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Air Quality Matters: Yes, Industrial Emissions Stink, But Don’t Ignore Your Indoor Air Quality

Editor’s Note: February may be the shortest month, but it is full of national public health awareness initiatives – it’s Heart Health Month, Care for Your Indoor Air Month, and National Cancer Prevention Awareness Month. This is the second in our three-part Air Quality Matters series, where we will explore the ways in which air pollution could be impacting your life and health through the filter of those awareness campaigns.

Those of us who reside in the Mon Valley, Neville Island, and other parts of Allegheny County (and beyond) know all too well how offsite odors from industrial facilities can impact your day-to-day life. But while the quality of our outdoor, ambient air is of paramount importance, it’s equally important not to neglect the stuff you’re breathing in your own home.

The pandemic and the social distancing recommendations that came along with it are about a year old, which means a LOT of us have spent a good deal more time in our homes this past 12 months. 

Since February is Care for Your Indoor Air Month, we thought we’d remind you of some of the most common air pollution pitfalls in your home, as well as some steps you can take to make sure you and yours can breathe healthier air there.

Because here’s the thing: Recent research has shown that indoor air quality can sometimes be more polluted than one might believe –  in some cases more polluted than the outdoor air. 

According to the EPA, Americans, on average, spend approximately 90 percent of their time indoors, where the concentrations of some pollutants are often two to five times higher than typical outdoor concentrations.

Many pollutants affecting indoor air quality come from sources inside the building themselves. This could include combustion sources like fireplaces, tobacco smoke, and cooking appliances. It could also originate from cleaning supplies, paints, and insecticides or from the degradation of old building materials or from new materials that are off-gassing. 

We also know indoor air quality can become unhealthy due to outdoor sources of pollution finding their way inside our homes, schools, and office buildings. Outdoor air pollutants can enter buildings through open doors and windows, ventilation systems, and cracks in structures. 

Some pollutants come indoors through building foundations. Harmful smoke from chimneys and industrial sources can enter homes to pollute the air in the home and neighborhood. In areas with contaminated groundwater or soils, volatile chemicals can enter buildings through the same process.

Fortunately, indoor air pollution concentrations from individual sources might not pose a serious health risk by themselves. Unfortunately, the majority of homes have more than one source contributing to indoor air pollution. 

“There can be a serious risk from the cumulative effects of these sources. Fortunately, there are steps that most people can take both to reduce the risk from existing sources and to prevent new problems from occurring,” the Environmental Protection Agency warns on its website.

We’re talking more than radon and asbestos (which are serious concerns that you can learn more about here and here). We’re talking about other culprits such as dust, smoke, and the like.

Here are some ways to help protect yourself by improving your indoor air:

Embrace Spring Cleaning

When it comes to seasonal allergies, you know the two big culprits: Dust and pet dander. Combat them and their associated health impacts by increasing the frequency of things like dusting, sweeping, and vacuuming. Health experts recommend you do those chores once or twice a week.

Also prudent? A good wipe down of your window blinds and ceiling fan, which get gunked up with dust and more. Also suggested is keeping your bedroom spic and span by laundering bedding and drapes – which tend to trap allergens that will have your eyes watering, your throat itching and your hands ever reaching for those antihistamines. 

And do yourself a favor: When you clean your hard surfaces, use natural cleansers that have less-harsh fumes. 

Disclaimer: When disinfecting your home during the Covid-19 outbreak, please know that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has published a list of approved products that will kill the virus.

Don’t Forget About Those Filters

So, when’s the last time you changed your filters? You know, the ones that help keep your furnace and air conditioning systems clean? Do you know the state of your ductwork? Because know this: Having it cleaned can make a big difference, too. If you need some advice on best practices regarding filters and ductwork, the fine folks at the  Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created this handy guide.

What About Adding an Air Purifier?

Perhaps the simplest way to rid your home of air pollutants is running an air purifier in the most-used areas of your living space. Air purifiers range in price and functionality, and there are even ways to create a DIY air purifier – one that requires only a box fan and a standard HEPA (High-Efficiency Particulate Air) filter. Pro Tip: HEPA filters run about $25-$35 and can be purchased at local hardware stores and on Amazon.

Forget the Fireplace

We know there are diehard fireplace aficionados out there, but we have to tell you: Homes with wood-burning fireplaces have elevated levels of indoor air pollution and you may be unwittingly impacting your neighborhood’s air quality too. In these waning days of winter, consider using your furnace instead of starting a fire and keep the air your family and your neighbors breathe a little cleaner. Didn’t realize how harmful wood-burning fireplaces are? Learn more here. 

For more information on how to keep your indoor air clean, check out these helpful infographics on the best ways to clean and disinfect your home created by our friends at Women for a Healthy Environment (WHE). Also check out Pittsburgh-based ROCIS (Reducing Outdoor Contaminants in Indoor Spaces), one of our partner organizations that has a number of helpful resources.

Check back tomorrow for the third and final installment of our Air Quality Matters series. You can read the first part of our series here.

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