How Healthy is Your Home?
Our homes provide sanctuary. Whether at the end of a hard day or the beginning of a new one, our living spaces are places of comfort and safety that provide shelter from our busy lives. Most of us believe we can feel safe and secure in our homes. Yet they are not always as safe as we assume them to be. One of the biggest unseen threats to our health is the poor indoor air quality in our homes.
There is no doubt that the pandemic has created a greater awareness of how the environment in our homes affects us. Especially now when we are spending more time indoors than ever. Poor indoor air quality, especially in major cities like New York City, is an often-overlooked threat, which can lead to chronic health issues. Numerous studies have shown that the quality of the air we breathe has a huge impact on our health and well-being. Yet until recently, healthy home design was something that most people gave very little thought to.
We spend 90% of our time indoors in enclosed environments where the indoor air quality can be 2 to 5 times more polluted than outside.
We spend 90% of our time indoors. Much of that is at home, in an enclosed environment that may lack proper ventilation and fresh air. Where the accumulation of pollutants can be two to five times worse than outside. What effect does this have on the health and well-being of you and your loved ones?
The Risks of Poor Indoor Air Quality in the Home.
Poor indoor air quality can lead to a whole host of chronic conditions. These can include headaches, brain fog, body pain, heart disease, and an even greater risk of cancer. It can also increase the risk of asthma, allergies, upper respiratory illnesses, and eye, ear, and nose irritation due to allergy-causing dust.
Because of the pandemic, we have become aware that viruses, such as COVID-19, are airborne. However, viruses are not the only airborne contaminants you and your family are exposed to in your homes. Other airborne contaminants include volatile organic chemicals (VOCs), bacteria, dust, mold, other allergens that can lead to allergic reactions and other health issues.
The air we breathe at home is filled with more air-polluting chemicals than most of us realize. Many things in our homes release VOCs into the air. Whether it’s the paint on the walls, the furniture and carpet that you’ve purchased, or the cleaning supplies and personal care products that you use, they all release volatile organic chemicals into the air. Significantly many of these VOCs have been shown to adversely affect our health.
A classic example of harmful VOCs is formaldehyde which is used in building materials such as plywood, fiberboard, and adhesives. It is also released into the air by cosmetics, nail polish, soaps, shampoos, and cleaning projects. Exposure to formaldehyde has been linked to the risk of cancer and irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat.
Unless your home is designed for healthy living, with good ventilation, harmful pathogens, such as VOCs and other allergens, can build up. Over time, the off-gassing of chemicals and the accumulation of airborne pollutants can lead to health issues and a lack of vitality. Healthy home design is essential to creating a living space that is comfortable and safe for you and your family.
Six Simple Steps to Improve the Air Quality in Your Home.
As an architect and WELL AP, I am committed to creating architecturally designed environments for my clients that foster wellbeing. This approach includes science-backed principles to create healthy building design. Even if you live in a building where you do not have your own central air conditioning system, as many New Yorkers do, below are six simple steps you can take to create a healthier home environment and to improve poor air quality.
1. Open your windows.
Air out your home every day. In a couple of rooms located at opposite ends of your home open the windows two or three inches. This will improve the air circulation throughout, bringing in fresh air and exhausting contaminated air.
2. Replace your gas stove with electric.
Gas stoves release harmful gas fumes into your home even when not used. A recent study found that 75% of these emissions occur even when the stove is off. Replace your gas stove with an electric induction stove. The latest models have gained unmatched power, precision, and responsiveness that easily rival their gas counterparts’ ease of cooking.
3. Add house plants and natural materials to improve your air quality and your mood.
House plants are constantly purifying the air, releasing oxygen as they take in carbon dioxide. They also regulate humidity and purify the air. Bringing nature and natural materials into your home adds much-needed positive energy, and has been shown to improve your mood and reduce stress.
4. Don’t use air fresheners.
They release harmful VOCs into the air that may adversely impact your health. Open your windows to get rid of unwanted odors or use air purifiers with charcoal activated filters.
5 Get rid of scented candles.
Most candles are made from paraffin wax and synthetic fragrances. Both release toxic VOCs into the air when burned. Additionally, the smoke is made up of harmful fine particles that can penetrate your lungs. A safer alternative is to use an essential oils diffuser or potpourri.
6. Add a standalone indoor air purifier to your home.
There are many good-quality indoor air filters on the market with a variety of filtering media. In addition to standard media filters, some models include HEPA filters, and/or charcoal-activated or carbon filters. Circulating air through filters like these can remove VOCs, viruses, bacteria, mold, dust, and other allergens from the air.
Improve the Heating Cooling System in Your Home.
If you have central air conditioning and forced-air heat, upgrading your existing heating/cooling system can improve the energy efficiency and air quality in your home. An HVAC contractor can help you evaluate your existing system and advise you on the best way to promote healthy design. Generally, this is done by improving the level of air filtration in the system.
Most HVAC systems have standard air filters that are not adequate to filter out many air contaminants. If possible, upgrade your air filters to an efficiency rating of at least a MERV 13. These filters are denser than standard air filters. They are more effective in filtering out dust, allergens, mold, and bacteria. Also, check with your HVAC contractor to see if your system is robust enough to add a HEPA air filter to further purify the air. Additionally, see if it is possible to add more outside fresh air to the system. Both will improve the air quality and create a healthier home.
What About Humidity?
Having the proper level of humidity in your home is important. The optimum level of relative humidity is between 30% and 50%.
Dry air, or humidity below 30%, can cause dry skin, irritate your nasal passages and throat, and make your eyes itchy. Viruses thrive in dry air which increases the chances of your catching a cold or the flu.
Humidity above 60% is uncomfortable for most people and can lead to condensation problems on your windows, walls, floors, and other surfaces. Also, too much humidity promotes the growth of harmful bacteria, dust mites, and mold.
People generally feel most comfortable and are healthier when indoor humidity is between 30% and 60%. Additionally, viruses break down and cannot survive in this range. Prevent low humidity in the wintertime by installing humidifiers in your home. Retrofit central air-conditioning systems in large homes or townhouses with central humidification. Apartment dwellers, without central AC, can install one of the many brands of standalone humidifiers.
It is important to stay within the recommended range when adding humidity to your home in the winter or dehumidifying your home in the summer.
Looking for More Ways to Create a Healthier Home?
If you want to create a healthy home for you and your family, incorporating the recommendations above is an easy first step. However, a professional evaluation of your home can identify additional recommendations to make your home healthier for you and your loved ones.
You can also achieve a more permanent solution when you renovate your home or build a new one. Working with an architect who specializes in healthy home design will provide you with an energy-efficient design that promotes health and wellbeing.
In addition to the measure discussed above, an architect familiar with the WELL Buiding Standard will select non-toxic building materials and energy-efficient fixtures and appliances, orient living spaces to make the best use of natural light, and advise on proper water filtration and optimum thermal comfort. Incorporating building science principles and wellness design will provide you with a greater level of comfort and assurance that you and your home are in good health for a long time to come.
To get started, feel free to schedule a free 30-minute consultation with me to discuss your project.