How Home Air Quality Affects Your Health
You probably already know that the air you breathe is crucial to your daily functioning. The body needs fresh oxygen to perform its routine tasks and keep your heart pumping healthily throughout the day. Many of us take an inhalation for granted, and we don’t think twice about what we may actually be breathing into our lungs.
The truth is that not all buildings or areas have the same indoor air quality. That deep breath you just took may have contained a lot of pollutants that can have a drastic effect on your overall health. Understanding the long-term effects of poor indoor air quality may encourage you to prioritize making your living environment a little safer today.
In the coming sections, you’ll learn about the health risks that compromised indoor air quality can pose and ways to remedy the situation. If you’re concerned that your health may be at risk, you’ll want to know the answers to some of these key questions about indoor air quality.
Where does poor air quality come from?
Before you can understand the potential health effects of poor indoor air quality, you need to know how indoor air quality is determined. What exactly can cause poor indoor air quality and what will it mean for your health?
Research is now coming to light that the air quality within buildings could be filled with even more pollutants than the outdoor air. This may come as a shock to many people. For years, society has believed that the worst air quality conditions were outside due to the exhaust fumes of cars, the waste from manufacturing companies, and other harmful chemicals that make their way into the air.
This new data should be a concern to everyone given that people spend the vast majority of their time indoors.
The list of possible pollutants that the average person may find in their home is relatively endless. On any given day, you probably use a strong cleaner to scrub your kitchen, a spray bottle of air freshener, or craft products with a strong odor. Perhaps you burn a pancake while making breakfast on Saturday morning and the smoke fills the air. All of your daily activities ultimately contribute to the overall quality of your indoor air.
Some of the most common air pollutants seem like harmless items that find their way into the home. Take a look at some of these sources for reduced indoor air quality below:
- Tobacco products
- Household cleaners
- Excess moisture
- Formaldehyde and other chemicals in furniture or finishes
- Strong paints
- Personal care products like hairspray or perfume
- Smoke from the furnace or stove
While this list is by no means exhaustive, these are just a handful of the most common ways that indoor air quality can be affected on a daily basis. The air in your home becomes polluted with these chemical irritants but the air quality is drastically reduced when they can’t find their way out. Ventilation and allowing them to escape is essential to improving the quality of your indoor air.
Each time you release something into the air, it has the potential to contaminate your home. As a result, you may start to feel some immediate health effects.
What are the immediate health effects of poor indoor air quality?
Have you ever walked into a building only to realize that your nose became stuffy, you developed a cough, or it was a little harder to breathe? This is what happens when you immediately encounter an area with reduced indoor air quality. The body will quickly respond to the contaminants in the air with a physical reaction.
Some individuals are far more sensitive to these pollutants and will have exaggerated responses. People who suffer from asthma or severe allergies are likely to fall into this category. However, everyone has the potential to be greatly affected by low-quality air.
Many of the immediate symptoms resemble the signs of a common cold or seasonal allergies. You may experience irritated and itchy eyes, a scratchy throat, or irritated sinus passageways. Depending on the severity, you may develop a pounding headache or become suddenly dizzy. It’s possible that you’ll start to feel sluggish and tired when you’re breathing in poor quality air.
These early and relatively minor symptoms are often easy to eliminate. Open a window or walk outside to get some fresh air. You may decide to simply treat the symptoms if this isn’t a possibility. Taking a few Tylenol may cure your headache, for instance. In most individuals, taking a break from the environment that’s making them sick will often decrease their symptoms and return their body to normal.
If you only experience these symptoms in a particular location, it should be a sign that indoor air quality could be the culprit. For example, you may have many of these symptoms at home but they disappear when you’re in your cubicle at work. A common cold and allergies would be more likely to follow you wherever you go. This indicates that you need to do something to improve the overall quality of the air within your home in order to get rid of your symptoms for good.
What are the long-term health effects of poor indoor air quality?
While many of the symptoms you experience will be immediate, it is possible to have some long-term symptoms that could affect you years later. Some of these symptoms may not fully surface until some time has passed, but they are extremely dangerous and detrimental to your health.
You may consistently suffer from the symptoms in the last section, but it’s also possible for your body to become less sensitive to the exposure. After a prolonged period of time spent around these pollutants, your body may become accustomed to their presence. The end result is that your immediate symptoms will dissipate and you lose the ability to sense when you’re encountering these pollutants in the air.
