Improved indoor air quality is more important—and achievable—than ever
The last several years have seen an airborne pandemic, a shift to remote work, and—in Colorado and elsewhere—cities choked with smoke from wildfires. So it’s no surprise an increasing number of people are thinking more deeply about the air quality in their homes, where they’re spending most of their working and non-working hours these days.
According to the EPA, poor indoor air can have immediate effects, like headaches, dizziness, and irritation of the eyes, nose and throat. But there are also long-term effects. Consistent exposure to airborne pollutants can aggravate or cause respiratory diseases, heart disease and cancer.
A recent study by the National Association of Home Builders found that today’s home buyers place a premium on quality indoor air. Home buyers rated the most attractive green features as those that help them save money on energy costs and improve air quality inside the home. Additionally, they said they would spend more than $2,000 upfront for a home certified to an above-code standard for health and wellness.
Luckily, there are several techniques and technologies builders can use to improve air quality in a home. “Indoor air quality problems are largely solvable,” says Bob Woellner, president and industrial hygienist at QUEST Environmental. “And there are good professionals out there that can help.”
Choosing better materials
Several decades ago, asbestos and lead-based paints were commonly found in houses. Today, of course, they’re well-known contaminants that no one likes to find in their home.
It’s often hard to know what might be emitting from even the most frequently used home-building materials. Items including OSB, drywall, paints and stains, and more can have toxic ingredients depending on how and where they were manufactured, says Wayne Connell, founder and president of the Invisible Disabilities Association. “For example, most drywall mud is designed to be quick drying because it’s a time issue, right?” he says. “You want to get the house done quickly. But quick-drying versions have accelerants in them, and those accelerants can be very toxic.”
Even environmentally friendly items aren’t necessarily good for a home and its air quality. “I always say just because it’s good for the environment, doesn’t mean it’s good for your health,” Connell says “Because if you recycle tires and you make them into carpet squares to put in your house, those carpet squares are going to off-gas, and it’s not good for you.”
Choosing building materials with fewer chemicals involved—like nails and screws over glues and adhesives, or wood and steel over engineered materials—can help reduce the amount of potential air pollutants in a home. When using chemicals is unavoidable, like paint for example, it can be helpful to pay attention to ingredients and opt for choices where pollutants have been reduced or removed, like low- or no-VOC paints.
Vanessa Homuth, owner of Helix Painting, says many paint brands have already taken steps to reduce their impact. “There’s a lot of regulation to lower the VOCs, and there’s a lot of stuff that can’t be used,“ she says. “California has kind of been a leader in that. Almost all the paints are low VOC these days.”
It’s not possible to omit all chemical-based products from a home, plus pollutants are emitted from furniture and other belongings as well as throughout the day as a home’s residents cook, clean and otherwise go about their lives. Proper ventilation systems are key to ridding homes of these everyday pollutants.
“If you use a Sharpie in your house, cook in your house, do all the things that we do: it needs to be adequately ventilated,” Woellner says. “And that is a more complex issue than one would think.”
There’s a trend toward tighter buildings in order to increase energy efficiency, Woellner says, but ventilation needs to be a part of the conversation. Tight homes without adequate air flow not only retain more air pollutants but also collect moisture, which can lead to mold.
“Every time you boil water, that moisture and humidity stay in the home,” he says. “When you take a shower, the humidity stays in the home. When you cook fish, the smell and volatile organic compounds stay in the home. A number of builders got sued aggressively for actually worsening the air quality and not having adequate air exchange and ventilation.”
Some building codes now require things like continuous-run exhaust fans and other ventilation measures.
Connell says both air quality and energy efficiency can be dramatically improved with the addition of heat recovery ventilator (HRV) or energy recovery ventilator (ERV) systems. These mechanical systems use fans to maintain a balanced air flow into the house while simultaneously exhausting stale indoor air. In the process, the energy from the outgoing indoor air is used to heat or cool the incoming air, which can help reduce the use of other systems—like furnaces and air conditioners—to maintain the home’s air temperature. While HRVs can transfer just heat, ERVs can transfer heat and moisture, controlling for indoor humidity as well.
Sometimes pollutants aren’t coming from inside the home. In addition to common pollutants, like exhaust fumes, Colorado’s outdoor air has been periodically marred by wildfire smoke over the last several years. Smoke from Canadian wildfires in the spring made Denver one of the worst cities in the world for air quality for several days, according to an air quality ranking report. “If we have a fire, you don’t want to pull in outside air,” Connell says.
High-quality filters can help keep poor quality outdoor air from entering the home, and whole home air purifiers can filter out anything that gets in. For filters, those with a MERV rating of 13 to 16 are generally best when dealing with smoke. “I think ours is a MERV 15,” Connell says. “It’s about five or six inches thick.”
Filters and other air quality improvement measures can often come with a higher price tag, but it’s a small price to pay when you consider how essential it is, Connell says. “We think about what we eat, but we forget about what we breathe,” he says. “If you shut off your oxygen, you’ve got nothing. You can go forward without food. You can go a couple of days without water. But breath? That’s the gift of life.”