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IAQ: What Is Indoor Air Quality?

IAQ: What Is Indoor Air Quality?

Why does indoor air quality (IAQ) matter?

Simply, we spend a lot of time inside. 

In fact, we spend roughly 90% of our time inside. Plus, studies have shown on average that the indoor air we breathe is up to 5 times worse than the air outside. In some cases, the indoor air quality may be up to 100 times worst!

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Still interested in why IAQ matters?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ranked indoor air pollution among the top 5 environmental dangers!

Interestingly, increases in building technology elevate the possible dangers of our home air. Since the 1970’s, new home construction builds home’s tighter. Although this makes our homes more energy efficient, old, stale air remains in the house. Tight homes reduce the ventilation which traps indoor air pollutants inside your home.

According to home energy experts:

“Sources that emit gases or particles into the air are the primary cause of IAQ problems in homes. Poor ventilation can increase levels of these pollutant levels by not directing them outside and by not bringing in enough “fresh” outdoor air to dilute indoor pollutants. High temperature and humidity can also play a role.”

What is Indoor Air Quality?

The EPA defines IAQ as the “air quality within and around buildings and structures, especially as it relates to the health and comfort of building occupants.”

Furthermore, OSHA notes some qualities of good indoor air quality, such as:

  • Comfortable temperature and humidity levels.
  • Adequate supply of fresh outdoor air.
  • Proper control of pollutants (internal and external).

What are the Main Causes of Air Pollution?

First and foremost, understanding and controlling the common pollutants help mitigate poor indoor air quality and the related health concerns. Gas or other particles in the air drive the quality of indoor air. As a result, inadequate ventilation leads to elevated pollutant levels because an insufficient amount of external air fails dilute the gas particles. Or, the tight ventilation prohibits indoor air pollutants from leaving the home. In addition, high temperatures and humidity levels also increase the concentration of air pollutants.

ventilation improves IAQ

Primary IAQ Pollutant Sources

The primary sources of indoor air pollution include building materials and furnishings, such as:

  • deteriorated, asbestos-containing insulation.
  • wet or damp carpet.
  • cabinets or furniture made from certain pressed woods.
  • certain products for household cleaning and maintenance.

In addition, improperly functioning central HVAC and humidification devices impact air quality. Finally, some standard outdoor sources, like radon, pesticides and outdoor air pollution potentially harm your IAQ.

The actual impact of any given source solely depends on proper maintenance. For example, gas stove emissions of carbon monoxide vary based on its proper adjustments. Other common examples of IAQ pollutants include:

  • air fresheners.
  • smoking.
  • malfunctioning stoves.
  • furnaces or space heaters.
  • paint strippers.

High concentrations of pollutants remain in the air for significant amounts of time following cleaning or maintenance activities. However, proper ventilations helps reduce the concentration levels.

What Is the Primary Health Impact of Poor IAQ?

Primarily, poor indoor air quality leads to various health problems. From eye, nose and throat irritation to headaches, dizziness and general fatigue, health problems range from minor to major. For example, homes with significant and sustained IAQ problems potentially expose family members to respiratory or heart disease or even cancer.

IAQ symptoms include headaches

Short-Term and Immediate Impact of Poor IAQ

Certain health effects show within a single exposure, while others require repeated exposures. Fortunately, the immediate health issues, such as headaches and eye irritation, remain treatable. For example, if a home identifies the pollutant source, then removing that source resolves the IAQ issue.

Additionally, immediate reactions depend on certain factors as well, such as older or chronically ill people. Plus, short-term symptoms are similar to simple house colds or other viral diseases. As a result, pay attention and track the time and place of requiring symptoms. For example, if symptoms only occur in a certain place and go away when not in that area, then make an effort to identify the source.

Long-Term Health Impacts of Poor IAQ

Conversely, poor IAQ also presents some significant long-term health impact. Upon years of exposure or long and repeated exposure, very harmful health effects may occur, such as:

  • respiratory diseases.
  • heart disease.
  • cancer.

