Improving Air Quality and Home Health When You’re Stuck Indoors
The concept of “sheltering in place” is probably not new to some of you. Those with severe multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) or chronic illness know all too well the difficulties of operating with a sensitized immune system in this overly toxic world. Isolation and the need to control what materials, scents, people, foods, and chemicals enter your home are not new to me either. I had years, even after fixing my home and my body from the mold, that I could not tolerate perfumes, certain smells, cleaning products, make-up, and even putting gas in my car because of the fumes. Creating a safe home environment where I could breathe clean air made me feel safe and secure. My mold-safe home became my only true sanctuary from the scents and physical exposures that could set my immune system reeling and overreacting.
Since today is an unprecedented time in world history with both children and adults spending almost all of their time at home, and many times indoors for all facets of life—work, play, exercise, everything—I wanted to take a closer look at making our home environments safer and healthier places to be. This seems to be the immune-system puzzle piece that no one is really advocating for—probably because it isn’t very glamourous, but indoor air quality or the health of our homes is an essential piece of keeping COVID-19 from spreading. Don’t get me wrong, I know there is lots of talk about disinfection, sanitizing, and cleaning practices. Those things are very important, but the toxicity of the products we are using to do those things, along with high indoor particulate counts from things like mold, or the potential dangers of poor ventilation in an enclosed, built environment also need to be discussed. There are some remarkably simple things we can all do to improve air quality in our homes to make sure we are breathing clean air that will fundamentally better our outcomes while weathering this COVID-19 storm.
Why Is Breathing Clean Air So Important?
Broken down into simplest terms, good air quality supports good health. Good overall health has a profound influence on our ability to fight off illness and disease. As a matter of fact, the air you breathe is five times more important to your health than any medical care you seek, including doctor’s visits and medication; and the air you breathe is twice as important to your overall health as your genetic code. Nearly 60% of all preventable deaths are, in some way, related to air quality. Does this surprise you?
For most people, the idea of minimizing exposure to outdoor air pollution is nothing new, but another, serious health risk is exposure to contamination and toxins inside your home. I know that doesn’t come as much of a surprise for me to say that, because this is a mold blog, afterall, but I am not just talking about mold here. I am talking about all the things that could be influencing your indoor environment and air quality in a negative way.
Indoor environments represent a mix of both outdoor pollutants, like exhaust from cars and pesticides that we use on our lawns and in our yards, outdoor molds and pollens, as well as indoor contaminants, like air fresheners and perfumes, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from building materials and furnishings, fiberglass from insulation, emissions from HVAC systems, VOCs from cleaning products, indoor moisture sources, electronic equipment, pets, and the occupants themselves—we are shedding bacteria, skin cells, etc. all the time.
IAQ can also be affected by particulate matter from fibers and biological particles, like molds, bacteria, and other microbes. To date hundreds of papers have been written by professionals in various fields (chemistry, biology, environmental science, medicine, etc.) showing the undeniable link between quantifiable determinants of poor IAQ and a decline in the health of the occupants who reside in “sick” indoor environments. Recent research even shows that the “health” of a person’s indoor physical environment can play a major role in cognitive function and psychological health, where those in environments with higher IAQ scores perform better academically and at their jobs and suffer less from anxiety, depression, and anger. In other words, if you are living in a “sick” home, your health and mental capacities and stability can slowly but surely begin to crumble.
(A Quick Note on Genes: I do realize that many folks, especially those who suffer from mold-related illness feel that having certain “dreaded genes” are the main cause of their sickness. While research shows that genes play a role, it also shows that our environments play a much bigger one. Environmental factors like mold or chemical exposures influence immune system responses that lead to autoimmune conditions, poor detoxification, chronic inflammation, and disease up to 50% more than genetics alone.)
