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Apartment Living What Threats to Indoor Air Quality Should Apartment Dwellers Know About

Apartment Living: What Threats to Indoor Air Quality Should Apartment Dwellers Know About?

With raised awareness of the fact that indoor air pollutant can pose a significant health risk, more and more people want to learn about the steps they can take to improve the air quality inside their homes. Most discussions about indoor air quality, unfortunately, tend to focus on single-family homes and commercial properties.

In most states, around 10 percent of people live in apartments. In places like New York, that number is far closer to a quarter. The millions of apartment dwellers across the United States don’t simply face the same air quality hazards as those living in single-family homes; they are also vulnerable to unique hazards, while at the same time often having significantly less control over their living spaces.

Apartment dwellers are not, thankfully, powerless in the struggle against poor air quality. What do you need to know about the most common threats — and the measures you can implement to enjoy healthier indoor air inside low-rise, mid-rise, or high-rise apartment buildings?

What Are the Most Common Causes of Poor Indoor Air Quality in Apartments?

If you have ever been at all worried about outdoor air pollution, you may be shocked to learn that indoor air quality tends to be between two and five times worse than the air outdoors — and in some homes, the air can even be 100 times more polluted.

The most common threats to indoor air quality in apartments include:

  • Particle pollution (particulate matter). Both particles large enough to see with the naked eye and those so tiny that you would need a powerful microscope to notice them inevitably pollute your indoor air. These dusts may originate from outdoors, as a result of traffic and industry, and it may also originate indoors. In apartments, nobody is likely to be using a wood stove. Even if you do not smoke yourself, on the other hand, harmful particles may make their way to your apartment from a neighbor’s home. Household dust and pet dander are two further examples of particulate matter that easily builds up in apartments.
  • Radon. This gas is the most common cause of radiation exposure in the United States, as well as the second most-prevalent cause of lung cancer (immediately following smoking). This toxic is emitted by natural materials such as soil, stone, and well water. Many apartment buildings that need a radon mitigation system due to dangerously high levels do not, in fact, have one yet.
  • Other dangerous gases, including carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, will also be present in your indoor air. As many people who live in the same building use appliances that emit these hazardous compounds, like gas stoves, dryers, and small heaters, the indoor air quality in an apartment is likely to feature them in higher concentrations than would be seen in single-family homes.
  • Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). Emitted by a variety of solids and liquids that include construction materials, carpets, bedding, cleaning materials, and even air-fresheners, these dangerous chemicals are present in every home.
  • Mold. You may associate mold with old and poorly maintained single-family homes, but the reality is that any building can develop a mold infestation. Leaks and humidity are leading causes of mold infestations, and as an apartment dweller, you also run the risk that one of your neighbors’ neglectful hygiene habits raise the risk of mold growth.

Indoor Air Quality: Are Apartment Dwellers Exposed to Different Risks?

While all the sources of air pollution that people who live in apartments are exposed to also affect those living in single-family homes, you do have some unique concerns if you live in an apartment. Living in an apartment, you do not have as much freedom to remodel your home to promote a healthier indoor environment. If you rent your apartment, you may have to battle an unwilling landlord to have the HVAC system replaced or repaired in order to improve air circulation and quality.

Recently-constructed buildings are more energy efficient, and may appear to be extremely desirable places to live, but their increased energy efficiency negatively impacts air circulation, increasing indoor air pollution in the process. In some cases, so-called “sick building syndrome” results.

The fact that you are surrounded by neighbors when you live in an apartment also poses a threat. Mold is present throughout the environment, and outdoors, this will not typically cause a problem to anyone who does not have a severe mold allergy. When a mold infestation takes hold indoors, however, long-term exposure to these filamentous fungi can cause serious health complications.

Molds thrives in humid and wet conditions, and that means that leaks in pipes or roofs, condensation, flooding, wet clothes, and damp basements all pose a risk. It is easy for a mold infestation to take hold in one unit when someone persistently air dries their laundry or has low hygiene standards — and when it does, mold spores will easily be able to spread to other apartments through the HVAC system. Unless immediate action is taken, the whole building could soon have a mold problem.

What Are the Possible Health Consequences of Indoor Air Pollution?

Each specific pollutant is associated with its own set of health risk. The cumulative effects of poor indoor air quality have also been established, however. In the short-term, poor indoor air quality may result in frustrating symptoms like:

  • Eye, nose, and throat irritation, swelling, or itching.
  • Respiratory symptoms like coughing, wheezing (making a whistling sound as you breathe, due to irritated airways), and even shortness of breath.
  • Systemic symptoms associated with neurotoxic effects, such as fatigue, headache, dizziness, and difficulty concentrating.

People who have these symptoms when they spend a lot of time at home, but find that they subside when they leave their apartment, may be suffering from sick building syndrome. Used to describe a situation in which it is clear that something within a building is making its occupants sick, no single cause has been identified. Sick building syndrome appears to be related to the presence of mold, hazardous construction materials, Volatile Organic Compounds, and poor air circulation.

