Just about the time of year when you want to settle in and enjoy the great indoors comes this fact: There's a pollution problem, and it isn't the smog over your city. "Indoor air can be two to five times more contaminated than outside air," says air quality expert Jeffrey May, author of Jeff May's Healthy Home Tips. "I would suggest that, in many cases, it's even worse."
The major culprit, as it turns out, is you and me. Every day, we make blunders that could cause allergies and asthma symptoms to kick in, or even threaten the health of our lungs. The good news? Since our mistakes are primarily responsible for the indoor pollution problem, we have the power to fix it. Here are the six biggest breathe-better blunders, and easy, practical solutions for correcting them.
- You empty the vacuum inside the house. Your vacuum picks up everything from Kitty's fur to cracker crumbs, but you may be undoing all that work depending on where you ditch the dirt. "Take the vacuum outside to dispose of the bag or to empty the dirt canister in bagless models," says Dr. Marc J. Sicklick of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. "Doing it inside can re-deposit a lot of the dirt and dust in the air." Sicklick suggests using a multi-layered bag, and tossing it before it's full. Wear a dust mask when emptying bagless machines.
- You leave your shoes on when you enter the house. "Most people don't think about what they're tracking into their carpets," says Steve Ashkin, author of Green Cleaning for Dummies. "You wind up inhaling what you brought in on the bottom of your shoes." That can include viruses, mold and pesticides, too. Besides swapping shoes for slippers at the door, Ashkin recommends doormats—a coarse type outside that scrapes and collects large particles, and a carpet-type indoors for fine particles—to keep pollutants out in the first place.
- You dust with a dry rag. Your coffee table may pass the white-glove test after a few swipes with a dry dust rag. Problem is, most of the dust has gone into the air, not the rag. "You're basically stirring up the dust and inhaling it," Sicklick says. "It can contain pet dander, cigarette ash, dust mites, even paint chips." The solution is a damp rag, which holds onto dust and its pollutants. "It should be just moist enough to seal an envelope," Sicklick says. Wash rags in hot water after every cleaning.
- You use aerosol cleaning products. "Because the particles from aerosols are small, they linger in the air longer and can be inhaled deeply into the lungs," says Janice Nolen of the American Lung Association (ALA). This isn't good for your lungs, whether the chemical is toxic or not. The ALA recommends using liquid products, a rag and a little elbow grease instead of aerosols. Even then, be sure to open windows and turn on exhaust fans to disburse fumes.
- Your air purifier produces ozone. Air purifiers are supposed to remove pollutants from the air, not add more to it. But some machines do. A University of California at Irvine study concluded that ozone-generating purifiers can produce concentrations equal to or exceeding levels found in outdoor air. (Ozone in the lower atmosphere is harmful; the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere protects us from the sun's damaging rays.) Ionizing air purifiers may emit smaller amounts of ozone, but they can make household air dirtier by reacting with a common additive in cleaning products called D-limonene. "Check the purifier's packaging for any mention of 'ozone-producing' or 'ionization,'" says study author Dr. Sergey Nizkorodov. "Only use models with a HEPA and/or carbon filter."
- You burn the wrong type of wood in the fireplace. A blazing fire in a living room fireplace increases the coziness quotient of any home. But it can also up dangerous levels of unhealthy gases and fine particles in indoor air. "Inhaling any wood smoke can cause a range of respiratory problems," Nolen says. Avoid soft woods like pine and wet, moldy logs, both of which produce more smoke than hardwoods like oak, maple, birch and poplar. Or try "natural" manufactured logs, made from compressed sawdust, vegetable and plant wax. They burn more cleanly than cut wood.