From remote work to sidewalk cafes, the coronavirus pandemic reconfigured Americans’ approaches to their spaces. That’s especially evident in the home, where residents aren’t just considering how their interiors look when making upgrades. They’re also considering air quality.
“Until last year, we didn’t really care what we breathed,” said Dr. Christophe Suchy, a Ph.D. in chemistry and lead scientist and founder of CASPR Group. CASPR Group provides disinfection technology to Louisiana State University’s athletic department, plus homeowners and small businesses. “Viruses or pathogens brought to the house by friends and visitors— that’s on everyone’s mind now.”
Fungi, dust and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are a few more offenders, Suchy said, but reducing their harmful effects can be as simple as switching out a filter. Here are four steps homeowners can take to improve indoor air quality.
1. Get some circulation
“Air circulation is a key to success in being able to prevent viral transmission,” said Dr. MarkAlain Dery, an infectious disease specialist at Access Health Louisiana. “Since the summer, I’ve been on a huge kick on air circulation and ventilation.”
On sunny, pleasant days, open windows are the quickest, cheapest, most effective way to improve air quality. That’s because fresh air carries low levels of hydrogen peroxide, a natural disinfectant, Suchy said. But in a subtropical climate like Louisiana’s, open windows can also introduce moisture and mold. Homeowners may consider air purifiers with HEPA filters and HVAC systems with MERV (minimum efficiency reporting value) of 13 or higher.
“MERV 13-16 is considered hospital-level air quality,” said Jillian Pritchard Cooke, founder of Wellness Within Your Walls, an Atlanta-based, eco-friendly home and product certification program. “Good filtration can capture 99.5 percent of particulates.”
French drains, like this one shown from a street in the 7th Ward, are a good way to keep standing water away from a home’s foundation. The presence of standing water can cause mold problems.
2. Reduce mold and moisture
Remember the proliferation of black mold in homes flooded by Hurricane Katrina? That crisis has passed, but mold and mildew remain a threat to homeowners’ respiratory health, Suchy said. Cooke recommends homeowners test their environments for mold using DIY kits. Eradicate obvious mold with natural cleaners including baking soda and white vinegar. More serious mold issues might require professional intervention.
People building homes should use mold-resistant materials (such as water barriers attached to framing, flashing, water-resistant exterior finishes and mold-resistant drywall) to make sure they’re making “a tighter box,” Suchy said. Homeowners with older structures should be diligent about replacing rotted materials. Thermostats, dehumidifiers and fans help keep mold in check.
In flood-prone New Orleans, it’s also important to keep standing water away from a home’s foundation. “French drains are amazing,” Suchy said. “They pull water away from your home and get it to a drain, where it belongs. … Staying in front of mold is No. 1.”
3. Avoid VOCs
Fresh paint, new furniture and new carpet are the first things homeowners turn to when they want to spruce up their space, but these design elements can offgas VOCs for months or years.
“When people have a baby, they repaint (the nursery) and prepare it with new stuff. Furniture off-gasses chemicals for 10 years, and paint off-gasses for three to five years and exposes the newborn baby to a very harsh environment,” Suchy said. “Probably the worst spot inside the house is the baby’s room because of all the chemicals.”
Use low- or no-VOC paint, antique or used furniture (which has already off-gassed) or natural products rated by organizations like Wellness Within Your Walls. Cooke says people who can’t resist new, VOC-laden pieces should let them off-gas at a remote location.
“If you’re sold, buy it, take the plastic off, put it in the garage and run an air purifier or fans,” Cooke said. “It might need to be out there for eight weeks before you bring it into the house.”
Houseplants can help purify indoor air by removing pollutants and releasing oxygen.
4. Consider lifestyle choices
For homeowners with cats or dogs, Cooke recommends all-natural pine nugget litter, disposable cardboard litter boxes and frequent cleaning.
“Your pets affect the air,” Cooke said. “Their dander and hair will clog vents and get into your lungs. Keeping a clean house is really important. Dust and change filters in your HVAC system on a regular basis.”
She also says houseplants are under-rated when it comes to purifying the air. “House plants produce oxygen and remove pollutants such as benzene and formaldehyde,” said Cooke, whose favorites include English ivy, bamboo palms, peace lily, devil’s tongue, corn plants and rubber trees.
Homeowners who wear shoes, smoke or vape inside their homes could introduce unwelcome chemicals and pesticides.
“Take off your shoes before you come inside. If you’re addicted to cigarettes, go outside. Don’t put that on other occupants,” Suchy said. “Occupant behavior strategies contribute to air quality. These are simple things to do.”
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Learn more about improving indoor air quality here