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Healthy Home Basics - Indoor Air Quality

Smog in urban areas often makes the news. But truth be told, air quality is often much worse inside our homes than outside. That’s because tens of thousands of chemicals, some synthetic and some found in nature, are used to make products commonly found in buildings. Many of these chemicals are benign, some are highly toxic, and most fall in that wide gray area in between.


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When it comes to indoor air contamination, the biggest chemical culprit in our homes is VOCs, a large class of chemicals that can evaporate, or offgas, from stuff that’s all around us, like particle board, carpet, paint, cleaning products, and materials treated with stain-resistant and wrinkle-resistant chemicals. VOCs can aggravate respiratory ailments like asthma, and have been linked to cancer and damage to nervous and reproductive systems.

Will exposure to VOCs and other indoor air pollutants, such as mold or wood smoke, make you sick? This may sound like a cop-out, but the answer is–it depends. It depends on the nature of the pollutant, your general health, the level of exposure and length of time you’re exposed, whether that pollutant might combine with other pollutants in your home or in your body to create a more dangerous compound, and other environmental and genetic factors. Without clear answers, health experts say it’s prudent to take commonsense steps to limit your exposure to polluting chemicals. You might want to take extra precautions if there are people in your household who are at higher risk of being harmed by indoor air pollutants. These include infants and children and people with asthma, other respiratory conditions, compromised immune systems, or chemical sensitivities.


What to do?

  • Don’t bring pollutants inside. It’s easier to keep pollutants out in the first place than to get rid of them once they’re in your home. Protect your home by choosing low-VOC paints, carpet, furnishings, composite-wood materials, personal care products, and household cleaners.
  • Be a good housekeeper. Good housekeeping and maintenance practices go a long way toward healthy air quality. Don’t use pesticides in or around your home. Make sure there are doormats inside and outside all exterior doors, and adopt a no-shoes-inside rule: much of the dirt and dust in our homes gets tracked in on our shoes. Dust and vacuum regularly. Take care of leaks and mold before they get out of hand.
  • Trust your nose. If a product smells bad, don’t bring it into your house. (Unfortunately, the opposite isn’t always true: just because your nose doesn’t pick up a strong whiff of chemicals doesn’t mean the product is good for you.) Beware of products that are heavily perfumed–fragrances are often used to mask chemical odors.
  • Filter the little stuff. Air filters can help with some air quality problems, but they are by no means a cure-all. They do trap secondhand smoke, dust, and small particles called microparticulates. But they cannot totally eliminate allergens like pet dander and dust mites, because these irritants do not constantly circulate through the air anyway. And unless they have carbon or other gas adsorbents, filters do not reduce volatile organic compounds (VOCs) or gases such as carbon monoxide. The most effective filters are the ones that trap the tiniest particles, because these do the most damage. So be sure to check the machines’ filtration efficiency. An ultra high-efficiency model can trap particles as small as 0.3 microns (or smaller). Beware of units that generate ozone, which may actually aggravate breathing problems.
  • Dilution is the solution to pollution. Improving indoor air quality can often be as simple as opening a window to let in fresh air. Ventilation is especially important when using noxious paints, cleaning products, or other chemicals inside the home. When cooking with gas, always use the exhaust fan to get rid of combustion byproducts like carbon monoxide. And run the bathroom exhaust fan during and after showers and baths: mold thrives on excess humidity.
  • Ready to learn more? Check out the article, Nine Home Health Hazards: it covers radon; VOCs; potentially harmful chemicals such as BPA, phthalates, and PFOA; pesticides; mold; other biological contaminants such as pet dander, pollen, and dust mites; heating-related risks such as carbon monoxide, other combustion byproducts, and electromagnetic fields; banned building materials such as asbestos, lead-based paint, and wood preservatives; and emerging healthy-home issues.


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HHI is committed to accuracy of content and correcting information that is incomplete or inaccurate. With our broad scope of coverage of healthful indoor environments, and desire to rapidly publish info to benefit the community, mistakes are inevitable. HHI has established an error correction policy to welcome corrections or enhancements to our information. Please help us improve the quality of our content by contacting with corrections or suggestions for improvement. Each contact will receive a respectful reply.

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Healthy Home Basics - Indoor Air Quality:  Created on July 2nd, 2009.  Last Modified on December 29th, 2009


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Other Articles by Jennifer Schwab

About Jennifer Schwab

Jennifer Schwab

As Director of Sustainability, Jennifer is responsible for all environmental information, education, and initiatives at Sierra Club Green

Jennifer studied environmental design and sustainability at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, then completed her Master's in Urban Planning and Sustainable Design at the University of California -- Irvine.  Jennifer is a LEED Accredited Practitioner and serves on the USGBC Education Committee.  She also serves on advisory boards for the UC-Irvine Sustainability Leadership Program and the Healthy House Institute.  Jennifer consults on energy efficiency and sustainability for various corporate clients, restaurants, and hotels.

Jennifer serves as a member of the Board of Advisors for Source 44, a carbon footprint assessment company based in San Diego; and on the Board of Advisors for BlogWorld Expo, the largest social media tradeshow in the country.

She is a widely quoted media analyst appearing in hundreds of articles both in print and online.  She has been interviewed by NY Times, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, Dwell magazine, CNBC, Good Housekeeping magazine, Fortune magazine, the LA Times, The Oregonian, Forbes, Self magazine, Kiwi magazine, the Examiner, EcoSalon, Consumer Digest, SheKnows, and Planet Green, among many others.  She has also appeared on NBC-U, Good Morning America, and Fox News.

Away from work, Jennifer can be found on the tennis court or in the Bikram yoga studio. She follows art and design avidly and is also a trained Cessna pilot. She also serves on the LA Museum of Contemporary Art Photography Selection committee.  You can find her innermost green thoughts as a contributor to the Huffington Post, LOHAS, BlogHer, Healthy House Institute,, as well as on the home page of



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