Years of exposure to reduced indoor air quality could lead to serious health problems such as respiratory diseases or heart disease. Many of the long-term consequences of living with reduced indoor air quality are dependent upon the specific contaminants in your air. However, it is possible for certain types of cancers to develop as well.
As you can imagine, the dangers of these long-term health effects can be extremely hazardous and could be fatal.
Many people want to place a specific number on how much time they can spend in an environment with poor indoor air quality before suffering these more serious long-term effects. Unfortunately, there are too many factors for scientists to be able to predict the development of these conditions just yet. The interaction between various pollutants and the exposure required to cause health issues can vary drastically from place to place.
It is also too difficult to determine which people may be at a greater risk to develop some of these issues. Each person will have a different level of sensitivity to pollutants and irritants. While it is well known that some people will be more susceptible to an extreme reaction, including those with asthma, the rest is still unpredictable.
The best thing that you can do to reduce your overall risk of developing these potentially fatal conditions is to improve the indoor air quality in your home environment. Many of the steps are relatively simple to incorporate into your daily routine and annual maintenance. With a little forethought and planning, you may be able to significantly lower your risk of developing these more extreme illnesses and experience more comfort in your daily life.
How does moisture affect indoor air quality?
Moisture plays a significant role in the quality of the air within a building. A wet environment creates the perfect breeding ground for some pollutants to thrive. Dust mites and other types of bacteria prefer a moist environment because it allows them to breed more rapidly. You may experience more frequent illness when you have a particularly humid home, but it could lead to more serious issues.
In particular, moisture is the ideal environment for mold growth to run rampant. At some point, homeowners have likely encountered small amounts of mold in their home already. They have noticed a few spores around the kitchen sink, near a leak in their shower, or around the window seals. It is a persistent and pesky problem to have in your home, but small amounts of mold can be cleaned up relatively quickly.
When you have a larger problem, you may start to see more serious effects on your health and living conditions overall. The health effects of prolonged exposure to mold are relatively well-known. They can produce symptoms that appear to be closely related to the common cold or the flu virus. However, they can also have serious long-term health effects such as respiratory infections and diseases. The key to controlling the rapid growth of mold in your home is to limit the amount of moisture.
The humidity level and temperature in your home play a key role in determining the current moisture levels. At a higher temperature, the air is capable of holding on to more water which creates a more humid environment. When more moisture is in the air, pollutants can sometimes reproduce more quickly and mold growth becomes more likely. Both of these can be extremely dangerous situations to encounter.
How will you know if mold could be a potential problem in your home?
The first sign that mold growth could be imminent is seeing water droplets form on the walls inside of the home. This is most likely to appear in areas that are already subject to a lot of moisture. Take a careful look at the area around windows and doors, near the pipes, in bathrooms, and even on the ceilings. Anywhere that water is nearby could be a potential place for rapid mold growth.
You may begin to see the mold spores growing on the walls in these places. Depending on the specific type of mold, this could be green or black. It will look like tiny spots and may even contain a number of colors.
At other times, the mold growth may not be visible. It is possible for mold to grow on the inside of drywall, in insulation, underneath the carpet, or even in your air ducts. Even when you can’t see it, you are likely to still encounter the health effects of living in close proximity to such a strong air pollutant.
The most prominent sign that you may have mold growth somewhere out of sight is the odor of your home. Your house may begin smelling musty, similar to an old pair of dirty gym socks. You should ensure that there are no other potential causes for this odor first. Do a common-sense search around your home to check for old trash, spills, or dirty laundry that could cause a lingering odor.
If you don’t find anything else that could be causing the smell, there’s a good chance that you have mold hidden somewhere in your home. You can check inside the air ducts to see if you can view the mold. Simply open up your air returns and look inside using a flashlight. This takes only a few minutes to do and doesn’t require much in the way of handy skills.
If you do find mold present in the air ducts, it’s best to leave the cleanup to the professionals.
Keep in mind that you won’t be able to get rid of the mold entirely until the cause of the moisture problem has been remedied. You will need to find the source of the water, whether that means fixing a leak or properly cleaning up after a flooded bathroom. Mold growth in your air ducts could be caused by a small pinhole leak in the ducts or some other relatively minor issue.
