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Improving Indoor Air Quality - What Works

By HHI Staff

There are a number of ways to minimize indoor air pollution, but each has limitations. To determine what works best in a given situation, it helps to organize pollutants into three categories. The first grouping is for pollutants originating outside the living space, the second for pollutants released by "things" inside the living space, and the third for pollutants resulting from human metabolism and activities.


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Pollutants originating outside the living space include airborne mold spores and pollen, radon in the soil, automobile exhaust, lawn chemicals, outgassing and particulates from insulation, etc. The best way to prevent these pollutants from contaminating the living space is to build a tight structure; to separate them completely from the living space. Both gaseous and particulate pollutants travel into the living space primarily by moving on air currents through holes and gaps in the structure. (To a much lesser degree, gaseous pollutants also diffuse through solid surfaces, so installing a diffusion retarder can also help minimize entry.) Air movement and diffusion are also the primary ways water vapor moves through building assemblies.


Pollutants that originate from "things" inside the living space include outgassing or particulates released from home furnishings or building materials directly exposed to the interior living space (paints, wall paneling, cabinetry, etc.), evaporation from cleaning and home-maintenance products, mold spores from colonies growing within the house, pollen from house plants, etc. The best way to minimize pollution from these sources are to simply eliminate them; primarily by using less polluting alternatives. For example, choose low-outgassing paints and finishes, furniture without long-term formaldehyde emissions, less-noxious cleaning products etc. Cacti and succulents, which require less water than other house plants and release less pollen, can be substituted for plants requiring more damp conditions. When mold is a problem indoors, the source of the moisture that led to the fungal growth must be eliminated. Without adequate moisture, the mold will become dormant and will no longer produce spores or the metabolic VOCs (volatile organic compounds) that give it its characteristic odor.


Keep in mind that the air inside HVAC ducts will be breathed by the occupants. Therefore, a duct's interior should be considered living space. So, a tight structure should also mean tight ductwork to prevent pollutants from outside the ducts (e.g. those found in the attic and crawl space) from entering them and ultimately affecting the occupants. It's also important that the interior surface of the ducts be inert; so, for example, don't use ducts lined with raw fiberglass.


Mechanical ventilation is best used for pollutants resulting from human metabolism (e.g. carbon dioxide, ammonia, methane, water vapor, etc.) and for occupant activities generating moisture (e.g. bathing, laundering clothes, and dish washing). Most houses need two types of ventilation. Local ventilation should be used intermittently to reduce humidity levels in kitchens and bathrooms quickly, while general ventilation should be ongoing in order to change the air in the entire house. Certain activities, such as hobbies which generate their own pollutants, need to be dealt with as well. Sometimes less-toxic materials can be substituted, as when an artist switches from oil paints to water colors, but it's often necessary to use additional local ventilation in a hobby room.


Although it's usually more effective to pick the right pollution-reduction method for the job, you can certainly use one of the principles of separation, elimination, and ventilation to deal with pollutants originating from any source. For example, you could deal with formaldehyde outgassing from kitchen cabinets by coating them with a sealant. This would be a form of separating the source (the cabinets) from the living space by placing a barrier (the sealant) between the occupants and the source. But, in most cases, eliminating the source is more effective. You could also try to rely on ventilation to deal with all your indoor pollution problems. However, you'll probably need a more powerful ventilation system; one more costly to install, more expensive to operate, and probably noisier than if you used the principles of separate and eliminate first. Overall, a three-pronged approach is best - build a tight structure, use low-tox alternatives for materials that are directly exposed to the living space, and use a modest amount of ventilation to meet the needs of the occupants themselves.


What, you might ask, about filtration? Well, filtration can be combined with the ventilation system to remove airborne pollutants such as mold spores and pollen from the incoming air. Or, it can be combined with a forced-air heating/cooling system to filter out pollutants released by low-tox interior materials into the recirculated air (e.g. lint from cotton upholstery or drapery materials). To depend on filtration to do everything - without using the principles of eliminate, separate and ventilate - is difficult to do. Such a system will need to be very effective and very powerful; meaning costly-to-install, expensive-to-operate, and noisy. While affordable, room-sized filters are available, but they are just that - room sized. They aren't designed to handle more than an average-sized room with the door closed. And even these work much better if you've implemented the other principles first. The bottom line is this: Filtration is most effective at removing the pollutants that remain after you've implemented the other three principles.


Finally, I should mention using ozone, negative-ion generators, and house plants to clean the air. Although popular, these approaches are simplistic solutions to the complex problem of improving indoor air quality. They have the same appeal as a magic diet pill that promises to remove ten pounds overnight with no effort. In most cases, such solutions aren't very effective, and they can sometimes lead to new problems. But, that's another article...


(Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The Healthy House Institute, LLC.)


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Improving Indoor Air Quality - What Works:  Created on April 18th, 2007.  Last Modified on February 28th, 2011


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