Breathe easy: Indoor air quality tips

Indoor air can be up to five times more polluted than outdoor air. On top of that, most of us spend 90 percent of our time indoors. Indoor pollutants include radon, tobacco smoke, gases released from fireplaces and gas stoves, molds caused by dust build-up and excess moisture, and chemicals used in building materials and household products.

Your day-to-day behavior and your remodeling and building choices all influence air quality. These strategies can help to make your home a healthier environment to live in.

Use non-toxic materials, adhesives, finishes and cleaners

Whenever possible, buy nontoxic products or choose the least toxic option. Look for certified products such as Green Label or Green Guard products.

Avoid carpeting or use it sparingly. Carpeting can harbor mold spores, dust mites, dirt and other allergy-producing substances. Other potential sources of pollution are the synthetic fibers in carpet and padding, cleaners, and adhesives used to install carpet. Consider flooring alternatives: solid wood, ceramic tile or stone in combination with throw-rugs made from natural materials. Try to buy new furniture and carpet in warm weather when you can open the windows.  

Choose interior paints, paint strippers and thinners, and wood finishes that contain low or no volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs contribute to smog and indoor air pollution. Oil-based paints have higher levels of VOCs than water-based latex ones, although latex paints typically contain preservatives like formaldehyde. In addition, glossy paints are higher in VOCs than flat paints. Many paint manufacturers — Hirshfield’s, Sherwin-Williams, Benjamin Moore and Glidden — now offer paints with low- or no-VOC formulations. You can use water-based paint strippers, thinners and finishes. Avoid VOCs such as petroleum distillates, mineral spirits, chlorinated solvents, methylene chloride, trichloroethylene and trichloroethane.

Avoid cabinets, doors, wall paneling, furniture, kitchen counters and other interior items made from conventional engineered wood products. Such products contain bonding agents that can emit unhealthy pollutants such as formaldehyde. Choose solid wood or engineered wood products that contain few or no toxic chemicals.

Use nontoxic finishes. Many water-based and nonsolvent based finishes are now available. Look for an installer who is familiar and experienced with such alternatives. Avoid oil-based urethane finishes.

Use natural alternatives to synthetic cleaning compounds. Household cleaners can contribute greatly to poor indoor air quality. Use the right amount of a cleaning product -- you won’t get twice the results by using twice as much. Read the labels of cleaners and look for the signal words — caution, warning, danger, poison — which indicate the level of hazard. Use the least hazardous product to do the job.

Day-to-day behaviors are also important:

  • During the winter, avoid hobby or home improvement activities like sanding, varnishing, welding, or things that require use of adhesives. The dust and chemical emissions can add to indoor air quality problems.
  • Avoid air fresheners and paraffin or scented candles. Choose soy or beeswax candles instead.
  • Eliminate pesticides, bug sprays, weed killers, and old paint from your cupboards and garage. Bring them to a household hazardous waste facility near you.

Prevent excess moisture through design and ventilation

When insulating and sealing cracks and gaps in your home’s exterior, don’t forget to ventilate. An air-tight home can reduce energy costs and provide for greater comfort. However, significantly reduced air exchange in a home can cause build-up of excess moisture. The recommended indoor humidity range is 30 to 35 percent. Use a humidistat to measure your home’s humidity level.

It is important to have balanced air exchange within the home by bringing in fresh air and expelling stale air. Exhaust fans in the kitchen and bathroom are inexpensive “tools” to rid a house of excess moisture and contaminants. For example, a bathroom fan should be run for an hour after someone has taken a shower. An air-to-air heat exchanger controls air exchange more efficiently than a fan. Air-to-air heat exchangers mechanically replace the air about every two hours while recovering and reusing heat.

If you see have mold in your home visit the Minnesota Department of Health website for more information:

Limit emissions from combustion appliances

Gas-fueled appliances — water heaters, stoves, ovens, furnaces, fireplaces, clothes dryers, etc. — can contribute to indoor air pollution by emitting nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and other pollutants. Here are some suggestions for reducing the impacts of gas-fueled appliances.

  • Install a carbon monoxide detector. Carbon monoxide is odorless, colorless, and potentially fatal.
  • Make sure appliances are properly installed and vented.
  • Never operate a portable generator or a grill indoors, even near a window.
  • Install “sealed combustion” appliances. Fresh air is brought in and gases are exhausted through sealed pipes.
  • Choose appliances with electronic ignitions instead of pilot lights. Flames should be adjusted to burn efficiently. A yellow flame means incomplete combustion, the precursor to carbon monoxide emissions.

Mitigate radon

Radon is a colorless, odorless, radioactive gas that seeps into buildings from the soil. These radioactive particles can damage cells lining the lungs and lead to lung cancer. Visit the Minnesota Department of Health website to learn how to:

Note: air cleaning devices alone do not adequately improve indoor air quality; some devices actually make air quality worse by adding unhealthy ozone to the air. For more information on indoor air cleaners, go to the EPA’s indoor air Web site.