Let the Breeze In: Indoor Air Quality

Great Harvest Vent.jpg

During winter when it’s colder out, we tend to spend a lot more time indoors. It’s natural; winter is a time to rest, to be cozy, to spend time with those you love. It’s a wonderful part of the season. But more time indoors could actually be contributing to that cold you’re on the verge of getting; it’s probably less because you’re in closer proximity to your family and more due to the air inside your home that you’re breathing day in and day out.

Did you know that the air in your home can be about three times as polluted as outdoor air? It’s true. So when your mom told you to go play outside and get some fresh air, she was onto something. Poor indoor air quality (that’s the official term for how clean the air is inside your home) can be terrible for your health; it contributes to and aggravates colds, allergies, asthma, and other respiratory problems.

What makes “bad” air?

But your counters and windows are sparkly clean, you say, and you vacuum frequently. What could possibly be causing such poor air quality? There are a lot of things that can get trapped in our homes or contribute to bad air that we don’t really think about. You may have heard of a few of these:

  • Pet dander

  • Pollen

  • Mold spores

  • Dust mites

  • Asbestos

  • VOC’s (volatile organic compounds) from paint

  • Not enough moisture in the air

  • Too much moisture in the air

  • Gas stoves

  • Chemicals, particularly from household cleaners

  • Tobacco products

  • Certain building materials or furnishings (such as newly installed flooring)

  • Your actual hvac (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) system

What a list, right? It’s enough to make me want to live in an open-air pavilion in Hawaii for the rest of my life. One of those ones on the beach with a grass roof and plenty of flowing sheer curtains… ahhh. But it really doesn’t have to come to that (although it sounds dreamy). You can improve the air quality in your home and help everyone be healthier and happier.

Open a window

Bringing outdoor air inside will make a huge difference. Many hvac systems don’t actually take air from outside - they just constantly recycle what’s already there. So, by opening a window or door you’ll be getting some fresher, cleaner air circulating. This is especially important when you’re doing activities that generate a lot of pollutants, like painting or cooking with a gas stove.

A note: There are areas of the world where the air pollution is so bad that it would be worse for your health to open a window and bring any of it inside. Please take this advice with a grain of salt and make sure you’re aware of the pollution levels where you live.

Use non-toxic cleaners

When you spray that bottle of bleach (it’s okay, I’ve used it too), not all of the solution ends up on the toilet. Some particles linger in the air and get trapped in your home, circulating for a long time. I have loved ones who have developed respiratory problems from using highly toxic cleaners at work. Chlorine bleach and ammonia are particularly bad because of the fumes they let off. When you skip the harsh chemical household cleaners in favor of products that aren’t toxic to your respiratory system, you prevent those particles from getting into the air in the first place.

Making your own cleaners is the easiest way to know exactly what they are putting in your home. Homemade cleaner recipes usually include vinegar, castile soap, or baking soda as a main ingredient, supplemented with plenty of elbow grease. My all-purpose cleaner is citrus-peel-steeped vinegar diluted with water (don’t use vinegar on natural stone or other materials that etch easily). You can find household cleaner recipes on my Zero Waste Pinterest board. And if making your own isn’t your thing, check out Meliora or Truce. Look for products with short ingredient lists that you can actually pronounce, and stay away from those with warning or danger labels. For those with asthma or who are more sensitive to allergens, look for laundry detergent and other products without fragrances.

Upgrade your filter

If you have a forced-air hvac system, you probably know to replace the filters every so often. Most systems call for a 1” filter, which is actually designed to protect your system, not clean the air you breathe. Retrofitting the air return to fit special 3-5” filters will allow it to capture far more impurities. The thicker the filter the more it, well, filters. You may need to get some one-time professional help with the retrofitting, but after that all you need to do is simply replace the filters as often as the manufacturer recommends.

Upgrade your hvac system

While replacing an older hvac system may give you the best air quality, it can be a huge cost. However, if you are building or doing major renovations, it may be worth investing in a better, more efficient system from the get-go. The up-front cost may not be much more than what you’re already planning, and efficient systems will likely save you money down the road in maintenance and energy costs.

Specify finishes that don’t off-gas

Products and finishes that go in your home like flooring, paint, furniture, and textiles can contribute to poor air quality. For example, certain wood stains and carpets will let off small amounts noxious fumes for years that are hazardous for your health (off-gassing). The architecture and design community is aware of this and has pushed manufacturers to be more transparent about the health of their products. Certifications such as Green Label and Cradle to Cradle stemmed from this push. Now you can find water-based wood stains, paint with low voc’s, and carpet made from recycled materials that can also be recycled at the end of its life. These kinds of products are an investment in you and your family’s long-term health. So if you’re building, remodeling, or your carpet just needs replacing, talk to your builder or designer and look for options that will keep you breathing easy.

Air purifiers

For researchers the jury is still out on air purifiers, and it may have to do with the huge number of options available. How much purifying they do depends on how well they collect the particles and how much air they can move through them. Table-top purifiers don’t appear to be very effective, though floor models do seem to be better. That said, they don’t do any harm and may be especially helpful if you or a family member is sensitive to allergens.


For additional reading, check out these websites:

Environmental Protection Agency

Organic Consumers Association