t the only things capable of making good indoor air go bad. Mold—both the common bathroom variety and the more insidious kind that lurks in basements and crawlspaces—can have devastating effects on indoor air quality.
Josh Smith, certified indoor environmentalist, is the source of last resort for many of his clients when they’re having a tough time catching their breath. As president of Healthy Indoor Air Services LLC in London, he’s a detective of sorts who ferrets out what is in clients’ homes and workplaces that could be choking them up. His clients include home and business owners along with health care facility operators.
“I recently worked with one woman who had terrible allergies and sensitivity issues when she was at home,” says Smith. “She was just fine as long as she was out of the house.”
Upon investigation, Smith discovered massive mold growth in the crawlspace of the home.
“Crawlspaces are where the majority of mold problems exist. People don’t realize that 30 to 50 percent of the air people breathe on the first floor of their homes comes from the crawlspace,” says Smith, who is certified by the Indoor Air Quality Association, a Rockville, Maryland, organization that promotes uniform standards and protocols for the indoor air quality industry.
“Mold in a crawlspace or elsewhere can cause severe health problems and make people suffer from many types of illnesses. Many times they don’t even know there is a water and mold problem.”
Eliminating mold requires complete removal, not just surface removal, and many times it is safer to have it done by a mold remediation professional. Smith recommends that homeowners inspect their crawlspaces and basement areas to look for signs of moisture problems and mold growth. If you think there is a problem, bring in a certified indoor environmentalist to consult with you and do a thorough inspection.
Homeowners and building owners need to do everything they can to keep moisture levels down to ensure a safer breathing environment. “The worst thing you can have is a basement or crawlspace with a moisture problem,” he says. “The air in those spaces must be exchanged to keep the area dry. Make every attempt to keep all moisture out of basements and keep the humidity below 60%. Mold can’t survive without moisture,” Smith says. “There are some very sophisticated mitigation systems on the market now that can exchange air without sacrificing heating and cooling efficiency.”
But even as technology develops better ways to make indoor air cleaner, Riddle believes there’s still no substitute for awareness and good, low-tech housecleaning to reduce indoor air pollution.
“I never ‘dry’ dust, that just moves the stuff around,” she says. “I use soap and water, and I never sweep the floor with a traditional broom. I use a Swiffer dry sweeper first, then I vacuum. I even replace our bed pillows every six months to a year because dust mites live in bedding.”
Managing the presence of indoor contaminants makes all the difference in keeping her and Katie’s allergy symptoms to a minimum. Jeff Bishop agrees because, like their outdoor counterparts, indoor air polluters aren’t likely to go away.
“Particles and mold have always been with us and always will be,” Bishop says. “Awareness of indoor air quality and taking steps to improve it is an investment people make in themselves and their families.”
DOWN TO THE NAP
Though designed to do away with dirt, dust, and dander, vacuum cleaners can actually contribute to household pollutants when they are used inefficiently. That’s because, says Josh Smith, dust and dirt particles escape the appliance every time its switch is flipped.
Though so-called Hepa filters contained in most bagless vacuum cleaners help trap particles drawn up from carpets, floors, and furniture, Smith says he still favors bag-containing vacuum cleaners over the currently popular bagless kind. But doing away with conventional vacuum cleaners altogether is his best advice.
“Vacuum cleaners are bad and the bagless ones—because many people empty them while inside the house—are the worst when it comes to putting pollutants back into the air,” says Smith. “Whole-house or central vacuum systems are the best option.”
If a central system is out of budget range, it’s a good idea to switch furnace controls to the “fan only” setting when dusting furniture, sweeping floors, and vacuuming surfaces, so that the dust you stirred up is cycled back to the furnace filter to prevent it from settling back onto household surfaces.
“Even better,” says Smith, “is to get a vacuum cleaner with a long hose and keep the main unit outside when the vacuum is in use.”
In fact, according to the American Lung Association, the appliance’s overall ability to capture particles and keep them inside the vacuum—including the filter, body seams, and suction point—should be deciding factors when shopping for a vacuum cleaner.
But Jeff Bishop, technical advisor for the Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration Certification, says even the best vacuum systems are only as good as their operators. According to Bishop, most people don’t vacuum carpets, hard-surface floors, and upholstery nearly long enough to eliminate dust mites, dirt, and dander that accumulate.
“Some new model vacuum cleaners have a tiny onboard microphone that can ‘hear’ particles entering the appliance,” Bishop says. “A green light on the handle lets you know when all the particles have been picked up and you can move on. The first time I used one, it took me 55 minutes to vacuum my threshold. After emptying the carpet of soil buildup, it subsequently took the usual 20 minutes to vacuum the whole house.”
Nearly an hour covering the same territory may be more than most homeowners can handle, but Bishop doesn’t want his point to be lost. He advises covering the same patch of carpet, flooring, or upholstery several times to remove as much debris as possible.
Then, he says, vacuum surfaces at least once a week—more frequently if pets share the household with humans.
MORE INDOOR AIR QUALITY HELP
Indoor air quality is a hot topic and there’s plenty of Web-based help for those interested in learning how to identify and eliminate sources of indoor air pollution at work and at home.
American Lung Association
www.lungusa.org Type “indoor air quality” in the search box. Search and read the “Dust Mite Quiz” results for some eye-opening facts.
www.energystar.gov Search for “indoor air package” and click on “Brochures Promoting Energy Star Qualified Homes,” or use FAQs near the top and search “air quality.”
Healthy Indoor Air Services
www.kentuckycrawlspace.com For more on the crawlspace encapsulation system featured in this story.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration
www.osha.gov Information on monitoring workplace air spaces. Click on “I” in the site index for indoor air quality info.
U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health
www.NLM.NIH.gov Type “indoor air quality” in the search box.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: DEEP CLEANING
For some often overlooked housecleaning techniques and ways to improve indoor air quality, click on: