Your eyes are watering, your throat is dry and itchy, your head hurts and you're finding it hard to breathe. If these symptoms last longer than the typical cold — and you don't normally suffer from allergies — they may be signs of poor indoor air quality.
Whether at home or at work, persistent exposure to pollutants in the air can have serious effects on your health. How do you achieve healthy air quality? Here's what to look for, and a few tips for cleaner, more breathable air.
Causes of poor indoor air quality
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, poor indoor air quality is associated with illnesses like asthma, hypersensitivity pneumonitis, and what's known as 'humidifier fever.' In addition to allergy-like symptoms, people who sit for hours in buildings with polluted air may experience unusual levels of fatigue, dizziness, nausea, irritability and forgetfulness. If symptoms of illness seem to abate when you leave your home or office, that's a strong sign pointing to air quality issues.
There are many factors that detract from healthy air quality indoors. In poorly ventilated structures, pollutants like asbestos, formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds can build up in the air. These toxic compounds are emitted by products like cleaning supplies, air fresheners, insulation, carpeting, adhesives, office equipment and hobby products. Pollutants resulting from combusting appliances like oil heaters, woodstoves and gas cookstoves, can also be retained indoors.
Improper ventilation not only prevents these pollutants from leaving the building, it can also introduce outdoor pollution like automobile exhaust, boiler emissions and fumes from dumpsters into the air inside due to poorly located air intake vents.
How to achieve healthy air quality
First and foremost, check your ventilation systems. Have a professional inspect and service your home's HVAC system on a regular basis as well as any ventilation associated with appliances, including your chimney.
While having a tightly sealed home is great for conserving energy, you should ensure that the air within your home is refreshed on a regular basis. Use window or attic fans when weather permits, and install bathroom and kitchen ventilation fans to push potentially polluted air directly outdoors.
Limit pollutants inside your home by storing items like pesticides, paints and thinners, adhesives and fuels in a shed or garage. Choose non-toxic cleaning products and household items with no- or low-VOCs including furniture, finishes, carpeting, bedding and drapery.
It’s also a good idea to grow an indoor garden. House plants like ficus, bamboo palms, pothos and peace lilies actively work to strip pollutants out of the air. These plants will not only beautify your space and bring in a little of the outdoors, but act as a natural air filter.
If you live in an apartment, take steps to temporarily increase the ventilation indoors. Avoid blocking air supply vents, and open the windows every now and then to let in fresh air. Speak to your building management about following the EPA's Building Air Quality guidelines.
If your'e concerned about the air quality in your workplace, talk to your co-workers, supervisors and union representatives to see if others are experiencing similar adverse health effects and discuss possible solutions with your employers. If your building managers refuse to address the problem, you can call the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (1-800-35NIOSH) to learn about obtaining a health hazard evaluation of your workplace.
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