Green Interiors

A breath of fresh air at home
by Pamela Portwood

We're sealing our homes up tight these days. Adding new windows, weather stripping and better insulation - we're doing this and more to save energy. The concept is the tighter the seal, the greater the energy savings. Unfortunately, a tight seal can create an unhealthy living space.

The air inside buildings is typically two to five times more polluted than outdoor air, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. A well sealed home compounds the existing indoor air quality (IAQ) problems.

So how do we foster good indoor air quality in our homes? First, we need to reduce the number and strength of indoor air pollutants.

One of the biggest culprits in generating poor indoor air quality is volatile organic compounds. VOCs are carbon-based compounds that evaporate easily into the air. That familiar "new paint" or "new furniture" smell actually is caused by VOCs off gassing.

Why worry about VOCs and other indoor air pollutants? VOCs can cause a host of health problems from exacerbating asthma and allergies to scratchy throats, headaches and fatigue. Formaldehyde, a VOC in standard plywood and pressed board, has been labeled a human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Many products contribute to poor IAQ in homes by emitting small particles as well as by off gassing VOCs. Cleaning products, tobacco smoke, fireplace smoke, adhesives, floor and window coverings, paint and furniture are a few these products. Biological pollutants like mold, pollen, animal dander and dust mites also cause health problems.

Avoiding pollutants in remodeling or constructing new homes involves changing some standard materials and construction practices. Yet, anyone - not just new homeowners - can improve the IAQ in their living spaces by making some simple lifestyle changes.

Using natural cleaning products, smoking outside, leaving your shoes at the front door, washing bedding weekly in hot water (130 degrees) to kill dust mites and using high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) vacuum cleaners and air filters are some lifestyle changes that will improve your home's IAQ.

When building or remodeling, look for wood, flooring, cabinetry and paints that are certified as low- or no-VOC by agencies like Greenguard, Green Seal or the California Air Resources Board (CARB). For the installation, ask that all adhesives and finishes are water based to avoid VOC emissions.

When purchasing new furniture, ask the same questions about its wood and construction. New upholstered furniture brings up the hazards of petroleum-based foam cushions and fabrics that off gas. Selecting cushions made from soy, down or other materials that don't off gas is a healthier choice.

Fabric on upholstery and window coverings can be organic or certified for low-VOCs and for using low-impact dyes. Another option is used or antique furniture that has already off gassed VOCs.

In terms of controlling pollutants like dust, I think that hard flooring with a loose rug that can be removed for cleaning is a better option than carpeting.

If your home doesn't have an air exchange unit that exchanges indoor air with fresh outdoor air, you can open your windows regularly - ideally for 10 minutes daily - to release polluted air. (The first time I did this, it felt like a breath of fresh air was entering the rooms.) Using vented fans in your bathroom and kitchen (or opening windows) can prevent mold growth.

Improving your home's indoor air quality is one of the best ways to promote your and your family's health. Since VOCs are the major component of smog, you'll be promoting the environment's health, too.

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Article is reprinted courtesy of The New Southwest (formerly Tucson Green Times).


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