10 Everyday Mistakes That Could Affect Your Home's Air Quality

When you think of pollution, the air outside probably comes to mind, but the air quality inside your home is also important. Mites, Gases like carbon monoxide, mold, pollen, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other pollutants can float through the air unseen, triggering allergies or serious health problems. And while they may seem harmless, some everyday activities, such as cooking, cleaning or showering, can make your indoor air quality worse. Fortunately, a few simple steps can help you and your family breathe a little easier. Avoid these common mistakes to ensure that the air in your home is as clean as it can be.

1. You are bringing pollutants into your home.

Removing your shoes at the front door can reduce the number of allergens and germs brought into your home. "Pollens are microscopic particles that get into your eyes, nose, hair and on your clothes," says Amy Shah, MD, an allergist, immunologist and internal medicine physician in Phoenix. A pair of doormats - one outside and one inside - will limit the number of outdoor allergens that cross the threshold. The indoor mat should be easy to pick up and shake out on the outside, but it's still a good idea to vacuum the area often; every day is not overkill when allergies are at their peak. Keep a stiff boot brush on your doorstep to help remove dirt from boots.

2. You can't control humidity.

If a room is damp or smells musty, it's a red flag that mold may be growing and dust mites proliferating. To measure humidity, buy an inexpensive hygrometer at your local hardware store or online and make sure the humidity stays below 60 percent, says David Corry, M.D., professor of medicine in the section of immunology, allergy and rheumatology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. If the temperature is above that threshold, consider adding a dehumidifier.

"The heat and humidity make the bathroom the main place where dust mites and molds grow." Wash towels at least once a week and open a window or turn on an exhaust fan every time you shower. Exhaust fans are designed to pull moisture out of the air and can get dirty, so consider bringing in a professional to clean and maintain the system each year.

3. You don't regularly replace the filter in your HVAC system.

Your heating and air conditioning system is continually filtering the air when it's on. For best results, pay attention to the filters. First, replace them at least every six months (set a reminder on the calendar). Second, use the right type of filter. "HEPA filters remove almost all particles from the air passing through them, but most residential HVAC systems are not designed to use a HEPA filter."Use the right type of filter," says Richard Corsi, M.D., dean of the Maseeh College of Engineering & Computer Science at Portland State University. If you can't use a HEPA filter, research the filters you're considering. "Most air filters have a MERV (minimum efficiency value) rating. The higher the number, the more particles the filter removes from the air. Go as high as your HVAC system can handle.

Also, if your system is set to run the fan even if the air conditioning or heating is off, consider turning it on so that the air is constantly recirculating through the filter.

4. You always keep the windows closed.

Even a few minutes of fresh air can improve indoor air quality. Opening a window increases the airflow, removing any pollution. However, on days when ozone levels are high, keep the windows closed.

However, if you suffer from seasonal allergies, opening the windows means letting in pollen. It's best to keep the windows closed in the bedroom, where you spend a lot of time, and turn on the air conditioner, says Tania Elliott, M.D., spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI).

5. You burn scented candles in closed rooms.

They smell good, but scented candles are not great for air quality. That's because anything scented contains VOCs, or volatile organic compounds. "There are thousands of different VOCs. Some are harmless, others are pretty bad for your health. And there's no easy way to tell them apart," Collins says. "If VOC concentrations are high in your home, they can mix with other elements in the air and form dangerous chemicals like formaldehyde."

Another drawback: Many VOCs tend to stay indoors, partly because modern, energy-efficient homes are well-sealed and partly because the vapors cling to walls and surfaces and then slowly escape into the air, says Delphine Farmer, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry at Colorado State University. If you want to burn your favorite scented candle for a little while, open a window nearby. Unscented candles produce fewer VOCs, so this isn't a big problem.

6. You use too many disinfectants.

Cleaning chemicals like ammonia, bleach and hydrogen peroxide disinfect well but can irritate the airways. Try to use them only when you need to disinfect and kill bacteria, and limit yourself to one product at a time (this prevents the chemicals from mixing in the air, which can increase their toxicity). Open the windows of the room you are cleaning and leave the room when you are finished so you don't inhale fumes while the air is clearing. Also try to avoid lemon or pine scented cleaners; the VOCs in these scents react particularly well with other chemicals in the air. For general cleaning, consider using a natural product, a homemade vinegar-based product or good old-fashioned soapy water.

7. You mask odors with aerosols.

Aerosols quickly cover unpleasant odors, but beware: They emit fine particles into the air, which you inhale. If you are not sensitive to essential oilsthese are a better option. Lavender and peppermint are generally fine for most people. Add a drop or two to your diffuser or your air freshener or in the bathroom, put a drop inside the toilet paper roll. If you are sensitive to fragrances, choose fragrance-free products, not unscented ones, or open a window to air out the room.

8. You don't ventilate when you cook.

"If you have a gas stove with an open flame, it emits carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides, which are pollutants," Collins says. Even though electric stoves and toaster ovens don't have an open flame, they still emit particulates that you don't want to breathe in. That's why it's important to use ventilation when you cook. Check the type of exhaust fan you have: The most efficient type of fan filters the air and exhausts the toxins outside. If yours recirculates the air, open a window.

9. You don't have zippered dust mite covers for your bed

Thirty percent of the world's population is allergic to dust mites. They are everywhere; on your laundry, your fabric sofa, your fabric teddy bears and especially in your bed and pillows! In fact, these microscopic little bugs love moist environments and feed on dead human skin particles, making your bed an ideal host for them. They can be counted in the millions in your pillows and bed if they are not protected with dust mite covers with certified zipper. With these dust mite covers, you will preserve the life of your bed against fluids, molds and bacteria while improving the air quality of your bedroom. It is very important to have dust mite protection on all 6 sides of the mattress so that when someone sits on the bed, allergens are not dispersed into the air of the room. No wonder many allergists recommend this type of product for people with allergies to dust mites.

10. You don't have a portable air purifier.

When they first came on the market, self-contained air filters received mixed reviews, but they have improved dramatically since then and can be a worthwhile investment. Do your homework to make sure you're buying a good model. The higher the clean air delivery rate [CADR] of the portable HEPA filter, the better the system... Make sure your unit's CADR is certified by the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, which also lists the floor area the units can handle. "says Douglas Collins, assistant professor of chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley.

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