One of the sad ironies of this pandemic is that just as air pollution has drastically dropped in public spaces around the world, we can’t take advantage of the fresh air. Even worse, the air we’re breathing inside may be worse than the air in LA at the height of rush-hour traffic. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), while the effect of one type of indoor pollutant may be minimal, the cumulative effect of the hundreds or even thousands of intermingling chemicals and particulates from our decor and activities pose a serious risk to our health, both in the short and long terms.
The American Lung Association concurs. “Poor indoor air quality can cause or contribute to the development of infections, lung cancer, and chronic lung diseases such as asthma.” And that’s just for your lungs.
Now more than ever, we should be doing everything we can to guard our health.
If you’re motivated to freshen up or renovate your home while you’re stuck inside, make sure to prioritize reducing indoor air pollution and toxic chemicals. Here are the seven proven ways to do just that:
#1. Simplify your cleaning products
I’ve been seeing a trend on social media of people stating that at this moment, they want the most toxic cleaning products possible. But I promise, you do not need them!
During the COVID-19 pandemic, you can use the mild and non-toxic cleaning substances that I’m about to describe to get your home smelling and looking fresh and clean, and then go over hard surfaces with an anti-bacterial spray. According to Good Housekeeping (the media company that rigorously fact checks and tests any DIY claims), you can use a variety of simple and un-scary products to kill flu germs, such as 70% isopropyl alcohol spray.
So no need to go nuclear with your cleaning products. Pretty much everything can be accomplished with different combinations of water, soap, vinegar, baking soda, hydrogen peroxide, vodka, lemon juice, those wall eraser sponges, and a little elbow grease. For specific recipes, I recommend Kathryn Kellogg’s book 101 Ways to Go Zero Waste.
#2. Buy your hard furniture secondhand
That “new furniture” smell is the smell of benzene, ethylene glycol, and formaldehyde, which have been linked to anemia and a weakened immune system, poor kidney function, and cancer respectively. Those are just the notable and studied substances. There could be a hundred more from just one piece of furniture, especially notoriously toxic particle-board furniture.
Most of this off-gassing occurs within weeks of a new piece of furniture being unwrapped, so buying your furniture secondhand is one way to affordably ensure that it’s not polluting your home’s air. Buying secondhand also prevents items from going to the landfill.
If you want to buy your furniture new, then look for Greenguard-certified low-emission products, and still let them sit outside your home for at least a week. And ventilate as much as possible in the summer, when off-gassing is at its highest. Open several windows at least once a day to create a cross-breeze. Bonus points if you can install an attic fan for improved air flow.
#3. Invest in a non-toxic mattress
In a lab test commissioned by ABC News in 2012, a crib mattress emitted more than 100 different chemicals, including industrial solvents and alcohols. And that’s a baby mattress! Because your mattress is something you’ll be putting your face next to for eight hours a night for the next five years at least, it’s important to invest in a mattress that is non-toxic and free of the flame retardants, volatile organic compounds, and formaldehyde that come on typical mattresses.
Look for Oeko-Tex and Greenguard-certified mattresses from companies that are transparent about exactly what goes into their product, including what kind of fabrics, foams, and glues they use. I’ve put together a list of options for you to consider.
Keep the energy grid clean and non-toxic. Become an Arcadia member.Check availability
#4. Avoid and replace stain-resistant and non-stick products
As of right now, there is no good non-toxic way to treat fabrics to make them reliably stain-resistant. To make your carpet and furniture impervious to red wine and other stains, manufacturers apply a notoriously toxic finish of PFAS, which has been linked to liver, immune system, and neurological damage as well as cancer. (Want to scare yourself? Read this or watch this.)
These chemicals are persistent and never break down. They shed onto your floor, absorb through your skin, and go into your food. In the past few years, some manufacturers have wised up and started getting rid of PFAS chemicals. You can look at the list of manufacturers who have done so here. Then you should replace any stain-proof carpeting, non-stick pans, and stain-resistant upholstered furniture and clothing that you bought more than five years ago, and resist the siren call of using stain-prevention spray products in your home.
#5. Only use non-toxic paint
If you’re looking around your home and thinking it’s ready for a spruce-up, make sure to choose low- or no-volatile organic compound (VOC) paints. Off-gassing paint can cause headaches and dizziness in the short term and may also cause cancer in the long term. Luckily, I can tell you from personal experience (and Consumer Reports backs me up) that the low-VOC paints perform just as well as the old toxic kind. But just to be safe, save your repainting for a day when you can open your windows for ventilation.
#6. Ventilate your kitchen properly
Because cooking is such an innocuous, normal activity, scientists have not studied how it affects indoor air quality until recently. But research is showing that making an ambitious meal can push particulate levels inside your home up to levels that would trigger health warnings if they were recorded outside in a smoggy city. Researchers aren’t sure yet exactly what health effects cooking particulates have, but only because they haven’t yet been researched. But the evidence so far has alarmed scientists.
The best solution is to have a hood over your stove that ventilates to the outside, but if you can’t do that, a recirculating hood is better than nothing. If you don’t have a vented hood but have a window in your kitchen, make sure to crack the top open while you cook. And also regularly clean your oven. If just turning it on sets your fire alarm off, that means it’s disbursing particulates into your home. If cooking particulates really worry you, you can also switch to an electric range instead of a gas stove with burners. (Sorry to the home chefs reading this.)
#7. Try an air filter
Plants are great for your mood — I have about 15 in my one-bedroom apartment — but I have disappointing news for you: That thing everyone keeps saying about plants filtering the air is not really true. You would have to put somewhere from 10 to 1,000 plants per square meter of your home to have any real effect on indoor air quality. So, essentially, turn your entire home into a greenhouse and you’ll be okay! Until you have to deal with all the insect life and humidity that will come with that insane density of plants, that is.
The best thing for your health is to keep your windows open when you can. For days and nights when you need to keep your windows closed, buy yourself an air filter for every room you spend a significant amount of time in. We bought a Blueair filter for our bedroom when my husband was wheezing at night, and it made an immediate difference.
I would still like to know what it’s filtering that has caused him problems and address the cause rather than the symptom. But until then, it’s given us peace of mind.