Dear EarthTalk: I’ve been having trouble sleeping and my doctor suggested that indoor air pollution could be a contributing factor. Do you have any tips for how to improve my home’s indoor air quality without breaking the bank?
—Jennifer Abromovitch, Putney, VT
The key to a healthy indoor environment is clean air, but many of the finishes and furniture in a typical home or office off-gas pollutants that can compromise air quality. While opening a window might help, it also could make matters worse by introducing auto exhaust and other noxious emissions in. So, what’s a clean air lover to do about keeping the indoor environment safe?
Change Your Filters
For starters, it can’t hurt to change the filters on your furnace and air conditioner(s) on a regular, scheduled basis. Manufacturers recommend changing out furnace filters every three months, but mileage may vary depending on square footage and other factors. (When you install a new filter, write the date on it when it should be changed to keep yourself honest.) Also, getting your HVAC air ducts cleaned once every few years—or more frequently if you have pets or lots of people using the space in question.
Scrub the Air with Houseplants
Another way to help filter your indoor air is the all-natural way: with house plants. While humans have always had a special relationship with the plants around them, it wasn’t until NASA published research in the 1980s that we knew just what an important role house plants could play in ridding indoor environments of noxious chemical pollutants. Plants scrub particulates from the air while taking in carbon dioxide and processing it into oxygen, thereby creating more clean air for us to breathe. Garden mums, spider plants, dracaenas, ficus, peace lilies, Boston ferns, snake plants and bamboo palms are great choices given their especially powerful air purifying abilities.
Get An Air Filter
Yet another relatively easy indoor air quality fix would be to purchase an air purifier that plugs into the wall and uses carbon filtration or other methods for filtering contaminants out of the indoor environment. The Coway Mighty and Winix 5500-2 share top rankings from leading consumer review service, Wirecutter, while the Dyson Pure Hot+Cool Link gets kudos for great air cleaning with style.
Re-Paint in Low-VOC Style
If you really want to go all out, think about repainting interior walls with paint formulations that use little or no volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) that have been linked to respiratory problems, headaches, nausea, dizziness and fatigue, among other health worries. AFM Safecoat is the industry leader in low- and no-VOC paints and finishes, but the big players like Sherwin-Williams and Benjamin Moore now also have healthier formulations for a quickly increasing number of eco-conscious home improvement customers.
Another easy albeit more costly way to improve indoor air quality would be to get rid of those old couches, mattresses and other furniture which were required by law to contain flame retardant chemicals before we knew how harmful they could be to our indoor environment and health. Now that California has mandated that new furniture products cannot contain these noxious chemicals, more and more manufacturers (including Ikea and Pottery Barn) are starting to phase them out, so it’s a great time to replace that old mattress with a new one that won’t off-gas carcinogens every time you plop down onto it.