Air Quality Alert: How Safe Is Your Indoor Air?
For those of us who live and work in New York City, air quality is an issue we can’t afford to ignore. After all, it’s easy to see that brown haze that hangs over the city, especially on hot and humid summer days. And it’s not a surprise considering the concentration of motor vehicles, diesel generators, construction, kitchen exhaust and industrial byproducts in and around the city. You can’t help but wonder what that’s doing to your lungs. Especially if you’re one of the millions who suffer from asthma or other breathing difficulties.
As individuals, we can take steps to improve air quality outdoors, but we may not see an immediate payoff. But here’s a surprising fact that you may not know: indoor air quality can be just as bad for your health, and may be even worse, than outdoor air. According to the EPA, indoor air quality can be as much as 2 to 5 times worse than the air outside. And according to GreenGuard, an organization that promotes environmental health and safety, there is a great deal you can do to immediately improve air quality in your home and work space.
Pollution and improving air quality
A little over 50 years ago, the Clean Air Act was established, which set standards for measuring common air pollutants, including ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and lead. The Air Quality Index (AQI) is a local measurement of the concentration of these pollutants in the air, and large cities like New York are required to measure and report the AQI daily.
Here are just a few of the ways those pollutants make their way into the air in your living and working space:
- VOCs from carpeting, furniture, drapes and upholstery
- Paint and varnishes
- Insecticides and cleaning products
- VOCs from electronics
- Household products like hair spray, air fresheners
- Pet dander
- Dust mites
- Mold from water leaks
- Kitchen emissions from improperly vented stoves
- Emissions and pollutants from outside come in through your outdoor air conditioner unit and ventilation
As you can see, there’s a lot of nasty stuff in the air that you don’t even realize you’re breathing in all day long. The problem can be compounded by your HVAC system, which circulates the pollutants throughout the space. It’s easy to see why you need to improve air quality.
Why improve air quality? Because it affects your health
Think air quality just affects your breathing? While most people know that pollution causes asthma, lung cancer, and respiratory symptoms like coughing and sneezing, it also causes a host of other symptoms:
- itchy, watery eyes
- headaches and dizziness
- nausea and vomiting
- throat irritation
- ear infections and hearing loss
- skin rashes
- chest pain
- muscle pain
- fever and chills
10 Tips to Improve Air Quality Indoors
1. Install the right HVAC filters.
Many people make the mistake of thinking that standard air conditioner and furnace filters will remove contaminants and improve air quality. The fact is, these filters do nothing to remove VOCs, pathogens and microorganisms that can adversely affect your health. These standard paper filters are really designed to protect your HVAC equipment from dust and debris rather than improve air quality and protect your lungs. Instead, install HEPA filters that are actually designed to improve air quality.
Made from layers of glass fibers formed into pleated paper-like material, HEPA filters improve air quality by trapping more than 99 percent of pollen, dust and smoke. HVAC HEPA filters are rated according to the minimum efficiency reporting value (MERV) system, which is based on how well the filter blocks particles of different sizes. MERV filter ratings range from MERV 1 to MERV 12, with a higher rating being better for removing tiny particles like many species of pollen. Be sure to change these filters at least every 3 months.
Related article: Alleviate Spring Allergies: Air Filters and MERV Filter Ratings.
2. Don’t forget about other filters.
Besides your HVAC filters, be sure to change filters in vacuum cleaners, air purifiers, as well as clothing dryers. Also regularly clean your kitchen vent hood screens and HVAC registers and vents to improve air quality.
3. Use cooking vents.
In your home or commercial kitchen, never turn on the stove without using the exhaust fan. And regularly check the screen to make sure it’s not clogged with grease and debris.
4. Think twice before opening the windows.
We tend to think opening the window is a good thing, to bring in “fresh air.” Yet the outside air, especially in New York City, is loaded with smog and engine exhaust fumes, not to mention construction and manufacturing pollution. Until we can improve air quality outdoors, you’re better off breathing filtered air indoors.
5. Get fireplace flues inspected.
Leaky flues are a potential source of carbon monoxide, and need to be regularly inspected by a professional to keep the occupants of your home or commercial establishment safe from this deadly poisonous gas.
6. Install and use bathroom vents.
Here’s a great tip: wire the bathroom exhaust to the light switch, so it always turns on when the bathroom is occupied.
7. Don’t mask odors.
Did you know that air fresheners release dangerous VOCs? If you have odor problems, get to the source to eliminate them and improve air quality, rather than trying to mask odors.
TIP: Your HVAC system could be the culprit!
Related article: Your HVAC System Could Be The Cause of Your Smelly Building.
8. Have your ducts cleaned.
Much of the debris that’s circulating through the air in your space can wind up accumulating in the ducts. Cleaning clogged ducts can not only improve air quality, but also improve the operation of your air conditioner, preventing breakdowns.
9. Go for greener cleaners.
You don’t need harsh chemicals to clean. Hot water and a little dish soap can do wonders as well as improve air quality by avoiding VOCs.
10. Have your HVAC system regularly maintained.
Think about it: all the air that you breathe indoors is circulated by your HVAC system. To improve air quality, it’s essential that your HVAC equipment be regularly inspected and tuned up so that it’s working properly.
Some HVAC maintenance tasks to improve air quality include adjusting and cleaning fans, checking for refrigerant leaks, and cleaning indoor and outdoor coils to remove buildup of grime and mineral scales. If these tasks are neglected, you could have water leaks that cause mold growth, leaks of deadly refrigerant, or a system that’s circulating contaminants instead of clean air.
Related article: HVAC System Maintenance, Humidity and Your Poor Indoor Air Quality.
You may have heard some talk about your air conditioner’s coils and the need to clean them. But since it’s out of sight, you may be tempted to put it out of your mind. Don’t make that mistake! Cleaning air conditioner coils can improve air quality dramatically by improving the operation of your system. Want to learn more? Grab a copy of our free guide: A Guide to Air Conditioner Coil Cleaning: Why, How, and How Often.