Clean Indoor Air as Sickness Prevention Strategy
All this leads me back to the reason for this post—the first step towards steeling your immune system for anything, including COVID-19, is to make sure the air you breathe is clean. (Note: For further reading about air pollution and high particulate counts with a direct correlation to COVID-19 infections and mortality, HERE is a recently published paper.) Having clean air inside your home will benefit almost every system in your body. It will help your brain function better, ensure that your sinuses aren’t blocked, and help prevent the chronic inflammation that can lead to heart disease, diabetes (mold patients often have high leptin levels and insulin resistance, which causes rapid weight gain, sugar cravings, and blood sugar spikes and crashes), autoimmunity, and blood clots.
How Does Controlling Indoor Mold Levels Help?
Mold growth indoors tends to be an indicator of deeper indoor air quality issues. Not only do high indoor mold counts directly correlate to higher instances of respiratory issues and sinusitis, but they also indicate an increased bacterial load and particulate count indoors—both of which are also not healthy for occupants. Additionally, when indoor particle counts are higher, more mold, bacteria, dust, and anything else, like viruses, can also attach to those particles to be breathed in.
Imagine times when you have been outdoors, and the pollen counts are extremely high. Even in the open, outdoor space, you may find it hard to breathe without sneezing or getting watery eyes. That is because the pollen load in the outdoor air exposes you to a greater burden of inflammagens than your body can handle. Thus, the immune responses of eye tearing, increased mucous production, and sometime dizziness or an inability to breathe for more allergic people begin and often do not stop until an antihistamine is taken or you wash your face or do some nasal rinsing. That is outdoors in the wide, open space. Now, consider what an unhealthy fungal or mold load can do to your immune system in an indoor space. Now also consider that an indoor space provides a more constant exposure. It is not something that you should dismiss or take lightly, because, even if hidden, that mold growth is breaking down building materials which also leads to higher particle counts and more risk to your immune system.
Obviously, depending on where you live, there’s only so much you can do about the air outside your home – but inside, you can do some simple and inexpensive plate testing, or hire a professional to carry out an inspection to make sure there are no hidden mold colonies lurking in your house. Those are definitely the first steps. Additionally, there are other things you can do, even now, that will provide significant air quality improvements.
What Can I Do?
Simple Interventions That Improve Your Home’s Health:
- Get fresh air and sunlight whenever possible. This isn’t for your home’s health, per se, but it is for YOUR health—mental and physical. Most of us are inside 90% of the day now. Our indoor air can be more polluted than the outdoor air in some cases. Give your body a break. Try, as much as possible to spend at least 30 minutes to one hour outside every day. I work outdoors whenever possible–that’s my computer photo from my outdoor “desk”. For those of you having sleep issues, this will also help regulate circadian rhythms or the sleep/wake cycle and modulate cortisol which affects melatonin production. Go for a walk, garden, ride your bike, sit and read, anything, but just try to do it outside. Not only does fresh air help you to feel more alive and less isolated in this great world, but the sun on your exposed skin helps boost Vitamin D production to fight illness and disease, as well as boosts mood and cognitive function.
- Use disinfectants and cleaning agents that will not increase the toxic burden in your home. I have seen so many COVID posts about using bleach and Lysol everywhere to decontaminate and sanitize, but did you know that there are ingredients on the EPA’s approved list that show effective antiviral activity without the added toxins? For example, thymol, hypochlorous acid, Hydrogen peroxide, and citric acid have all been shown to effectively clean to prevent coronavirus spread. Make sure to look at the specific ingredient for the time in must stay in contact with a surface to work properly, but you DO NOT have to inhale toxic fumes or create a cloud of perfumed aerosol spray in your home to properly clean it. As a matter of fact, remember the guidelines for handwashing? Washing thoroughly with a mild soap for 20 seconds is usually more effective at viral prevention than using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. In other words, don’t be afraid to physically scrub something down. Just applying a chemical and hoping it will work on contact is usually not the best tactic.
- Upgrade your vacuum. Vacuuming is wonderful for decreasing particulate matter inside your home, BUT only if the vacuum is not spitting everything you are sucking up back into the air. Invest in a HEPA-filtered vacuum (bagged, not bagless) to make sure than whatever you are cleaning up is staying inside your vacuum. I suggest vacuuming entrances to your home once per day. That is where the most dirt and debris originate. I also suggest vacuuming your whole home 1-2 times per week.
