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How To Improve Your Home's Air Quality

December 25, 1987

Each day the average person breathes about 20 thousand quarts of air (compared to a daily intake of 2-3 quarts of food and water). Dirty air can contain as many as 200 million foreign particles per quart of air. In general, one can do three things to improve the cleanliness of indoor air: reduce the sources of air contaminants, bring fresh air indoors, and filter pollutants from the air. The following tips may help improve your indoor air quality.

Ordinary house dust can contain a variety of respiratory irritants and allergens. Remove dust sources such as deteriorating carpets, curtains, lamp shades, pillows, wall hangings, old paper and stuffed animal toys. Sweep, vacuum and mop frequently. Don't neglect corners, curtains wall, furniture, books and under beds and couches.

Indoor pets--including birds, cats, dogs and rodents--can be sources of contaminants including fur, dander, dried urine and feces, food debris, and molds that grow on feathers, fur and excretions. Bedding and litter boxes can also be large sources of air contaminants. Make comfortable outdoor homes for pets.

Spray products--paints, insecticides, "air fresheners," cleaning agents, hair spray, deodorants and waxes--directly inject chemicals into the air. Their persistence in the air can be long. Minimize the use of such sprays.

Combustion (burning) can be a major source of irritants. Carcinogenic air pollutants include cigarettes, pipes, cigars, fireplaces, wood and kerosene stoves, incense, over-cooking food and unvented ovens and stoves.

Spores from fungi (molds) and micro-organisms such as bacteria and viruses can often be found in concentrations indoors that are 100 times the outdoor levels. It is important to frequently clean the filters in forced-air ventilation systems. Eliminate standing water and dampness. Fix water leaks, remove damp objects, and clean humidifiers and air ducts frequently.

Indoor plants or their soil can harbor micro-organisms that pollute the air with allergenic spores. Some plant pollens can affect sensitive individuals. Most plants thrive better outdoors than in the house.

Many hobby-related activities contaminate the air. Examples are soldering, sanding, glueing, staining, stripping paint, painting, working with plastics and woodburning. Such activities should be moved to the patio or garage.

Insects shed excretions, scales, hair and other contaminants into the air. Dead bugs (especially tiny dust mites) decompose and produce highly allergenic airborne particles. Dust control--including shaking blankets and frequent hot water washing of bedding--can help in sleeping rooms. Garbage, food crumbs, old fruit, dampness, pets and house dust encourage insect populations in the home. Eliminate the insect's food, water and shelter and you eliminate them.

Formaldehyde is used as a preservative in cosmetics and toiletries. Products such as particle board and plastic foam insulation materials are sources of formaldehyde in indoor air. Some individuals may become sensitized to formaldehyde and require either removal of sources from their homes or dilution of vapors with outdoor air.

Don't be too thorough in sealing your home. Contrary to popular opinion, the outdoor air is usually much cleaner than typical indoor air. This is true even in smoggy regions.

One or more windows opened even an inch or two can make a difference in indoor air freshness. If you are concerned about security, make or purchase locks to prevent further opening.

Source: Robert Phalen, Ph.D., inhalation toxicologist and aerosol scientist at U.C. Irvine.

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