June 22, 2009

You May Have Indoor Air Quality Issues If…

Vestina F. Crayton, Urban Sustainability Extension Specialist, Pinellas County Extension

Your indoor space exhibits any of the following:

1. You feel better when you are outside of the space
2. The air is stagnant
3. Obvious odors are present
4. Mold is present
5. High humidity
Many times these symptoms are produced by the release of toxins into the air by objects in our indoor spaces. Some of the main air pollutants are volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs are emitted from many man-made products such as carpeting, paints, furniture, remodeling materials, cleaning products, and pesticides.

Now that you have identified that there is a problem, and the source of the problem, what is the solution? The solution depends on the source. Depending on the situation, the solution can range from a simple behavior change such as only smoking outdoors (not smoking at all is strongly encouraged) to a costly plumbing job due to a water leak that resulted in mold growth.

An Ounce of Prevention Is Worth a Pound of Cure

It is virtually impossible to anticipate and plan for all of the unexpected events or elements that can compromise your indoor air quality; however, the US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) has identified the following three basic ways to improve your indoor air environment (ranging from most to least effective): control the source, ensure proper ventilation, and utilize air cleaners.

Control the Source

Choose low or no VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) products.
Although VOCs naturally occur, as mentioned above, many are man-made. Volatile refers to the way the compound behaves. It is released into the atmosphere at room temperature. This characteristic is of special concern because the average person spends most of their time indoors. The higher the temperature the quicker the evaporation or release into the atmosphere. Organic refers to the carbon element in the compound. Consumers are becoming more diligent about improving their indoor environment. Retailers are becoming more tuned in to the needs of their consumers and are providing low or no VOC products. Businesses are making sure that these products are highly visible.

Ensure Proper Ventilation

Open the Windows
According to the USEPA, “Ventilation, either natural or
mechanical, is the second most effective approach to providing acceptable indoor air.” Generally speaking, an HVAC system is designed to push a certain amount of outdoor air inside. However, when there are periods of extreme hot or cold temperatures, the expense of cooling hot air and warming cold air is costly. To address the cost issue, some HVAC systems are designed to restrict the flow of outdoor air into a space. The result is increased levels of indoor air toxins. Since it is necessary to have a sufficient amount of fresh outdoor air into an interior space to control pollutants, opening a window allows the admittance of fresh air.

Get the Air Moving In New Constructions
Many new constructions are built with energy efficiency in mind. Creating a structure that is air tight ensures that excessive air does not slip in or out which directly effects the operation of the HVAC system. Unfortunately, being air tight can present its own challenges. An air tight space does not allow the proper flow of outdoor air into a space which helps to reduce the levels of indoor toxins. The USEPA created the Indoor airPLUS Label for New Homes for builders to address this concern. Builders that implement products and practices that serve to ensure healthy indoor air quality as well as energy efficiency can then designate the home Indoor airPLUS.

Utilize Air Cleaners

Clear the Air
In conjunction with source control and proper ventilation, using an air cleaner is an option. An air cleaner physically removes varying sizes and types of pollutants from the air. There are three types available: Mechanical filters, Electronic air cleaners, and Ion generators. In addition to the size and type of toxins being removed, flow rate, and how the equipment functions influences the effectiveness of the air cleaner.

Other Strategies

Regular Maintenance of HVAC Systems
Following the maintenance schedule recommended by the manufacturer will help minimize the introduction of indoor air pollutants. Many companies will send a reminder for the annual inspection. Whether you are moving into a previously owned home or a rented space, ask about the maintenance history of the HVAC system.

Change Air Conditioning Filters Monthly
Make it a habit to change your filter each time you receive your power bill. A properly maintained filter will operate at its optimum by restricting the release of air pollutants into a space. A clogged filter allows air to pass into the space carrying pollutants.
This article simply highlights the basic approaches to achieving a healthier and safer indoor air environment. Make sure you do your research and evaluate the associated pros and cons before determining which method meets your needs. By far, source control is the most effective and cost efficient way to enjoy quality indoor air.

For more in-depth information about how to minimize indoor air toxins and create a healthier indoor environment, Pinellas County Extension will be offering a Healthy, Home, Healthy Family seminar September 12, 2009. Please check back for more details and to register at



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