According to the EPA, most of us spend about 90 percent of our time indoors. That seems about right to me, especially in the wintertime (though in the summer, I'm able to work outside on some days, so it's much lower then). And although there are plenty of laws and regulations about outdoor air pollution, most of us don't give a second thought to the air in our homes.
But we should: "... a growing body of scientific evidence has indicated that the air within homes and other buildings can be more seriously polluted than the outdoor air in even the largest and most industrialized cities. Thus, for many people, the risks to health may be greater due to exposure to air pollution indoors than outdoors," advises the EPA.
You could choose to invest in an air purifier or filter (I added one when I upgraded the forced-air heating system in my home a couple of years ago), but getting significantly cleaner, healthier air in your home doesn't have to come from making big changes or even spending any money. Starting with the simplest idea:
Air out your home regularly: How often you should do this really depends on your heating system; if you have a woodstove or fireplace, I would air out once a day (or on the days that you use them). In my own home, which doesn't have a fireplace, I try to air out every other day. Airing out the house involves a five- to 10-minute purge of the air in your home by opening the front and back doors (and storm doors) and letting in the fresh air from outdoors. As mentioned above, even in cities, outdoor air is cleaner than indoor, and apartment dwellers can do this too, by opening up windows on opposite sides of the apartment. Of course you can just open one window or door, but using two will create an airflow and will change the air more efficiently. In my house, I try to choose the warmest part of the day so as not to waste heat (I turn the furnace off, too), and will leave the door open an extra few minutes on warmer days, only three to five minutes on cold days. It's amazing how much fresher and better your home smells when you regularly air it out.
Use toxin-free, all-natural cleaning products: Many "cleaners" (I don't consider toxic ingredients "clean") include chemicals that release VOC's (volatile organic compounds) into your indoor air. In most homes, VOC's are two to five times higher than outdoor air, and can be up to 25 times higher in cabinets where cleaning products are kept. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, "The best health protection measure is to limit your exposure to products and materials that contain VOCs when possible." In the short-term, VOC's can make asthma worse, irritate the eyes and throat, and can cause headaches and dizziness. Long-term effects include liver and kidney damage, and VOC's are considered carcinogens. Toxic chemicals in cleaning products are totally unnecessary. (I've been cleaning my home with nontoxic products for more than a decade, and the place looks great!). Switch to natural brands, especially for those cleaning products that you use regularly, like countertop sprays and bathroom scrubs. Or better yet, make your own, and save money too.
Get a couple of easy-care Plants: There are a host of plants that not only pretty up a room, but actually pull toxins from the air. From spider plants to aloe, here's a list of 15, all of which require little care.
Avoid air fresheners, and throw the smokers OUT!: If anyone is still smoking inside your home (even if it's you!) get them outdoors, pronto (and be sure they smoke away from windows and doors). We all know the dangers of smoking, and I won't get into them here, but secondhand smoke is even more dangerous, and the carcinogens and particulates will hang around long after the butts are disposed of. Long story short, smokers belong outside.
Air fresheners should be avoided. Most of them contain VOC's (see more on those above), and contribute to poor indoor air quality. Try dabbing lavender, lemon, eucalyptus or orange oil in the corners of rooms (I drop the oil into my rugs, the corners of my mattresses, on curtains, and into the edges of the couch upholstery). You can also fill an old spray bottle with 2 cups water to 10 drops of natural oil, and spray it around the house, or look for soy candles made with all natural oils.
Clean your pet's bed: Pet hair and dander can add allergens and particulates, including dust, to your indoor air. And if you have an animal that goes outside and comes in with wet fur or paws, their bed might be a bit moldy too. Be sure to regularly wash your pet beds (I clean mine every time I wash my sheets) to keep the flying fur to a minimum.
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