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A Guide to Indoor Air Quality Testing: What You Need to Know

A Guide to Indoor Air Quality Testing: What You Need to Know

When most people discuss air pollution, they’re often focused solely on outdoor air. Conversations that concern air pollution rarely focus on indoor air. While it’s true that outdoor air quality is important and that pollution does impact it, it’s important to understand that indoor air can be just as negatively impacted by pollution. In fact, you might be surprised to learn that it’s estimated that indoor air is often between 2 and 5 times more polluted than outdoor air, and in extreme cases, indoor air can even be as much as 100 times more polluted than outdoor air!

Given the fact that the average person spends up to 90 percent of their time inside, coupled with the fact that the air you breathe has a direct impact on your overall health and well-being, it’s kind of important to be aware of your home’s indoor air quality. How can you do that? By making arrangements to have home air quality tests performed on a regular basis, even if you don’t suspect that your indoor air is polluted.

What is indoor air quality? How does it impact your health? How does it become polluted? What should you expect during a home air quality test? How can you improve the quality of your home’s indoor air? Read on to find the answers to these questions and more.

What Is Indoor Air Quality Anyway?

 Put simply, indoor air quality (IAQ), as the term suggests, refers to a metric that is used to measure the quality of air that circulates inside a structure or building, particularly as it relates to the health and comfort of the occupants of the structure or building. Airborne pollutants have a direct impact on indoor air quality. The greater the amount of pollutants that are circulating through the air in your home, the worse your indoor air quality will be; conversely, the lower the level of pollutants that are circulating through your home’s air, the better your indoor air quality will be.

What Causes Poor Indoor Air Quality?

Now that you have a basic understanding what indoor air quality is, in order to understand why it’s so important, you need to know what factors contribute to poor quality indoor air. There are several factors that can affect your home’s air quality, including activities that occur indoors, things that you bring inside, your home’s ventilation system, and the climate in general.

With that said, here’s a look at some of the most common pollutants that can impact the quality of your home’s indoor air:

  • Cleaning products that contain chemicals
  • Aerosol products
  • Dust
  • Pet dander
  • Tobacco smoke
  • Excessive moisture levelts
  • Fireplace use; both wood- and coal-burning
  • Fuel-burning combustion appliances
  • Gas stoves
  • Molds
  • Mildews
  • Pesticides
  • Lead
  • Asbestos
  • Bacteria
  • Pollen

And that’s just a handful of the contaminants that can impact your home’s indoor air quality. These elements, combined with poor ventilation, can dramatically decrease the air quality level inside your home. If the problem isn’t addressed, the level of contaminants will continue to increase, and the chances that you and your loved ones will suffer adverse effects will also increase. Depending on the kinds of airborne pollutants that are present in your home’s air and the level of exposure, the overall health and well-being of you and your family can be dramatically impacted.

The Impact of Poor Indoor Air Quality on You and Your Loved Ones

As per the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the average person spends about 90 percent of their time inside. As such, it goes without saying that if you’re spending the majority of your time in your home and the quality of the air that you and your family are breathing is poor, your chances of being exposed to airborne pollutants will dramatically increase. When left undetected or untreated, exposure to poor indoor air quality will most certainly be detrimental to health; particularly for individuals who suffer from pre-existing health conditions, such as chronic respiratory illnesses, like COPD, asthma, and emphysema, as well as allergies.

The effects that poor air quality will have on your health and the health of your loved ones varies and depends largely on the types of contaminants that are circulating through your home’s air, as well as the level of the contaminants, and existing health. With that said, examples of some of the effects that poor indoor air quality can have on health and well-being include the following:

  • Sneezing
  • Sinus congestion
  • Eye, nose, and throat irritation
  • Coughing
  • Increased incidents of asthma attacks
  • Chronic headaches
  • Increased incidents of migraines
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Lightheadedness and dizziness
  • Increased incidents of respiratory infections, such as cold and flu
  • Irritability and mood changes
  • General feeling of malaise

In cases where the symptoms that are associated with poor indoor air quality levels are minimal to mild, and are often quite similar to a mild bought of allergies or a slight cold or flu, it can be hard to tell if, in fact, contaminated indoor air is to blame. With that said, however, there are some things that can help you determine if the cause of the symptoms that you or your loved ones are experiencing is, in fact, directly related to exposure to unhealthy air that is laden with pollutants.

The most obvious sign that poor indoor air quality is to blame for the symptoms you or a family member are experiencing is relief upon being out of the house for an extended period of time, with the symptoms returning upon returning home. Additionally, there are numerous signs that can indicate that your home’s air quality is poor. Examples include:

  • There is a lot of dust, dirt, and debris buildup around your house; particularly around the vents of your home’s heating and cooling system.
  • The moisture levels in your house are high, which can lead to mold growth that may be causing those adverse symptoms that you or a loved one is experiencing.
  • You notice musty odors in your home; an odor that indicates mold growth.
  • There are visible signs of mold growth inside your home.
  • Your home’s ventilation is poor.
  • One or more members of your household smokes indoors.
  • You burn candles or incense on a regular basis.
  • Someone in your household started using a new perfume, cologne, or another scented product that seems to have sparked the adverse symptoms you or a loved one is experiencing.

