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Could Air Pollution Be Worse Inside Your Home Than Outside?

It is probably safe to say that most people associate the term “air pollution” with the environment outside. You may think of visible smog, for instance, caused by traffic and industry. Even biological pollutants like pollen may come to mind. When you know that the air quality outside is poor, perhaps because you diligently follow your local Air Quality Index (AQI), you are likely to seek refuge inside your home, where you feel safe and protected.

Could the air in your home, in fact, contain higher concentrations of pollutants than the air outside, making staying inside a misguided choice? As more and more people are becoming aware of indoor air pollution and the dangers it poses, it is easy to grow concerned. That is good news, as these worries can fuel an action plan that ultimately leads to improved indoor air quality.

Is The Air Quality Inside Your Home Worse Than the Air Outside?

Without specific air samples, it is impossible to say whether the air you and your family breathe in as you spend time at home is poorer in quality than the environmental air in your region. Numerous factors contribute to outdoor air pollution, which comes in the form of harmful particulate matter as well as hazardous gases, originating both from environmental sources like sand and pollen, and from human activity such as vehicle exhaust fumes and factories. Some of these pollutants inevitably find their way into your home through a process called infiltration. That means that even if you always keep your windows closed (which you very much shouldn’t), tiny pollutants will enter through the small pores in your floors, walls, ceilings, and window frames.

The biggest threat to your indoor air quality, however, tends to come from within your home. Thanks to  research conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency, we know that some pollutants tend to appear within residential homes in concentrations two to five times higher than outdoors. Sometimes, the air may even be up to 100 times poorer.

The question you should ask yourself as a health-conscious person who wants to keep their entire household safe, however, is not necessary whether the air quality in your home is worse than the air outside. The quality of the air in your home is uniquely important simply because you spend so much time there — even if you work long hours, you are likely at home at least 10 hours a day. According to scientific research, you will inhale around half of the air you ever breathe right inside your home.

Given the fact that your home, too, inevitably contains some level of indoor air pollution, the better question to ask would be what you can do to improve the air quality.

What Are the Biggest Sources of Indoor Air Pollution in Homes?

Many sources of indoor air pollution can be present in homes, including yours, and they include:

  • Activities like cooking and using a fireplace, during which byproducts of combustion — like wood and kerosene — are released in the form of particles and harmful gases.
  • Tobacco smoke, which releases thousands of hazardous and carcinogenic chemicals into the air.
  • Asbestos, which may be present in insulation and ceilings in older homes, particularly those constructed prior to the 1980s.
  • Off-gassing, a process in which dangerous Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are often, according to the United States Consumer Product Safety Omission, emitted continuously. Whether you are aware of the specific dangers associated with VOCs or not, you likely know that products such as paint, glue, and solvents pose a risk to human health when they are inhaled. However, VOCs are also released by products you may not have given as much thought, such as carpets, mattresses, insulation materials, and even many of the cleaning agents you use in an effort to keep your home free of pollution.
  • Biological pollutants are another constant risk. Some, such as tree pollen or pet dander, only pose a problem to people who are allergic. Others, like pests (including rodents, cockroaches, and dust mites) and certain mold species are likely to lead to noticeable discomfort even in people who have no allergies or other chronic conditions.

What Causes Indoor Air Pollution Inside Your Home?

Now that you are aware of the most common origins of indoor air pollution, you will also want to know what causes these pollutants to build up in your home. In some cases, the answer and the solution are equally simple. You can, for instance, make sure that you store fuels and opened paint cans away from your living space, in a garden shed. You can refrain from smoking inside your home. Not all sources of indoor air pollution are dealt with quite that easily, however.

A lack of proper ventilation is one of the biggest causes of poor air quality in homes. When not enough fresh air is able to enter your home from outside, and the stagnant and stale air in your home cannot escape, indoor air pollution builds up. A lack of ventilation additionally contributes to rising humidity levels, which causes problems of its own. You can improve the ventilation in your home in two ways:

  • Open your windows daily, for at least 15 minutes, and where possible, use box fans to further improve air circulation to allow “old” air to leave, and fresh air to come in. It is ideal to open your windows either late at night or early in the morning, during times when the traffic volume is lower.
  • Use your HVAC system with the outdoor vent opened.

It is especially important to open your windows when you engage in activities during which high pollution levels are emitted — like painting, gluing, or when you return home after the space was fumigated for pest reasons. However, it is good practice to open your windows routinely. There are exceptions, however. If you suffer from severe pollen allergies and it is pollen season, or the Air Quality Index in your region shows that outdoor air pollution has reached extremely unhealthy levels, your windows should remain closed.