Long-term exposure to indoor air pollution has more severe risks. Being around dust mites or mold for prolonged periods of time may cause you to develop an allergy, but your risk of developing heart disease, lung conditions, and even cancer have all been linked to indoor air pollution, including exposure to mold spores, as well. The importance of improving indoor air quality can, as such, not be overstated.

What Factors Should You Consider When You Look for a New Apartment?

Are you thinking about moving, and actively looking for a new apartment? Great news! Apartment hunting offers the perfect opportunity to reduce your exposure to indoor air pollutants when you are at home. It would be optimal for your new apartment to feature:

  • Numerous windows. Not only will ample natural light positively affect your mood, an apartment with plenty of windows is also much easier to ventilate — by opening your windows every day, you allow harmful substances that have built up in a space to exit, while inviting fresh air in.
  • Wood or tile floors. Carpets will quickly accumulate dust; a major threat to indoor air quality. Should they become damp or be flooded, carpets additionally represent an excellent place for mold to build up. If possible, choose an apartment that has wood or tile floors instead.
  • Up-to-date plumbing, cooling, and heating. Old and poorly-maintained HVAC units and leaky plumbing are two of the biggest mold risks in apartment buildings. If you can, make sure that any building you move into possesses modern and recently updated plumbing, heating, and cooling systems, free from leaks.
  • Excellent ventilation in bathrooms and laundry rooms. That means that these spaces, which are otherwise at risk of being chronically damp and harboring mold growth, should have either have windows or a ventilation system. It is further best if these two rooms are not adjacent to each other.

What Can You Do to Improve the Indoor Air Quality in Your Apartment?

People who live in an apartment can, thankfully, take numerous proactive steps to boost the quality of the air they inhale when they are at home. Some of the things you can do to improve your indoor air are both free and easy, while others require you to make some investments.

How many of these common-sense measures do you already take? If you’ve missed any, you will immediately boost the air quality inside your apartment by:

  • Opening your windows every day, for at least 15 minutes. Yes, even when it is cold outside. The best time to open your windows would be either early in the morning or late at night, when the outdoor air is cooler and there is not as much polluting traffic. Opening your windows frequently serves many purposes. Taking this step allows harmful gases and particles to escape your space, so you no longer have to breathe them in. It reduces the presence of pathogens like viruses and bacteria. Opening your windows also tackles condensation, a potent cause of mold growth.
  • Vacuuming regularly. By vacuuming your entire home at least once a week, and preferably more often, you combat the household dust and house mites that inevitably accumulate over time, no matter where you live. If you do have carpets, it would be best to vacuum every day.
  • Avoiding products that emit Volatile Organic Compounds. All apartments are likely to face a certain amount of off-gassing, as VOCs can be emitted by construction materials. You can, however, steer clear of products that release VOCs by looking for low-VOC and green cleaning materials and not bringing air fresheners into your home.
  • Keeping your apartment clean and dry. Wipe down kitchen counters immediately, dispose of any food that may spoil, and keep your bathroom and laundry room dry. These steps all help to prevent mold growth.

If you are willing to invest in cleaner air, you may also consider:

  • Purchasing some box fans, which help cleanse your living space of air pollutants when you open your windows.
  • Purchasing a humidity meter. If the humidity levels in your apartment are over 50 percent, consider adding a dehumidifier to prevent mold growth. If the relative humidity in your apartment is below 30 percent, on the other hand, you could give the purchase of a humidifier some thought. Maintaining humidity levels between 30 and 50 percent not only improves your indoor air quality, it will also make you feel more comfortable in your home.
  • Purchasing and using a true HEPA air purifying system, which filters out over 99 percent of particulate matter in your indoor air. If your building has a mold infestation, using an air purifier will help manage mold spores in your air, preventing you from inhaling them.

People who are renting apartments should additionally consider addressing any concerns they have about systemic threats to the air quality with their landlords.

What Should You Do If You Believe Your Apartment Building Has a Mold Infestation?

Severe mold infestations are often immediately visible — often within damp and humid spaces such as your bathroom or kitchen walls, around your washing machine, or in the case of condensation, around window frames. You will not always be able to identify a mold problem so readily, however, and other signs that mold is present in your building include:

  • Smelling mold, which has a musty odor.
  • General dampness, recently leaks or flooding, or otherwise wet conditions. Because mold thrives in damp spaces, these circumstances are sufficient to suspect a possible mold infestation all on their own.
  • Suffering from mold allergy symptoms, such as a runny nose, sore throat, itchy and red eyes, frequent sneezing, and a wheezing or shortness of breath.

Tenants who know that they have mold in their apartment buildings should immediately notify their building management team. Failing to do this may cause you to be held liable for damage to your own unit as well as, potentially, other units. You, additionally, risk not just your health but the health of your neighbor neighbors by ignoring the problem.

If, on the other hand, building management is ignoring your concerns, you may opt to have a professional mold inspection carried out. MI&T can help you with that. As an independent and nationwide mold inspection only company, we carry out a thorough visual mold inspection. We then take air samples, which are subsequently lab tested. With MI&T’s full mold inspection report in hand, you will be able to show your building management team precisely what is going on in your unit, allowing you to ask them to take concrete mold remediation steps.