These are just a few of the signs and signals that indicate the adverse health effects that you or a family member is experiencing are related to poor air quality.

Common Airborne Contaminants

While there is a broad range of airborne pollutants that can circulate throughout your home, as per the EPA, the most common include:

  • Chemical pollutants. This includes volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as formaldehyde, which is unfortunately commonly used to preserve things like furniture and decorative accents, as well as radon and lead.
  • Biological pollutants. These airborne contaminants would include things like mold, pollen, dust mites, pet dander, and bacteria.
  • Combustion pollutants. This type of airborne pollutant would include things like tobacco smoke and carbon monoxide. It’s important to note that chemical pollutants, such as VOCs, can also occur as a result of combustion.

The Health Effects of Common Household Airborne Pollutants

Below is an overview of the health effects do the most common household airborne pollutants that have been identified by the EPA cause?

Chemical Pollutants

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

As per the US National Institutes of Health, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) refer to organic compounds that turn into gaseous matter; hence why they are volatile in nature. The “organic” part of the VOC definition requires that the compounds that can turn into gaseous matter must contain carbon. There are some types of organic chemicals that occur naturally in living things; however, a lot of chemicals that contain organic compounds are synthetic, meaning that they are artificially created.

Most people have a variety of products in their homes that are comprised of chemicals, and when they are used, they can release organic compounds in the air; however, you might be surprised to learn that some products can even release organic compounds when they are dormant and tucked away in storage. Some of the most common products that contain VOCs include:

  • Paint
  • Paint thinner
  • Stain
  • Varnish
  • Cleaners
  • Disinfectants
  • Stored fuels, such as natural gas or butane
  • Preservatives in wood
  • Clothing that has been dry cleaned

Other products that you might not suspect but that certainly can contain VOCs include:

  • Building materials, like insulation, drywall, sealants, and caulks
  • Furnishings, such as rugs, carpets, and even chairs, sofas, and couches
  • Office equipment, including printers, copiers, and fax machines
  • Craft materials, such as glues, markers, and paints

The likelihood that VOCs will cause adverse health effects depends on two factors: the toxicity of the VOC and the amount of the VOC that is in the air in your home. Some volatile organic compounds are extremely toxic and can cause severe health problems, while others do not cause any known health issues. With that said, some of the side effects that can be associated with long-term exposure to VOCs include damage to the central nervous system, kidneys, and liver. Short-term exposure to VOCs can cause respiratory tract and eye irritation, dizziness, headaches, coordination problems, fatigue, skin irritations, nausea, vomiting, and impaired memory.

How to Combat VOCs

The US Environmental Protection Agency offers actionable tips that homeowners can use to reduce the level of VOCs in their indoor air. These suggestions include:

  • Increasing ventilation by opening windows and running ventilation fans, especially when using products that are known or that are suspected to contain VOCs
  • Adhere to the directions and/or precautions that are listed on the product label
  • Safely dispose of any unused or old products that contain VOCs
  • Keep the exposure to benzene, a carcinogen, to a minimal; examples of sources include stored fuels, tobacco smoke, automotive emissions, and paint products
  • Keep the exposure to materials that have recently been dry-cleaned as minimal as possible, and keep newly dry-cleaned items in well-ventilated areas

Biological Pollutants

Biological pollutants include toxins that originate from microorganisms, as well as bacteria and viruses. Examples of some of the most common biological pollutants that can impact indoor air quality include:

  • Molds
  • Mildews
  • Dust mites
  • Pet dander
  • Pollen

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that exposure to some types of biological pollutants can result in allergic reactions, such as:

  • Allergic rhinitis
  • Hypersensitivity pneumonitis
  • Certain types of asthma

Symptoms that can occur as a result of exposure to biological pollutants can include:

  • Sneezing
  • Itchy, watery, irritated eyes
  • Coughing and wheezing
  • Sore, scratchy throat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness

How to Reduce Exposure to Biological Pollutants

There are several tips that you can use to minimize the amount of biological pollutants that build up in your home, as well as your exposure to those pollutants. Examples include:

  • Maintaining indoor humidity levels under 50 percent by using a dehumidifier or an air conditioner. This will help to reduce the incidence of dust mites, in particular, as they thrive in warm, humid spaces.
  • Wash bedding and linens in hot water to kill off dust mites
  • Vacuum on a regular basis, preferably with a vacuum cleaner that features a HEPA filter
  • Use a clean, damp rag to remove dust buildup on a regular basis
  • Make sure that your home is well-ventilated, particularly in areas where humidity tends to build up, such as bathrooms, kitchens, and laundry rooms
  • To reduce the incidence of pollen, keep the windows closed on windy days or when you’re mowing your lawn

Combustion Pollutants

There are several types of chemical pollutants that can negatively impact indoor air quality. According to the EPA, some of the most common combustion pollutants include the following:

  • Carbon monoxide. This colorless, odorless, and flavorless gaseous matter can be extremely hazardous to your health. It can cause dizziness, headaches, loss of coordination, nausea, vomiting, and a general feeling of malaise. In extreme cases, exposure to carbon monoxide can lead to loss of consciousness and even death.
  • Environmental tobacco smoke. Simply referred to as “ETS” or secondhand smoke, is a mixture of contaminants that are generated and that circulate through the air when a cigarette, cigar, or pipe is burned, or from the smoke that is exhale by a smoker. ETS contains more than 4,000 compounds, and over 40 of those compounds have been classified as carcinogens. A report issued by the EPA in 1992 concluded that secondhand smoke is responsible for about 3,000 lung cancer-related deaths among non-smoking adults each year. Exposure to ETS has negative impacts on respiratory health and can include a number of issues, such as respiratory tract infections, such as bronchitis and pneumonia, allergic reactions, and respiratory irritations, such as coughing. Children who suffer from asthma are particularly at risk of developing adverse health effects when they are exposed to ETS.

How to Reduce Exposure to Combustion Pollutants

In order to reduce the risk of exposure to combustion pollutants, the US Environmental Protection Agency offers the following advice:

  • Make sure that your home is well-ventilated. Open windows to dispel harmful toxins in your indoor air and to fill your home with fresh, clean air, whenever possible. You can also run exhaust vans that filter to the outdoors.
  • Change out filters on your air conditioner or heating system every few months or as needed
  • Make sure that the humidity levels in your home are between 30 and 50 percent
  • Keep tabs on the sources of combustion by either using materials minimally or by avoiding them all together

How to Measure Your Home’s Indoor Air Quality

It goes without saying that the health and well-being of yourself and your loved ones is of utmost importance. As such, you should get into the habit of keeping tabs on your home’s indoor air quality. How can you do that? Here are some tips that you can use to measure your indoor air quality.

Rely on Your Senses

One of the easiest and most affordable ways to keep tabs on the quality of your home’s indoor air is by simply relying on your senses. The sense of smell is powerful, and the scent in your home is one of the most obvious indicates of poor air quality. While it’s true that after a while, you can become desensitized to certain odors as your sense of smell does adjust, you can accommodate for this by simply leaving your home for a few hours and when you return home, take a deep breath.

If you notice a stale, musty odor, that’s may be a sign that mold is growing inside your home. Mold growth commonly occurs when moisture or humidity levels are high; for example, if there’s a space in your house –such as the bathroom, that isn’t properly ventilated, or if you’ve recently had a flood or a pipe burst, there’s a chance that mold growth can occur.

If you smell a tar-like odor, similar to a newly-laid roadway, that may indicate that you have asbestos in your house. Homes that were constructed prior to 1980 often contain asbestos, particularly In floor and ceiling tiles, as well as insulation, pipes, ductwork, furnaces, and boilers.

If you suspect mold or asbestos in your home, you’re going to want to contact a professional as soon as possible. These issues need to be addressed by a licensed and trained professional, because they can be hazardous to handle on your own. If left alone, you and your family could suffer severe adverse health effects.

Pay Attention to Physical Symptoms

There are several airborne pollutants that do not cause any odor; carbon monoxide, pollen, and dust, for example. With that said, however, exposure to pollutants that do not produce a scent can cause physical symptoms. For example, exposure to carbon monoxide can cause dizziness, headaches, shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, impaired memory, and/or blurred vision. Exposure to airborne contaminants like pollen and dust can cause itchy, watery, and irritated eyes, coughing, wheezing, sore throat, etc.

If you experience any adverse health effects, particularly if they seem to worsen when you are home and subside when you leave, that’s a good indication that you your home’s indoor air is poor and could be contaminated with a variety of pollutants.

Measure the Air Quality

If you want more definitive answers, you could try measuring your home’s indoor air. There are several tools that are available that you can use to measure for specific airborne pollutants, such as carbon monoxide, mold, and volatile organic compounds. If you’re going to attempt this route, make sure that you invest in a quality instrument to ensure that you will get an accurate reading.

We recommend purchasing a VOC meter that can detect the most common household contaminants, such as molds, bacteria, and airborne chemicals, like radon, and carbon dioxide. Check your local home improvement store or search the internet for online retailers that carry these tools. A quality tool will come with detailed instructions. Make sure that you read the instructions thoroughly and that you adhere to them. If the reading does indicate that your home’s indoor air is polluted with contaminants, you should get in touch with a reputable professional, who will be able to assist you with the problem. A licensed and trained professional will perform further and more thorough testing, and will offer you insight and tips to address the problem.

For Reliable Mold Testing, Contact MI&T

If you suspect that indoor mold growth is growing your home or you’re positive it does, get in touch with the pros at Mold Inspection and Testing. Our highly experienced team of technicians uses the most advanced tools, the latest technologies, and the most proven techniques and strategies to perform the most comprehensive testing. Air and surface samples of your home will be taken and the results will be analyzed to determine if, in fact, mold is growing in your home. If so, we’ll make helpful recommendations so that you can address the problem and protect the health, safety, and well-being of yourself and your loved ones.