No matter what the origin, you will need to identify the cause beyond the shadow of a doubt. Without pinpointing the cause of the mold growth, it will simply regrow in the weeks and months that follow your professional cleaning.
One of the simplest steps to take for mold prevention is to keep humidity levels relatively low. The Center for Disease Control recommends keeping humidity levels beneath 50 percent all day, even if that means utilizing your HVAC system or a dehumidifier.
Reducing the humidity level of your home also makes it more difficult for other pollutants to thrive. Bacteria, fungi, and viruses can truly flourish when the humidity levels exceed the 50 percent mark. In addition to the reduced air quality within your home, which can have health effects in and of itself, high humidity levels could also contribute to more frequent illnesses this way.
How does carbon monoxide affect your air?
It should go without saying that carbon monoxide is tremendously hazardous to your health. While this is considered an indoor air pollutant, this is an issue that needs to be addressed immediately by a professional. If you suspect that carbon monoxide could be the pollutant that is causing you the most issues, you should seek immediate attention from a health professional and get yourself to fresh air.
Carbon monoxide is the end result of a combustion reaction. It is most often found in homes that feature natural gas appliances and furnaces. A broken or cracked piece on one of these major items can release carbon monoxide into the air. It can happen relatively quickly, and homeowners aren’t even likely to be aware that they are exposed to this dangerous chemical until it’s too late.
This poisonous gas binds to your red blood cells instead of the oxygen that they are supposed to carry. As a result, your body slowly loses access to oxygen and all red blood cells carry carbon monoxide instead. You can only survive for a limited period of time without fresh oxygen pumping through your veins. Unfortunately, this gas doesn’t always produce any obvious symptoms, and carbon monoxide exposure can go undetected for extended periods of time.
This gas often referred to as a silent killer because it has no odor, no color, and no taste. As a result, the immediate health effects of exposure to carbon monoxide are often the only indication that it could be a problem. The effects of carbon monoxide also resemble the flu virus and can include:
- Weakness or dizziness
- Nausea and vomiting
- Shortness of breath
- Blurred vision
- Loss of consciousness
The real danger of carbon monoxide poisoning is seen during the nighttime, when you may sleep through the early signs of exposure. Individuals who are asleep or intoxicated are at the greatest risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, particularly poisoning that leads to fatal results. Being around high levels of carbon monoxide, even for a short period of time, can ultimately result in death.
The best way to avoid carbon monoxide as a pollutant in your home air is to install carbon monoxide alarms around the house. They should be installed in every sleeping area and next to the garage. For the best results, place them approximately five feet off the ground and away from any vents or air sources that could interfere with their readings.
You may even want to purchase a detector that can provide you with a readout of the carbon monoxide levels in the building. This allows you to see if there has been any recent change. Exposure to low levels of carbon monoxide over a long period of time can also be detrimental to your health. These lower levels are unlikely to cause the alarm to sound but should show up on a digital printout.
It’s also important to ensure that your gas appliances, particularly your furnace, are inspected annually. Your furnace naturally creates carbon monoxide when heating up the air to pump into your home. The carbon monoxide should be stored in the heat exchanger and immediately pumped out of your home through the flue pipe. However, a cracked system or faulty pipes could have disastrous consequences for your home and fatal repercussions for your family.
Signing up for an annual maintenance plan for your furnace can help to give you peace of mind that your home is running in top shape. These are relatively inexpensive given the protection that they often afford to your family. A qualified technician can check the heat exchanger where carbon monoxide often builds up, as well as the exhaust pipes that lead to the outside of your home.
A local HVAC company should be able to set up an annual inspection on an ongoing basis to help you ensure your family’s safety. This can be a great time to identify any faulty areas and ensure that everything is running smoothly before it’s too late. An Air Conditioning repair that is caught early may save your family significantly on health costs and doctor’s bills.
How can you improve indoor air quality?
Promoting healthy indoor air quality doesn’t have to be difficult or time-consuming. Many homeowners could make just a handful of minor changes throughout their home to encourage a much healthier living environment. Depending on the setup of your home, there may not even be any substantial cost to implement these steps.
The first and easiest thing for most individuals to do is to release the pollutants from the home. Unless you are dealing with mold or carbon monoxide, the problem in your home could simply be that there are too many pollutants trapped inside. As a society, we tend to falsely believe that outdoor air is harmful and rarely allow it into our homes. Unfortunately, this leads to a vicious cycle where harmful chemicals become trapped in our indoor air.
