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The Hidden Danger of Indoor Air Pollution

Indoor plants which help reduce indoor air pollution

Hear “junky air” and you probably picture smokestacks belching out plumes of gray exhaust or face-mask clad city residents shuffling through streets choked with yellow smog. It’s enough to make you want to hole up in your house where the air is crystal clear. But just because you can’t see filth in the air doesn’t mean it’s not there.

The common sources 

The air inside your home can actually be up to five times as polluted as outdoor air, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). And given we typically spend around  90 percent of our time indoors, that’s cause for concern. Not only can outdoor contaminants creep in, pet dander, mold, chemicals from furniture and carpets, and dust mites can also accumulate, says Feryal Hajee, M.D., an allergist at Metropolitan Asthma & Allergy, and member of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. 

Everyday activities like cooking on a gas stove, cleaning your carpets, or repainting your living room can increase the amount of air pollutants you’re exposed to, notes Hajee. Among those are volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—organic gasses which can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat and some of which are carcinogens— and particulate matter, microscopic pollutants which can damage the heart and lungs. 

The health impact of indoor air pollution

Over time, inhaling contaminants can contribute to health problems like stroke, heart disease, and even cancer, notes the World Health Organization. The danger exists year round, but it can worsen in the summer, when humid air makes it easier for mold to grow. Mold causes respiratory problems (coughing, sneezing, wheezing) in healthy people, and can heighten allergy symptoms in those who suffer from them, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But there are simple steps you can take to breathe a little easier.

6 ways to clear the air

Ventilate, ventilate, ventilate

Turn on the exhaust fan every time you cook to sweep particulate matter outside, not in. Flip on the fan after you shower to minimize moisture so mold has less of a chance to take hold. Air purifiers, especially those with a HEPA filter, can help decrease pet dander and plant pollen, says Hajee.

Keep humidity in check

Opening the windows also helps disperse indoor pollutants—but if there’s high humidity, consider switching on the air conditioning to lower moisture levels and make it less hospitable to mold and dust mites. Hajee advises keeping the humidity below 50 percent. (If your HVAC system doesn’t measure humidity, you can buy a digital hygrometer at most hardware stores to check levels.) Running the AC, however, can circulate indoor allergens, so remember to swap out filters at least once a month, notes the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.

Clean the right way

Vacuum carpets at least once a week with a vacuum cleaner equipped with a HEPA filter. Wash bedding, curtains, and throw blankets in water that’s at least 130° F, and consider using dust mite–proof covers on pillows, as well as mattresses and box springs. And cut down on clutter. Knicknacks attract dust, so store away whatever you can. When it comes to cleaning products, read labels carefully. Some products, including rug and upholstery cleaners, floor polish, air fresheners, and oven cleaners can release VOCs.

Open the blinds

Rooms exposed to daylight have fewer germs within household dust, according to recent research published in the journal Microbiome. But if you’re going to sit near a window for long periods of time, wear sunscreen (preferably coupled with antioxidants) or long-sleeves; some UV rays can penetrate the glass and cause skin damage, notes the American Cancer Society. 

Ditch your shoes at the door

Your shoes can pick up a lot, including pesticides used on lawns. In fact, 80 percent of our exposure to pesticides happens indoors, thanks to tracked-in contaminants, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Wear antioxidants indoors

This won’t exactly clear the air, but it will mitigate the impact: Research has shown that pollution can accelerate aging in skin, resulting in hyperpigmentation and an increase in lines and wrinkles. That’s why it’s as important to bathe your skin in antioxidants when you’re home as it as when you’re walking in the park, notes dermatologist Ranella Hirsch—they are one of the few types of ingredients that have been demonstrated to counteract pollution damage in skin. Pick a formula with vitamin C and/or ferulic acid, like the Vitamin C Booster; a  recent study found that wearing an antioxidant serum with these ingredients protected the skin against air contaminants, improving skin barrier function, lessening dark spots, and lowering oxidative stress.