Our homes are our sanctuaries—a fact that became clear to a lot of people this past year when they suddenly had to spend all their time there. But your indoor air might be dirtier than you think, and that could be making it uncomfortable at home, and potentially even make you sick.
There are a few things you can do to help and devices you can buy, like an air purifier, a dehumidifier, and a humidifier. But they aren’t cheap, so you don’t need to spend the money on anything if you aren’t already struggling with your indoor air quality. These are potential tools, not necessities. While their names are self-explanatory, it’s not as easy to figure out when each one is actually needed in your home. We talked to experts, read research reports, and tested some products. Below is what we found, and what we advise.
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What’s the Problem With Indoor Air?
The air, unfortunately, is filthy. Generally it’s full of dust; pet dander; outdoor pollutants, which could include wildfire smoke depending on where you live; formaldehyde, which can come from wood furniture; and particulate matter. Your indoor air can also include a number of volatile organic compounds. However, VOCs overall aren’t a health issue, only specific ones, and those will vary from house to house.
The World Health Organization estimates that nine out of 10 people are exposed to air pollution that increases their risk for several diseases, including stroke, heart disease, and cancer.
“There are many pollutants that can be found in someone’s home depending on many factors such as geographic location, or the age of the home and the building materials used,” says Joe Heaney, president of Lotus Biosecurity, a company in the indoor-air-quality-improvement business. “If you have a home with a wood-burning stove or fireplace, those are likely to introduce particulate matter into your indoor air, which can cause a range of respiratory symptoms and illnesses. Mold, dust, or pet hair can be a source of allergies, and pathogens (while not pollutants) introduced to the house by friends and neighbors may cause illness.”
On a basic level, when the air inside is stuffy, too dry, or too humid, it affects the way you feel, worsening cold and allergy symptoms, drying out your sinuses and skin, and even attributing to mold growth. But it can get much worse than that.
“Poor indoor air quality can affect even the healthiest lungs,” says Kenneth Mendez, president of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. “Pollutants can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat, and cause headaches, dizziness, and fatigue. This can trigger allergy symptoms including chest tightness, coughing, wheezing, sneezing, shortness of breath, and even asthma attacks.”
See the testing section below on how to monitor the air in your home, but before testing your air or purchasing anything, try to first tackle some of the biggest causes of dirty air. “We like to focus on the technologies, but the process is much more important,” says Jeffrey Siegel, a researcher at the University of Toronto who studies indoor air quality, filtration, and air cleaning. These are the steps he recommends: