By Rebecca Misner
Finally, Spring! You're packing away the winter coats and powerwashing the deck. Maybe you're turning your spring-cleaning efforts inward, adding fresh juice or easing up on the heavy stews. Now, what about the air? As elemental as it is, many of us don't give what we breathe indoors much thought, assuming that if our homes are well cared for, our air quality must be top-notch. But considering that Americans spend 90 percent of their lives inside (keep reading, but step outside immediately!) and the Environmental Protection Agency lists indoor air pollution among the top five environmental health risks, perhaps we should pay more attention to our indoor atmosphere. Here are some tips and easy modifications to help you breathe more easily.
What's In Your Air?
The two main types of indoor air pollution are particulate matter and gaseous pollutants -- and chances are your home has both. In fact, particulate matter, such as pollen, dust, dust mites, pet dander, and mold spores, is the leading cause of indoor allergies. "These common allergens cause a range of problems, from the annoying runny nose to the more serious allergic asthma," says Andy Nish, M.D., an allergist in Gainesville, Georgia, and a fellow at the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. "Keeping windows shut when your pollen allergies flare up, using a high-quality air purifier with a HEPA filter, and washing your pets weekly will help decrease the allergens floating around your home."
The list of indoor gaseous pollutants is just as long -- things like building materials, cleaning products, asbestos-containing insulation, and outdoor pollutants like radon and vehicle exhaust that make their way inside. "Exposure to these may lead to mild symptoms like dizziness and itchy eyes, and can cause long-term effects like asthma and cancer," says Sumita Khatri, M.D., a pulmonologist at the Cleveland Clinic who sits on the board of the American Lung Association. It's not all doom and gloom, however -- while some of these pollutants may seem unavoidable, there are easy ways to minimize your exposure, says Khatri. First, be thoughtful about what you bring into and keep in your home: Opt for low-VOC paint, air out dry-cleaned clothes and lose the plastic bags, use nontoxic cleaning supplies, and throw out nearly empty cans of paint and solvents (which off-gas even when not in use). Allowing fresh air in is also crucial -- crack a window whenever you can. "In addition, everyone should test for radon, an invisible, odorless radioactive gas found in homes throughout the U.S. that's the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the country," adds Khatri. Affordable home-test kits are available at most hardware stores.
Desert or Jungle?
Proper humidity is an equally important (yet often ignored) factor in maintaining healthy indoor air. For optimal health, you should aim for a relative humidity (RH) between 40 and 50 percent, according to Nish and the American Lung Association. An inexpensive instrument that measures RH (like the one shown below, right) can help you keep tabs on your home's moisture level.
"Although we associate humidifiers with winter, you should switch yours on whenever the RH level in your home dips below 40 percent, regardless of the season," says Nish. When it's below that level, he adds, people may experience dry eyes, noses, and throats and more-frequent nosebleeds, and the likelihood of sinus infections may increase. Adequately moist air also keeps flu and cold viruses at bay (they thrive in low humidity), prevents dry skin and hair, and protects wooden furniture and floors from drying out.
On the flip side, we need to monitor excess humidity indoors. "Overly moist air--60 percent RH or higher -- provides a breeding ground for dust mites, mildew, and mold, all of which can trigger allergic reactions and asthma in susceptible individuals," says Nish. In extreme cases, elevated humidity can even cause building materials to rot, compromising the structural integrity of your house. Signs that your home is too humid: Condensation on windows, mold spots on walls and ceilings, and a musty odor. Air-conditioning and proper ventilation can help lower the humidity. If levels remain high despite these steps, you may also need a dehumidifier.
After a two-year study, NASA has compiled a list of houseplants that help filter the air and are effective at removing common household pollutants. Included are the easy-to-find and easy-to-care-for philodendron, peace lily, and spider plant.
Be Your Own Purifier
"There's a saying in yoga: 'Breathe with your nose, eat with your mouth,'" says Carla Stangenberg, the director of Jaya Yoga Center, in Brooklyn, New York. "It's because when you breathe through your nose, the cilia inside trap pollen and dust, and the air is warmed and moistened on its way to your lungs -- it's like a free, portable air purifier and humidifier in one."
Small But Powerful
Humidifiers like this one, from Stadler Form, don't take up much space and look chic while delivering results.
Anton humidifier, in Azurro, $140, stadlerformusa.com
This three-in-one instrument from General Tools measures relative humidity, temperature, and barometric pressure.
Analog barometer, in Brass, $65, homedepot.com