Understanding the indoor air quality of your home (or office buildings) matters because uncertainty remains in the concentration levels or periods of exposure that produce these harmful health problems. Plus, people react differently to pollutants, so remaining diligent offers the best change to reduce your risks.

How to Identify Indoor Air Pollutants

First, if you suspect IAQ related health issues, discuss the symptoms with your doctor (for home exposure) or local health department (for public exposure). Next, review your home against the common pollutants. Although the presence of common sources does not necessarily mean your home contains poor IAQ, being cognizant of potential exposure helps understand your risks. Plus, look at your lifestyle and hobbies because our activities impact the air we breath. Finally, look at your home ventilation, such as:

  • moisture condensation on windows or walls.
  • smelly or stuffy air.
  • dirty central heating and air cooling equipment.
  • and areas where books, shoes, or other items become moldy.

Also, during your home inspection, step outside into fresh air between your review. If the smells remain on the second test, then look into finding an experienced HVAC technician.

In addition, although a single IAQ test does not exist, conducting an HVAC inspection that ensure proper functioning of the major HVAC components helps. Plus, the inspection should check for other warning signs, such as:

  • general odors.
  • water damage or leaks.
  • excessive dirt or pet droppings.
  • standing water in humidifiers, A/C units or boiler pans.
  • radon testing for asbestos.

For example, homeowners that rely on preventative maintenance receive annual inspections of their heating and cooling systems.

How Do Homeowners Improve IAQ?

Yes, indoor air pollutants potentially cause many health problems. But, homeowners can take steps to improve their indoor air quality as well. In addition to a general inspection, experts recommend significant review of source control, ventilation and air cleaning products.

improve IAQ with ventilation and proper cleaning

IAQ Sources

Generally, the most effective way to improve your IAQ remains eliminating the specific sources causing the air pollution. Or, if the sources cannot be eliminated, then reduce their emissions. As the EPA explains:

“Some sources, like those that contain asbestos, can be sealed or enclosed; others, like gas stoves, can be adjusted to decrease the amount of emissions. In many cases, source control is also a more cost-efficient approach to protecting indoor air quality than increasing ventilation because increasing ventilation can increase energy costs.”

 Improve Home Ventilation

After reviewing, reducing and removing air pollutants, improve your home ventilation. For many homes, this means increasing the amount of external air entering your home. Typically, most home HVAC systems do not automatically bring in outside air into the home. Therefore, and depending on your outside air quality, take some simple steps, such as:

  • open windows and doors (weather permitting).
  • operate window and attic fans.
  • run window A/C units with vent control open.
  • install kitchen or bathroom fans that exhaust directly outside.

Also, pay attention to your daily activities. For example, open windows if you are painting because introducing outdoor air remains a major factor in improving IAQ. The EPA provides some other methods that increase your external air.

  • Natural ventilation, such as through windows and doors.
  • Mechanical intake, such as through outdoor air intakes associated with the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system.
  • Infiltration, which allows outdoor air into the house through openings, joints and cracks in walls, floors and ceilings, and around windows and doors.

Infiltration occurs in all homes to some extent and homeowners need to balance energy costs with proper air quality. However, the EPA shares some improvements in new HVAC systems, which address both scenarios.

“Most residential forced air-heating systems and air-conditioning systems do not bring outdoor air into the house mechanically, and infiltration and natural ventilation are relied upon to bring outdoor air into the home. Advanced designs for new homes are starting to add a mechanical feature that brings outdoor air into the home through the HVAC system. Some of these designs include energy efficient heat recovery ventilators to mitigate the cost of cooling and heating this air during the summer and winter.”

Utilize Air Cleaners

Air cleaners, which differ from air fresheners, help remove particles from the air. However, air cleaners generally do not remove gas pollutants. From simple table top models to comprehensive whole-house systems, effectively utilizing air cleaners helps improve IAQ.

“The effectiveness of an air cleaner depends on how well it collects pollutants from indoor air (expressed as a percentage efficiency rate) and how much air it draws through the cleaning or filtering element (expressed in cubic feet per minute).”

Essentially, an effective air cleaner must provide sufficient air circulation with efficient collector.

