5 Tips for Healthy Winter Indoor Air
Winter is here. There’s no doubt about that. But did you know that when Jack Frost shows his frosty face the quality of your indoor air goes way down? Every winter we run the same rituals. Hunker down. Seal up house. Flip on your fans in reverse. And the coziest of them all, light the wood burning stove and start a blaze in the fireplace. While all of these are excellent energy saving tips, they also spell out a recipe for respiratory disaster.
Winter Indoor Air Can Be Worse Than Outdoor Air
Most people recognize that outdoor pollution can wreak havoc on your health. But did you know that indoor air can have the same effects? The quality of indoor air can actually be 2 to 5 times (and even up to 100 times) more polluted than the worst outside air, says the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Those are some pretty scary stats.
When we hide away from frigid Mr. Frost, we also trap in all the irritants and pollutants that are lurking in our homes. Since opening the windows to let the bad stuff out isn’t exactly an option in the winter, here are five tips on how you can keep your indoor air healthy and still stay warm. But first, let’s look at some of the potential hazards we can avoid like scents, fires, and plain ol’ pollutants.
Scents, Suds and Softeners:
Years into the natural products movement has made us aware that our favorite perfumes, fresheners or cleansers can be hazardous to our health. During the winter, when the windows are closed tight, we need to be extra aware for every spritz we spray we could be releasing toxins into the air.
Cleaning products tend to be the most toxic items found in our homes. Surprisingly, mainly due the fragrances in them. The Organic Consumers Association tells us that in an article titled “How toxic are your household cleaning supplies?”, The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health has found that one-third of the substances used in the fragrance industry are toxic. These scents may be the biggest culprits for causing respiratory irritations, headaches, sneezing, and watery eyes. And buyer beware, because chemical formulas of fragrances are considered trade secrets, companies are not required to the actual ingredients on the label, only the term “fragrance”.
This issue was also partially brought to light back in 2007 in a study conducted by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), called, “Clearing the Air: Hidden Hazards of Air Fresheners”. The study found that 86% of the air fresheners tested contained dangerous phthalates. While this study is specific to synthetic air fresheners, phthalates have been found in everything from cleaning agents to cosmetics. Even now, almost 10 years later FDA labeling laws still don’t require full disclosure on cosmetics that contain “fragrant” phthalates.
Wood Burning Fires:
Looking forward to relaxing by the fire? This classic winter warming method can release potentially hazardous particles from the smoke into the air. Scientists have been raising red flags about the potential health effects of the smoke released from burning wood for years. A study titled “Chemical Research in Toxicology“, published in the American Chemical Society’s (ACS’) journal, found that the invisible particles inhaled into the lungs from wood smoke are small enough to be inhaled into the deepest parts of the lungs, causing some really nasty health issues.
Just a few weeks ago, the city of San Francisco issued a “Spare the Air” alert banning burning wood, manufactured fire logs or any other solid fuel, both indoors and outdoors for 24 hours. Jack Broadbent, the executive officer of the San Francisco Bay Area Air District cited the reason for the ban as “Air pollution from wood smoke is one of the greatest health threats to Bay Area residents during the winter months.” And that “just one burning fireplace can create unhealthy air for an entire neighborhood.”
If an entire city is concerned about the quality of indoor air from just one wood fire, perhaps we should be concerned too.
Plain ol’ Pollutants:
Many of us have already learned how to dodge the phthalates bullet and a relaxing night by the fire is saved for special occasions or during a winter getaway. But that doesn’t keep us safe from our daily duties that ultimately add to our bad indoor air.
Everyday items and actions let damaging fumes and irritants into our lives. We unknowingly track pesticides, pollen (yes there are winter plants) and other outdoor pollutants into our homes. Noxious vapors, grease and smoke can be released when cooking and linger along with the fabulous fragrant foods we prepare. Our favorite furry friends spend more time indoors, and so does their pet dander. With windows closed tight, lingering moisture from the bathroom creates the perfect breeding ground for mold. And for those who still smoke, well there’s no place for the secondhand smoke to go.
With potential pollutants in virtually every room in the house it’s a wonder how you could ever expect to breathe easy again. But don’t despair. Improving your indoor air quality isn’t as difficult (or expensive) as you may think.
5 Tips to Keep Your Indoor Air Healthy This Winter
1) Regular Cleaning:
A no brainer right? Only if you choose your cleaning products wisely (as we learned above.) Try buying fragrance-free, non-toxic cleaners that are gentler on human health and the environment. The American Academy of Dermatology advises people to be sure packaging specifically states “fragrance-free” and not “unscented”. Unscented products contain fragrances to mask a strong odor in the formula, while fragrance free literally means no fragrances were added to the product.
Better yet, try making your own household products. Nothing beats a simple mix of water, non-toxic soap, vinegar, lemon juice, and baking soda. Add a few drops of your favorite essential oil or blend to create an all-natural, chemical-free alternatives for everyday household needs.
Regular dusting and frequent vacuuming will help reduce airborne pollutants like mold, pollen, pet dander, and dust mites. Be sure to use a damp cloth rather than a feather duster. And don’t forget to the hard-to-reach areas such as ceiling fans, air vents and the tops of large pieces of furniture.
2) Indoor Living Plants and Herb Gardens:
Placing living plants and herbs throughout the home is an easy way to clean and purify the air. Not to mention the killer culinary dishes you could create with a fresh herb garden at your fingertips.
Way back in the 1980’s NASA put household plants to the test when they were looking for a solution for indoor air pollution in small, enclosed spaces. In the NASA Clean Air Study, researchers tested the effects of common household plants on removing Formaldehyde from the air, in a 24 hour time period. They found a simple Aloe Vera plant can remove 1,500 micrograms while a Bamboo Palm can remove 76,707. That study definitely showcases the power of plants!
They also suggest efficient air cleaning is accomplished with at least one plant per 100 square feet of home or office space. For those with furry friends, please make sure your plants are non-toxic.
3) Pamper your Pets:
And speaking of furry friends, think about treating Fido to a spa day during the dog days of winter. Regular baths and brushings will not only help keep pet dander away, it also helps to control shedding by stimulating the oil producing glands. If you are prone to pet allergies, consider keeping the bedroom pet free. This will help reduce the allergens in an area where you spend a third of your day.
4) Switching from Synthetic Scents:
Switching from synthetic scents to essential oils will help reduce the amount of toxic “fragrances” you put on your skin and breathe in every day. Make sure you purchase oils that are pure plant products as some synthetic oils do exist. Add a few drops of your scent to a spray bottle with regular water and you will have an all-natural “fragrance-free” mister.
5) Air Purifiers:
Good air purifiers will improve indoor air quality by removing allergens, harmful particles, and odors. There are many types of air purifiers on the market, ranging in price from under a $100 dollars to an investment of thousands. You will find many purifiers to fit any budget, including high-efficiency particulate arrestance (HEPA), activated carbon, ion and ozone generators, and water-based table top air purifiers. Each option has its own pro’s and con’s. Be sure to do your research before purchasing a purifier to make sure you buy the best one to fit both your space and your budget.
So this winter, stay warm and stay inside when needed. Just be sure to also keep tabs on how healthy your indoor air may be.
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