Understanding Indoor Air Quality

By Jiju John, Product Manager, Consumer Solutions Group, SECL

The quality of the air we breathe indoors can affect our comfort and health. With people typically inside about 90 per cent of the time, according to HealthLinkBC, it’s worthwhile considering what can impact indoor air and what can be done about it.

How Clean is indoor air?

Indoor air can be five times worse than outdoor air, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The air in our homes, schools and workplaces varies in quality depending on what’s happening inside and how often it’s replaced by outdoor air.

When too little outdoor air enters a building to refresh the air inside, contaminants can build up. Generally, air will infiltrate a building through cracks and gaps in the structure (even with all doors and windows closed). Newer buildings can be better sealed, which means air must be let in with mechanical means or by opening windows to ensure good circulation. Air quality can also be affected by local conditions – such as humidity, and the presence of objects that add pollutants to the environment.

What are indoor pollutants?

Indoor pollutants include biological contaminants (pollen, pet dander, insects), combustion by-products (such as from fuel-burning appliances) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can be released into the air by cleaning products, paint, varnishes, and new furniture or upholstery. Common VOCs include chemicals such as benzene, ethylbenzene, formaldehyde, xylenes, and toluene.

Additionally, mould can develop when an environment is consistently humid.

In general, if something is making air quality worse, the best first step is to address the source, including by removing it. This is especially important if the pollutant is causing immediate heath effects, such as headaches, or irritation of the eyes, nose and throat. Such immediate effects can be hard to distinguish from the symptoms of colds or other diseases. Try to localize the source of a pollutant by considering whether you experience symptoms in one room more often than another. Poor indoor air quality can also be associated with long-term effects such as respiratory diseases, heart disease and cancer. But as the EPA notes, “Further research is needed to better understand which health effects occur after exposure to the average pollutant concentrations found in homes and which occurs from the higher concentrations that occur for short periods of time.”

Steps to improving air quality

There are a number of other steps you can take to improve indoor air quality.  A good first step is ventilation. Open windows during warm weather. Also open interior doors so air can flow between rooms, which can help prevent pollutants from accumulating and reaching high concentrations. Fans can also help move air through the house.

To prevent the growth of mould, clean sinks, showers and bathtubs weekly. Also fix plumbing leaks immediately and check pipes for condensation. It might be counterintuitive, but a simple leaky faucet can have consequences for air quality.

The Government of Canada’s guidance on improving indoor air quality suggests that portable air cleaners can help: “Portable air cleaners, particularly HEPA filters and electrostatic precipitators, can reduce some air contaminants. HEPA filters collect particle pollutants with a fine filter.” Some options include the Sharp Plasmacluster® Ion Air Purifier with True HEPA (FPK50UW) and the Plasmacluster Air Purifier with Humidifying Function (KC850U).

The things that can change the quality of our indoor air are diverse, but many of them are within our control. We can help keep indoor air clean by improving ventilation from outside and removing pollutants at the source or by cleaning the air.