Tips to Improve IAQ

In addition to home inspections, annual maintenance and air cleaners, homeowners also have other safety tips at their disposal. For the most part, these simple tips follow the same underlying principles to improving air quality. Identify and remove pollutants!

1. Vacuum

Dander, which is produced by humans and pets, is another major culprit of poor air quality. Lost dander remaining on household appliances, tables or couches, potentially cause allergies or increase dust mites. Therefore, find the right vacuum and use it regularly (every other day if you have pets)!

  • Slow and steady vacuuming keeps dust from flying up into the air. Plus, slow strokes allows the vacuum to effectively remove and contain particulate.
  • Not wearing outside shoes reduces the amount of chemicals and particulates on your floors.
  • Clean the vacuum bag chamber and brushes quarterly (maybe on the same schedule as changing your air filters!). Plus, check the integrity of the belt. Additionally, allow the vacuum to dry before reassembling, which prevents mold from forming.

To find the right vacuum, select a unit with a HEPA filter (High Efficiency Particle Air Filter), which enables a more thorough cleaning because it picks up small microscopic dander that a regular vacuum cannot filter.

2. Reduce VOCs

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) enter your home from personal care products, carpets, furniture, paint, fragrances and other sources. VOCs contain some scary names, like:

  • formaldehyde.
  • toluene.
  • methane.
  • sulfur dioxide.
  • naphthalene.
  • perchloroethylene.
  • ethanol.
  • acetone.

Generally, excessive exposure to VOCs cause the main symptoms of poor indoor air quality like headaches, fatigue and respiratory problems. As a result, improve ventilation and purchase products without synthetic or natural fragrances. Plus, store chemicals outside in a shed or storage area and away from occupied spaces (like an attached garage). In particular, paint contains lots of VOCs, so storing paint outside helps reduce potential pollutants.

3. Reduce Carbon Footprint

As the Indoor Air Quality Association notes, humans product a lot of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the ari, which increases the levels of allergens into the air.

“For example, increased CO2 has been shown to increase the level of tree pollen and fungal spores or mold. Since mold proliferates in warmer temperatures and thrives when CO2 levels rise, this means increased mold in our basements, and areas of our home that contain high moisture content. Higher amounts of fungal spores affect our indoor air quality and can cause a range of unhealthy symptoms.”

Through reducing our carbon footprints, everyone helps lower the environmental factors affecting the air we all breath. Therefore, take a few biking or walking trips instead of driving once a week or month. Plus, complete a home energy audit, which improves your energy efficiency (and reviews your ventilation!). For example, many energy audits reveal that bathroom exhaust simple moves air into another room (like the attic) and not outside. Fixing this issue also helps your ventilation and air quality.

4. Remove Mold from the Home

Mold serves a purpose decomposing our waste, but not in our home. Mold in the home makes us sick. Therefore, removing mold from your home improves your overall health!

Inspect your home for mold and look for visible mold or musty/moldy smells. Look for notable warning signs in places, such as:

  • damp basements.
  • leaking pipes or water damage.
  • potted plants.
  • bookcases.
  • sink traps.
  • refrigerator and freezer doors.
  • fish tanks.
  • humidifiers.
  • plants and bushes outside the home.

Call a professional if you find visible mold larger than 10 square feet. However, at times, mold is not visible because it grows behind walls (typical in many kitchens or bathrooms). As a result, experts recommend a mold test every three years.

More Information About Indoor Air Quality

Indoor air quality is not good or bad. IAQ is a condition of the environmental and human factors that reside in a building or home. Therefore, understanding the pollutants that contribute to good or bad air quality remains the best option for homeowners providing a safe residence.

Local environment makes a big difference. After all, people in California and Connecticut have different air quality and external conditions. To help, the EPA provides a local information. For example, in Connecticut, residents have quick links to real time air quality information, along with access to general air and climate data.

For more, then please find worthwhile links to learn additional information.

At SolvIt, we spend our time helping our communities improve the quality of their homes. To help increase air quality awareness, contact SolvIt today and ask to speak to one of our indoor air quality specialists.