In the end, our health may suffer because we are prizing the energy efficiency of our HVAC systems over the fresher outdoor air. The reality is that we need a balance of fresh air and energy efficiency to prevent some of these conditions and lower the monthly cost associated with heating and cooling.
How can you let outdoor air into your home? Simply open the windows on a nice afternoon instead of turning on the air conditioning. Take care to ensure that you aren’t opening the windows during certain times of the year. This can allow excess pollen to enter your home that could intensify symptoms associated with seasonal allergies.
You can also limit the number of pollutants in the air by choosing your household products wisely. This may mean switching from your favorite brand of hairspray to an option that has low VOCs. You might want to consider looking for household cleaners that aren’t as strong.
If you plan to handle materials that do have a high output of chemical fumes and pollutants, consider taking those items outside to work with. This could mean doing your oil painting outdoors or opening the garage door while you work on the vehicles. Taking simple steps to eliminate the amount of pollution in your indoor air quality can go a long way toward improving your overall health.
One of the largest sources of indoor air pollution is smoking. If you have a habit of smoking inside the home, this can lead to a serious buildup of pollutants over the months and years. Take your smoke breaks outside on the front porch instead of in the living room to see a drastic improvement in the quality of your indoor air. You won’t want to compound the negative health effects associated with smoking by lowering your indoor air quality as well.
How can ventilation help supplement these steps?
Unfortunately, it would be next to impossible to eliminate all of the pollutants from your home. There will come a time when you have to cook indoors, paint a wall, or put on perfume. It isn’t always a feasible solution to open the window, particularly during certain times of the year or when the weather doesn’t permit. What should you do when this situation arises?
Ventilation is the key to reducing the amount of polluted air in your home. There are several solutions that homeowners may be interested in when it comes to ventilation. For example, you may already have some exhaust fans installed in your home. If not, this is something that you will want to investigate in the very near future.
An exhaust fan is typically local to a specific area of your home. They’re most often seen in the kitchen near the stovetop or in the bathroom. These fans draw the air out of the room and ultimately remove the contaminants from the building. This is great for getting rid of smoke after a failed kitchen dinner or the humidity from a long shower.
If you spend a lot of time in a specific area of your home and work with lots of potential pollutants, you may want to contact a local HVAC company in San Antonio to discuss installing some exhaust fans in those areas. This can be a labor-intensive project but it may yield significantly better indoor air quality.
The alternative to a simple exhaust fan would be a whole-house ventilation system. Four basic types of whole-house ventilation systems exist, including the exhaust system that is already seen in many areas of the home. The other three each have their own advantages and disadvantages, depending on the climate in your area and the cost investment you’re able to make. They are referred to as supply systems, balanced systems, and energy recovery or heat recovery ventilation systems.
A supply system is one of the most inexpensive ventilation systems that can be installed in a home. This system incorporates a fan into the home that creates pressure in order to force other air outside the home. This air may leak out of your windows, doors, or through vents that are installed with the system.
A consistent stream of fresh air is introduced into the home while the polluted air is forced out. You may also be able to filter the air before it enters the home, reducing the number of contaminants that can come from the outdoor air.
Unfortunately, the biggest disadvantage to a supply system is that it doesn’t have the ability to control moisture or humidity levels within the home. This can lead to a sharp increase in your monthly heating and cooling costs because the humidity can force your HVAC system to work twice as hard. In addition to heating and cooling the influx of outdoor air, moisture can make your home feel warmer and damper. Of course, it can also lead to other issues related to your indoor air quality if it is damp enough to allow mold growth.
As the name would imply, a balanced system is designed to bring in the fresh air and exhaust an equal amount of indoor air. In most cases, fresh air will be supplied to areas where the most time is spent such as living rooms or bedrooms. The exhaust will be present in areas that see the most pollutants such as the kitchen or bathroom.
Much like the supply system, a balanced system still cannot control the moisture or humidity levels within the home. This also leads to an increase in heating and cooling costs each month. The installation costs are expected to be higher with this system than they are in a supply system.