High humidity levels, concretely those that exceed 50 percent, are associated with a greatly increased risk of certain biological pollutants. Your home may become humid as a result of climate factors or because of the way it was constructed, and these variables are outside of your control. An inappropriately large HVAC system can also contribute to high humidity, meanwhile, along with improper ventilation. In high-humidity conditions, both dust mites and mold easily accumulate, leading to respiratory symptoms like sneezing, nasal congestion, a sore throat, chest tightness, and shortness of breath.

If your home is excessively humid, you will likely instinctively sense it — when humidity levels rise above 50 or 60 percent, most people begin to feel uncomfortable, tired, and sluggish. However, you can check the most important spaces in your home with an inexpensive humidity monitor to gain more precise insights. If you do find that you have high humidity levels, investing in an adequate dehumidifier can be a very effective solution.

It is further important to note that localized moisture buildup can cause similar problems. This may result from leaky plumbing or a roof that was not sealed properly. A flood or other recent water damage is another risk, and when surfaces that cannot be dried easily, like wooden beams or carpets, continue to hold high levels of moisture, a mold infestation becomes nearly inevitable. Having such problems fixed as soon as possible will improve your indoor air quality. In addition, rooms that inevitably become damp, like kitchens, bathrooms, and laundry rooms will have healthier air if you install an exhaust fan.

Volatile Organic Compounds will be present in any home, but you can reduce your exposure by avoiding bringing hazardous products into your home. Look for low-VOC carpets and bedding, and minimize your use of household chemicals when you can replace them with safer and more natural options such as baking soda and vinegar. As far as pesticides are concerned, you may require them to deal with any pests you encounter, but in this case, it is safest to choose a professional pest management company and to follow their instructions precisely after pesticides have been used in your home.

Further steps you can take to maximize the air quality in your home would be to:

  • Purchase and use a true HEPA air purifier that also has a carbon filter to trap harmful gases. As long as the air purifier is designed to meet the needs of the space in which you place it, it can effectively filter out more than 99 percent of particle pollution. Air purifying systems do have to be maintained regularly, including the replacement of the filters, to be able to fulfill their function. Installing a true HEPA air purifier may not deal with the sources of air pollution in your home, but it will certainly limit your exposure.
  • Vacuum and dust your home frequently, at least every week and preferably more often, to reduce your exposure to the household dust that quickly accumulates in every home.
  • Consider replacing or discarding unnecessary fabrics, which commonly include wall-to-wall carpets, rugs, and decorative pillows. Dust and chemicals easily build up within carpets, and when damp, they become mold magnets as well. Tiling or wooden flooring are alternatives that are much easier to clean.
  • Consider having your home assessed for the presence of radon (which comes from outside), lead, and asbestos.

What Should You Do if You Think You May Have a Mold Infestation in Your Home?

Mold is present throughout the natural environment, and these filamentous fungi play an important role in breaking down decaying organic substances there. In humid and damp conditions, however, mold also easily builds up within your home; airborne mold spores will quickly settle down on any hospitable surface.

That is a problem, because some mold species can cause serious health complications — following prolonged exposure, and in vulnerable people even immediately. Many types of mold will cause people to have allergic reactions that range from sneezing and a sore throat to irritated and swollen eyes, skin rashes, fatigue, headache, and even breathing difficulties. In people with asthma, mold can lead to asthma attacks. Some mold species are also toxic, while others have the potential to cause systemic and very dangerous infections even in healthy people.

If you have noticed mold buildup in your home, perhaps on your bathroom walls, in your bedroom, where the wallpaper on your walls meets the ceiling, behind a kitchen cabinet, or around some pipes in your laundry room, that is — in a sense — welcome news. Now that you are aware of the problem, you can quickly take action, have a professional mold inspection carried out, and remediate the mold infestation so that you no longer have to be exposed to mold.

Mold infestations can also be more concealed, however, and when you cannot see mold, you may be exposed for much longer periods of time. In that case, allergy symptoms and a damp or musty odor can serve as clues that you have a problem. Mold may originate deep within your walls, where you didn’t know a pipe had a microscopic leak, or in your crawl space, where you may not have looked. To increase your indoor air quality and prevent health complications, it is crucial to investigate the matter further.

The sooner you deal with a mold infestation, the less painful the process will be — and the less likely you are to suffer long-term health consequences.

MI&T is a seasoned nationwide mold inspection only company. We know where to find mold anywhere in your home, no matter how well-hidden, during our detailed visual mold inspections, but we do not stop there. Our mold inspectors also take air samples that enable you to know precisely what molds are contaminating your air, and in what quantities.

As a company dedicated exclusively to mold inspections, MI&T is free from the commercial biases you may encounter if you hired a mold remediation service to perform your inspection. Whether you intend to call in mold remediation professionals or you may wish to take steps to eliminate your mold infestation on your own, our full mold inspection report will help you get there. By fighting mold in your home, your air quality will immediately improve — something MI&T can confirm during our clearance testing.