Improve Your Indoor Air Quality & Breathe Easy

Improve Your Indoor Air Quality & Breathe Easy

Did you know that 20 percent of the U.S. population lives in communities with lethal levels of smog and particulate pollution—the toxic soup of chemicals, metals, acids, ash and soot that triggers asthma attacks, heart attacks, strokes and early deaths? Makes you want to close the windows, bar the door and stay home, right?

Not so fast. The indoor air quality in your living room might be worse.

Indoor levels of some pollutants (e.g., formaldehyde, chloroform, styrene) can be 2 to 50 times higher than levels in your front yard. And now that most of us spend nearly 90 percent of our time inside, we're inhaling by-products of everything from household cleaners to emissions from our laser printers.

Here's how to cut down on pollutants, improve your indoor air quality and breathe easy.

  • Ban cigarette smoke. It's the single largest source of particulate pollution inside homes. The best way to purify your environment—and reduce your risk of lung, cervical and other cancers; heart disease; asthma attacks; wrinkles; even erectile dysfunction—is to keep smokers 500 feet away from you and your home. (Cigarette smoke contains more than 4,000 chemicals. Here are a few you could be inhaling.)
  • Skip air fresheners and spray-on cleaners. Regularly breathing in a volatile organic compound called 1,4-dichlorobenzene, which is found in room deodorizers (toilet-bowl freshening blocks, too), could reduce your lung function by 4 percent. Use aromas from 100 percent essential oils instead. (Find out whether too much cleanliness could cause asthma.)
  • Open closed windows regularly. Whether you live in an ultra-modern shelter or a drafty old farmhouse, you need to air out your castle regularly, not just after you paint the powder room or refinish vintage floors. Tightly constructed new homes may have higher pollution levels than leaky old ones, so open the windows regularly. For easy breathing, always switch on exhaust fans in the kitchen and bathroom when you're cooking or cleaning. (Learn how to beat the invisible killer in your home.)
  • Cut down on the chemicals you bring home (especially dry-cleaning ones like trichloroethylene and perchloroethylene, or PERC). They've been linked to kidney and nervous system damage as well as cancer. Hang clothes outdoors for an hour before bringing them inside.
  • Boot out microscopic gunk. Inhaling indoor particulates—produced by everything from burning logs to broiling fish—can leave you wheezing, or worse. Keep furnaces in good repair, and be sure vents to heaters, clothes dryers and ranges are clean and working properly. If you heat with wood, ensure your stove is well sealed and burns efficiently. (Take this quiz to see if you're at risk for other kinds of allergies.)
  • Bring nature indoors. Live plants can do wonders for your indoor air quality by filtering out respectable amounts of volatile organic compounds from your air.
  • Avoid "gassy" decor. New no-iron linens and drapes may release formaldehyde, which can trigger allergies, asthma, nausea, coughing, chest tightness and wheezing. Wash all permanent-press curtains, bedding and clothes before using. You'll reduce formaldehyde emissions by 60 percent.
  • Improve the air in your car. The environment inside your ride might be 2 to 10 times more polluted than breezes over the freeway! Don't creep up on the slow car in front of you. Half the pollution inside your vehicle comes from the tailpipe just ahead. Avoid following diesel cars or trucks, and—whenever possible—use the carpool lane. Its air is 30 to 50 percent cleaner, thanks to no trucks or buses.

Now, take a deep breath—you can breathe easy!

Medically reviewed in May 2018.

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