Author: Philipp Seidel, Project Leader Marketing & Communications
When we think of “air quality”, we tend to think of air pollution in the regions surrounding our homes. We rely on measures such as the Air Quality Index to let us know when airborne pollutants in our towns or cities reach levels that may cause or exacerbate health issues.1 When summer humidity brings an increased risk for asthma sufferers or when dangerous smog accumulates in cities, the message is simple: to protect your health, stay indoors.
However, some of the most polluted air we breathe is found indoors. From dust to formaldehyde to radon, unseen elements and particulate matter inside our homes and offices can cause both short- and long-term health issues. Given that Americans spend about 90% of their time indoors, measuring and controlling indoor air quality should be a top priority.
With a growing body of research pointing to a link between COVID-19 cases and low humidity and/or high levels of pollution, being able to control and monitor these variables is more important than ever. In this article, we explore the causes of indoor air pollution, the steps we can take to improve indoor air quality, and, importantly, the future possibilities for improving indoor air quality in every home.
The causes and effects of indoor air pollution
Indoor air pollution can come from many sources. Some, such as fuel-burning appliances and indoor smoking, are relatively obvious. Others are not as readily apparent. Building materials including plywood, adhesives, and insulation – all found throughout the home – can also be sources of formaldehyde, benzene, and a host of other Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). Even some cleaning products, such as detergents and shampoos, can contain formaldehyde.
When it comes to pollution, enclosed spaces can be dangerous. Poor ventilation inside homes means that hazardous gases and airborne pollutants of all kinds can accumulate easily and hang around for long periods. Low levels of ventilation combined with poorly sealed foundations, in particular, can also lead to the accumulation of radon, a hazardous radioactive gas, inside homes (the amount can vary drastically depending on where you live).
The effects of these various substances on health can be severe. Immediate effects of exposure include irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, along with headaches, dizziness, and fatigue. Combinations of different pollutants can have additive or synergistic effects, and the long-term effects of exposure to certain common pollutants can be debilitating or fatal: these include respiratory diseases, heart disease, and cancer.
Man with headache
How to improve air quality in your home
Fortunately, several practical steps can be taken to improve air quality and safety within the home.
Prevention is better than a cure: the best way to reduce the presence of harmful pollutants in the home is to eliminate their sources. Restricting the use of certain materials in the home and opting for hypoallergenic (or “green”) cleaning products are effective ways of improving indoor air quality. Some sources can be enclosed (such as those containing asbestos); while fuel-burning appliances can be adjusted to decrease the amount of emissions. However, the removal of sources of pollution is not always practical when so many common household items and materials are known sources of pollutants.
Ventilate your home
Perhaps the easiest method of air quality control, increasing ventilation can have drastic effects. Cracking open a window, opening a door, or running a window air conditioner are all effective ways of increasing the outdoor air ventilation rate inside your home and preventing the accumulation of harmful pollutants. Kitchen or bathroom extractor fans that exhaust outdoors are also effective at removing pollution directly from those areas and bringing outdoor air into the house.
Air cleaning and filtration
Air cleaners and filters are effective at removing particulate matter from the air in your home. Although they’re generally not designed to remove gaseous pollutants, reduction of particulates is important for people with asthma and can improve pulmonary function. When choosing an air filter, bear in mind that the performance of different air filters is highly variable – it’s important to choose one that has both a high collector efficiency and a high air-circulation rate, and to change the filters regularly.
The future of indoor air quality control
Throughout the world, we’re experiencing an increase in the use of networkable sensors and controllers (such as intelligent thermostats, automated lighting, and keyless locking systems) to automate our homes. This increase in home automation, dubbed the “smart home revolution”, offers an opportunity to take control of our indoor air quality.
Developments in environmental sensing technology mean that we can now measure levels of indoor air pollutants such as CO₂, particulate matter, and VOCs with more precise, efficient, and compact sensors than ever before. Future smart home systems could use sensors like these to continuously monitor indoor air quality and activate mechanical ventilation systems before pollutants reach dangerous levels.
As well as measuring concentrations of pollutants, such systems are also capable of monitoring humidity levels. The petition 40to60RH points to the growing body of evidence linking relative humidity levels outside the “optimal” 40-60% range to increased incidence of respiratory disease. In the future, the incorporation of smart indoor air quality control systems into new build homes could have far-reaching consequences for our collective wellbeing.
Indoor air quality is a serious issue for public health. There are clear guidelines for indoor air quality laid out by the World Health Organization and Environmental Protection Agency, and organizations such as ASHRAE are laying the foundations to integrate these considerations into our building practices.
We may soon see our indoor air quality taken as seriously as outdoor air quality, with a legislature that defines acceptable levels of pollutants in our homes, schools, and offices. When this happens, environmental sensing solutions and smart control systems will be crucial to ensure safe, clean air for everyone.