We know that the air we breathe can have a major impact on our daily lives and overall health. But many of us forget to prioritize the air quality in the places we spend the most time, namely where we live and work. When you spend a lot of time in a specific building, it’s easy to become accustomed to poor indoor air quality. But regularly breathing in low-quality air carries some risks, and we all deserve to walk through our lives breathing fresh, clean air.
But how do you know if your indoor air quality is low – and what steps can you take to improve it? Keep reading to learn more about indoor air quality, the factors that impact it, and potential solutions.
What Is Indoor Air Quality & Why Does it Matter?
The quality of the air in a residence, school, office, industrial building, or another indoor setting can have an impact on human health. That’s partly due to the amount of time we typically spend indoors. Research has shown that the average American spends about 90% of their time inside, and this percentage is likely higher for people living in the Pacific Northwest, where we experience rain for much of the year.
Unfortunately, the air we breathe in indoor environments isn’t always perfectly clean and healthy. In fact, recent scientific inquiries have shown that concentrations of common pollutants are frequently between 2 and 5 times higher in indoor environments than the outdoors.
While the indoor air quality in homes and other buildings is important for everyone, people who are most vulnerable to the potential risks of air pollution include:
- Infants and small children
- The elderly
- People who suffer from cardiovascular or respiratory disease
Fortunately, there’s a lot you can do to improve the air quality in your home or commercial space – more on that later!
Factors That Impact Indoor Air Quality
1. Poor Ventilation
Airflow is among the most important factors that can affect indoor air quality. Proper ventilation allows air to move through the building, preventing the buildup of bacteria and other pollutants. One of the best ways to measure airflow is to calculate the air exchange rate (ACH). ACH refers to the number of times the total volume of air in a room is replaced with outdoor, manufactured, or recirculated air.
A low ACH allows virus particles to thrive and pollutant levels to increase, reducing the overall quality of your indoor air. That’s why taking steps to improve ventilation is essential to achieving and maintaining good indoor air quality.
2. Climate & Weather
It’s no surprise that the local climate and weather conditions can have an effect on indoor air quality, since even the most well-insulated buildings still exchange some air with outdoor environments through windows, doors, and ventilation systems. Of course, if outdoor air quality is poor, that will inevitably impact the air inside your home. The air quality index is much higher (and therefore worse) in hot climates and during the summer months due to stagnant air, pollen, lack of rain, and forest fires.
3. Indoor Humidity
Most bacterial organisms and some fungi like mold thrive in damp environments; that’s why high levels of indoor humidity can decrease the quality of air over time and lead to a musty smell. Humidity describes the amount of water vapor present in the surrounding air. Generally speaking, once humidity levels rise above 50% it can begin to negatively affect indoor air quality. The EPA recommends trying to maintain humidity levels to between 30-50% to help reach an ideal indoor air-quality index.
4. The Use of Synthetic Building Materials
Some materials used in the construction and renovation of homes, schools, and commercial buildings can have a negative impact on overall indoor air quality. These include deteriorated asbestos-containing insulation material, chipping lead paint, damp carpeting, and pressed-wood cabinetry.
5. Other Factors in Your Home or Building
In addition to the above, there are a variety of other potential sources of air pollution that may exist in homes and other buildings. Here are a few to keep in mind:
- Certain wood- and coal-powered heating and cooking appliances
- The use of tobacco products and e-cigarettes
- Pet dander
- Dust mites
- The use of humidifiers
- The presence of mold
- The use of insecticides, household cleaners, aerosol sprays, and other volatile organic compounds
- Contaminated soil carried in from outdoors
Ways To Improve Indoor Air Quality
Here are some of the most common and convenient ways to help improve the quality of air in your home or building:
- Try to remove any known pollutants – If you have dust, pet hair, or visible dirt somewhere in your indoor space, try to clean it as well as possible with a wet wipe or vacuum cleaner. Also limit the use of tobacco products or e-cigarettes, and consider having any deteriorating paint or other building materials tested for common contaminants.
- Improve ventilation – Increasing the amount of fresh air from the outdoors that enters your home or building can have a big impact on air quality; try opening windows and doors, running window or attic fans, or running an air conditioner with vent control open.
- Use an air cleaner or filter – From portable units to large industrial systems, air cleaners and filters can be effective at removing particles from indoor air; just keep in mind that they’re generally not built to remove gaseous pollutants like radon. Read more about air cleaners here.
- Try a dehumidifier – While household dehumidifiers don’t purify the air like air cleaners, they reduce the amount of moisture that exists in the air; since some hazards – such as mold – thrive in moist, damp environments, reducing excess moisture with a dehumidifier can help keep indoor air clean in the long run.
- Keep some indoor plants – Houseplants can have a small but positive impact on the air quality in confined indoor spaces. That’s because plants have the ability to convert the carbon dioxide we breathe out through photosynthesis, and they can also remove gas from the air.
How To Test for Indoor Air Quality
One of the best ways to learn more about the air quality in your home or commercial property, is to purchase an air-quality monitor. While monitors differ in terms of what contaminants they measure, most will evaluate temperature, humidity levels, volatile organic compounds (chemical pollutants), and dust particles / other allergens. Depending on the model you choose, an at-home monitor may show specific readings of these measurements, or they may simply display the overall air quality index to you after testing.
While there is a lot you can do to test for and improve the air quality in your home, you can also opt to call in a professional. This can be especially helpful if you suspect that the air quality is extremely low, if you have vulnerable people living or working in your space, or you think your building has developed a mold problem.
Are you looking for a trusted lab to test for contaminants in your home or commercial building?
JSE Labs is an environmental laboratory that offers fast, accurate testing and analysis for contaminants including lead, mold, asbestos, and more. If you’re concerned that you may be dealing with an environmental contaminant on your property, don’t hesitate to reach out!
Lisa started in the industrial hygiene and environmental industry in 1992 as an asbestos microscopist and began performing building inspections for asbestos, lead paint, and other hazards in 1994.
“This career has been an amazing experience, traveling for work to perform inspections both locally and abroad to locations such as Hawaii and Germany. My real love however is being in the laboratory and assisting our wonderful clients.”