Millions of American homes are contaminated with invisible, hazardous chemicals and organisms. Breathing them in can be like smoking a pack of cigarettes.
Read on to learn where the airborne hazards in your home might be coming from and how to eliminate them.
I live in Utah, and around here air quality is a battle. Every year, from about the time temperatures start to drop, an ominous haze appears overhead that sticks around all the way through spring.
It’s the cause of much hand-wringing and consternation—as it should be. Air pollution destroys lung tissue every bit as much as cigarettes. It causes emphysema, cancer, and a whole list of other terrible diseases.
As someone who works 10 hours a day indoors, I’ve always believed my lungs are being spared. My office, my house, and my car, with their standard little air filters, feel like safe places for healthy breathing!
There’s a growing pile of evidence, though, that’s starting to make me question that assumption. Here’s what I’ve learned about the air in our homes and types of filters we need to really purify it.
The Truth: The Air in Our Homes Is Making Us Sick
Research is showing that rather than a respite from the bad air that surrounds us, our homes can actually be more polluted than the air outside—or as the EPA puts it, “the air within homes and other buildings can be more seriously polluted than the outdoor air in even the most industrialized cities.”
And it’s making us sick…so much so that the medical community has coined a name for illnesses caused by indoor air: “Sick Building Syndrome.” Symptoms can mimic the common cold or heart disease, so it can be tough to diagnose, especially during cold and flu season (yet another reason to prepare for that time of year). Relief only comes when you either leave the building causing the illness or take measures to clean the air inside.
But what exactly is it that’s floating around in our homes that could make us so sick? Here’s a list of likely suspects:
The average person creates about one-third an ounce of dead skin each week—the weight of a car key. This combines with other particles to become dust.
You know those little particles you see in the air when the sun comes through the window? That’s a combination of hair, dander, and (least appetizing of all) dead skin cells. The average person actually creates about one-third an ounce of dead skin each week—the weight of a car key. Multiply that by the number of humans (and pets) living in your home, and you can see how dust accumulates so quickly.
On its own, all that byproduct isn’t too toxic. It’s the stuff it carries that you have to worry about.
For example, dust carries dust mites—there are at least hundreds of thousands of the little buggers in your home at any given time. If you’re having allergic reactions to dust, there’s a good chance it’s actually the dead dust mites and their fecal matter your body is rejecting.
Dust can spread polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a known carcinogen.
Worse than that is possible exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a hazardous, carcinogenic substance that researchers are discovering is spread by dust.
VOLATILE ORGANIC COMPOUNDS (VOCs)
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are toxic gases emitted by substances we all have in our homes: paints, cleaning agents, cosmetics, dry cleaned clothes, and lots more. These emit gas not only when used, but when stored as well. There are usually about 10 times the number of VOCs indoors as there are outdoors.
VOCs are airborne and in many everyday products and can do damage to your body over time.
At their mildest, VOCs can cause allergic reactions in your eyes, nose, and throat. At worse, they can do real damage to your liver, kidney, and nervous system, as well as raise your cancer risk.
If you’ve ever shopped for a home, you may know the surprise of being told the property you’re about to buy has toxic levels of mold. While every home has some mold, many (older homes especially) have levels that can chip away at your health over time.
And mold is far from the only biological contaminant lurking in your air. Pollen, bacteria, and even viruses develop in the little nooks and crannies of your home (drainpipes, humidifiers, etc.) where water collects.
All these substances go airborne easily and can give you colds, allergies, and even Legionnaire’s Disease and Pontiac Fever.
OUTDOOR CONTAMINANTS THAT GET INSIDE
Unless you live in a bubble, air from outside will get into your home. Windows don’t always seal perfectly, doors and walls have cracks, and chimneys get drafty.
Not everyone lives in areas with dangerous air, but there are certainly plenty of pollens, dusts, molds, and even bird dropping particles that get blown in with the wind. These are all get into your lungs, along with the indoor contaminants listed above.
Your Air Filter May Not Be Doing the Job
Many store-bought filters catch particles from five to 10 microns in size—not small enough to catch fungi, bacteria, viruses, smaller dust particles, and VOCs.
The big question is: if most homes come equipped with furnace/ac filters, why is indoor air still so toxic, so often?
Here are a few reasons our air filters may not be doing quite the job we think they are.
FILTER IS TOO THIN
This is the big one. Lots—and we mean lots—of the air filters you find at stores are just too thin to filter out the worst contaminants.
Even the nicer filters only catch particles from five to 10 microns in size. That means the majority of the floaties we’ve discussed in this article are still going to be thick in your air. Things like fungi, bacteria, viruses, smaller dust particles, and VOCs will mostly get through the filter.
NOT ENOUGH AIR FLOW
Filters can only clean the air that’s running through them, and if your furnace and/or AC isn’t properly sized for your home, it may not be running enough to filter your air thoroughly.
IMPROPERLY INSTALLED FILTERS
Air particles are minuscule, and if your filter isn’t installed just so, lots of them are going to get through and pass into your air.
Sometimes, air ducts can crack or even collapse (this happened in my crawl space—we had no idea!), letting outside air in that bypasses your filter entirely.
IMPROPERLY INSTALLED DUCTS
Then there’s just plain installation errors (handymen are human too). It’s not unheard of for an installer to accidentally connect your outdoor air duct to the return side of your system. That could feed unfiltered air into your home for years without you ever knowing it.
Solution: Supplemental Filters
That’s not to say you should give up on the air filter in your furnace.
The best way to ensure clean air is to supplement your filtration. We suggest an air purifier with multiple purification stages that include a true HEPA air filter. This kind of purifier should be able to pick up 99% of dangerous particles in your air—including the stuff that slips through your filter.
With this kind of layered approach, the air in your home can transform in a matter of hours!