Indoor or Outdoor Air?
Spent anytime in a big city this summer? If you have, chances are you’ve participated in a muggy, smog-filled afternoon. The haze that sits on the horizon is a powerful visual, sparking images of black exhaust belching from old buses and smoke stacks spewing soot into the air – this is about the time we panic and think, "I better get out of this stuff!" But is the air really cleaner inside? Is it really greener to be inside rather than out? Let us know what you’ve heard or experienced when it comes to indoor vs. outdoor air pollution. Then check back and see what the Live Earth Green Team has to say on the subject.
Make no mistake, there is nothing good about air pollution and the particles that make up the smog we can actually see. But it’s a common misconception that the air outside is dirtier than the air we breathe inside our homes, offices, restaurants and cars. You don’t need to be sitting in a bar with a bunch of people smoking cigarettes (not that that’s legal anymore) to experience bad air quality. Toxin levels in the air inside buildings can often be up to 60% higher than those outside. The scary truth: Often what hurts us most is what we don’t see.
We spend most of our waking and sleeping hours indoors, some studies say up to 90%, but most people associate allergies and asthma with outdoor pollens and irritants. The truth is that the same allergens found in the outdoor environment are often stronger in our indoor environment and can be attributed to any number of things. Building materials such as wood, paint, drywall, insulation and sealants are all potential sources, as well as furniture, cleaning products, pesticides (which we track in with our big shoes!), office equipment (printers, faxes, copiers) and heating and air-conditioning units.
Here’s the thing: many of the products we buy and put into our homes and offices contain volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) and chemicals such as formaldehyde, dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyl, all of which can potentially leek out (known as "off-gas") and can be potentially harmful.
But wait – don’t move to a tent just yet! It’s true that in certain circumstances, many of these factors, combined with poor ventilation and inefficient air circulation can result in what experts call "sick building syndrome." The good news is that many of these issues can be improved and even eliminated by taking a few simple steps.
Keep It Clean
Yes, believe it or not, controlling the amount of dirt and dust in our indoor environment will significantly improve overall air quality. Carpets, furniture and drapes can hold on to some of the airborne pollens, dust and other VOC’s we want out, and simply keeping things clean (by using non-toxic cleaning products, of course) can greatly reduce unwanted elements.
It’s obvious that keeping your home or office smoke free will drastically improve air quality, but so will keeping pesticides out of your yard. Think of how many nasty things the bottom of our shoes can encounter in a single day – wiping your shoes or, for that matter, taking them off, before you enter your house (or someone else’s) is both healthy and polite.
Let the air in
Proper ventilation is also very important. Something as simple as opening up the windows to let fresh air in (I know, tough during scorching summer and freezing winter months), or operating surface or ceiling fans can help a lot. New buildings are designed for energy efficiency and are often sealed tight, and some may argue that opening these gaps may compromise efficiency and increase costs, but the least you want to do is be sure that your heating and air conditioning systems are in good working condition – that they properly ventilate, are kept clean and have fresh filters (any mold or other pollutant trapped in these systems can spread rapidly throughout).
Air purifiers are another consideration. They are effective if used in a controlled space, like a smaller room with the windows closed but are not so effective in larger spaces. Another concern is that many models, ionic in particular, produce ozone, which is known to be harmful to your health. If there’s a Smog Alert outside, an air purifier is certainly better than opening the window, just make sure it has a high Clean Air Delivery Rate (will say on the side of the box) and a clean filter and produces little or no ozone.
Green makes clean
Another thing you can do is add plants to your indoor space. A study co-authored by NASA back in the late 80’s showed that some indoor plants have proved to be especially good at absorbing harmful toxins because they had evolved to survive beneath the low light canopies in the rainforests. Just be sure to keep them healthy and don’t over-water as that may facilitate the growth of some of the microorganisms you’re trying get rid of!
The Bottom Line
While we may have limited options in a city with dire outdoor air quality, there are simple, immediate solutions available for the air we breathe indoors. By keeping it clean, increasing ventilation, using non-toxic cleaners and non-VOC paints and by adding some greenery to our home or offices, we can all breath a lot cleaner and greener in our indoor space.
For everything you want to know about indoor air quality and more, visit: http://www.epa.gov/iaq/index.html
For more information on the most effective houseplants, visit: http://www.cleanairgardening.com/houseplants.html