- Control indoor humidity. Keep your indoor humidity at 50% or lower to prevent mold and microbial growth. With the weather getting warmer, we are turning on the AC indoors. This can substantially increase indoor humidity and condensation that can lead to mold growth just from high dust levels. Also, we are cooking and breathing inside, which also increases the humidity. Use exhaust fans, overhead fans, etc. to keep the air moving and the steam or vapor exiting your home. Just doing this can also help with things like dust mites that also causes allergies and immune reactions. You will be surprised how much your air quality improves just by getting the humidity under control.
- Practice routine mold maintenance. Many cleaning products and practices do not address fungal growth. When you are choosing your products, opt for things that are broad spectrum and that address the full range of indoor contaminants. Again, that is why I choose products like the EC3 products, Benefect, Borax, hydrogen peroxide, hypochlorous acid, and tea tree oil. I also use my HEPA vacuum all over to dust and clean floors and surfaces—I don’t just want to push the dust around. Additionally, steam cleaning tile and non-porous flooring is an excellent, non-toxic way to clean mold and bacteria.
- Use proper ventilation. Make sure an adequate amount of fresh air is getting into your home. Also make sure you are venting your bathroom exhaust fans, dryer vent, and kitchen exhaust to the outside of your home. You want air to circulate and not to remain stagnant and stale. If cooking scents become overwhelming and linger, that is a good indication that the air exchange rate is not enough.
- Vacuum and dust regularly. I have already mentioned both but controlling dust and dirt levels indoors will do wonders for your health. If you see dust settled on furnishings, make sure to wipe or vacuum it up so that it cannot become food for mold or be made airborne to cause allergic or immune reactions.
- Invest in filtration. Better filtration can be a game changer. Installing MERV 11 or higher filters in your air handlers, dehumidifiers, or furnace can remove fine particulates from the air. This will also help control dust levels in your home. I also like having portable units in our bedrooms. We have a Molekule and multiple IQ Air purification/filtration units in our home. They make a big difference with, not only mold spores, but also with managing VOCS and clearing out any offending scents.
- Get rid of exposed fiberglass. Fiberglass is the IAQ villain that no one is talking about. So many times, people are having respiratory issues in a home because of airborne fiberglass from ductwork, or from fiberglass batts in an unfinished basement or attic where they are spending time. Give your home a once over and opt for a different product or for bagged, enclosed insulation instead.
- Clean and service your appliances. Did you know that appliances like your refrigerator can contribute to poor indoor air quality? If the pan is full of mold and the refrigerator fan is blowing, those mold spores are going everywhere! Make sure to service appliances and to check to for leaks or faults. Kitchen ovens and ranges also need to be checked for gas leaks.
- Dispose of food trash and waste outside of your home. If you leave bacteria laden trash inside your home, that can also be a hygiene and air quality issue. Best practice is to take all trash outside each day.
- Treat your attached garage like it is part of your home. I workout in my garage, so this is especially important, but if you have an attached garage, realize that whatever chemicals, gases, etc. you are storing there are also getting into your home. We do not park our cars in our garage, nor do we store paint, fertilizer, gas, or cleaners in there. The carbon monoxide, gasoline fumes, and VOCs can enter your home and your breathing air. I realize that this is not a popular statement, but if you are smelling exhaust inside your home, because your garage is attached, recognize what that constant exposure is like for your body every single day. Additionally, if you have mold growth in your attached garage it can be influencing your indoor air quality. Do not discount it just because you do not live out there. It is important to fix any leaks and to control moisture and mold growth out there, so that it does not lead to sickness or the mold contamination in your car.
- Remove your shoes before entering your home. I have an entire post about this, but if you just get cubbies or place bins beside your main doors, you can make your home a shoeless one very easily. We track EVERYTHING inside on our shoes. The simple act of removing them at your home’s threshold prevents all of that filth from entering your safe sanctuary.
I hope you found this helpful. I believe there is so much anyone can do on any budget to make their home safer and healthier. It is just a matter of knowing where to start.