Energy Recovery or Heat Recovery Ventilation
Many HVAC companies will recommend the energy recovery or heat recovery ventilators as the best choice. These systems may require more maintenance and have a higher installation cost, but they have some immediate benefits that could outweigh those concerns.
In theory, these systems should lower your monthly heating and cooling costs because they help balance the temperature of the entire home. In the winter, they should be able to heat up the cold exhaust air using indoor warmth. The opposite is true during the summer months. The end result is that the rest of the HVAC system doesn’t have to work as hard, and you will see that reflected in your monthly billing cycle.
While you may be able to find some portable options that can help ventilate the home, you’re more likely to see whole-house systems. These can share the ductwork with your HVAC system or may need ductwork of their own. This will require the assistance of a professional in order to install the system properly.
The cost of installation is one of the major disadvantages to an energy recovery or heat recovery ventilation system. If you live in an area with extreme climates, the installation cost could be offset by the monthly savings. However, a milder climate may not see much benefit. The energy required to run these units could gobble up any potential monthly savings if you don’t need much heating and cooling.
What role does your air filter play?
For most homeowners, changing the air filter in their HVAC system very rarely crosses their mind. These filters do need to be changed every few months, though the specific length of time may vary based on the living conditions within your home.
For example, if you spend a lot of time at home and have multiple occupants, most experts will recommend installing a new air filter every one to two months. Single individuals who don’t spend much time at home may be able to extend the time between air filters to three months. A vacation home that is unoccupied for months at a time may only need new air filters every six months or so.
People with severe allergies will likely feel more comfortable and see a decrease in their symptoms when they change their air filters frequently. Regardless of your living situation and family size, you will want to change your filter monthly to alleviate allergy symptoms.
Having a pet, particularly home with multiple pets, will often require their air filters to be changed more frequently. Their pet dander can quickly clog the air filter and cause your HVAC system not to run as efficiently. This means that fresh air isn’t entering your home and the indoor air quality is ultimately suffering. The air filter can’t properly do its job when it isn’t clean.
Next time you need to replace this essential element, take some time to browse through the aisles at your local home improvement store. You may notice how many options are available with prices that range from just a few dollars to rather pricey selections. Does the air filter you choose play any role in your indoor air quality?
There isn’t a standard rating system for air filters, but many options will list the minimum efficiency reporting value (MERV) on the package. This simple rating scale is usually denoted with a number on a scale of one to twenty where the higher the number is, the more likely it is to filter out air pollutants.
At the low end of the MERV rating scale are the flat-panel fiberglass air filters that are the typically the least expensive options. While they are relatively cheap, they often don’t even feature the MERV rating on the package. This is because they will filter out only the largest debris and particles.
These filters are great for people who are on a budget or are only concerned with providing the bare minimum of protection for their HVAC system. However, they will do very little in the way of improving your indoor air quality. They aren’t designed to filter out common pollutants like dust mites or mold spores. Even with a clean air filter, you may still experience some of the immediate health effects related to poor indoor air quality if that filter is inefficient.
If you have severe allergies or want to seriously improve your indoor air quality, it’s recommended that you look for a filter with better capabilities. For example, you may want a medium-efficiency air filter with plenty of pleats. This can help to filter out the most common pollutants from your air including dust, pollen, bacteria, pet dander, and smoke.
It’s recommended to look for an air filter with a medium MERV rating to maximize the efficiency of your HVAC system. Many homes could benefit from a rating between seven and thirteen.
Ratings higher than thirteen are often better suited to commercial buildings because they significantly decrease the efficiency of your HVAC system. The filtration will be much finer and will require more work from your system. This can lead to a sharp increase in the monthly costs as well as adding wear and tear on your air conditioning unit or furnace.
There is often a fine balance between improving the indoor air quality of your home and causing unnecessary stress on your HVAC system. You will have to balance some of these methods with a more common-sense approach to keep your system running efficiently and improving the quality of your indoor air.
Have you struggled with cold-like symptoms that never seem to go away or have been lingering for far too long? It may be time to start investigating some of these common causes and get to work on improving the air quality within your home. You can contact your local HVAC company today to start discussing whether a whole-house ventilation system or a better quality air filter could improve the quality of your indoor air.
Both the immediate and the long-term health effects of poor indoor air quality can be avoided by taking the proper precautions. Many of these steps only require a few minor adjustments to your daily routines but they can yield huge bonuses for your overall health.