Clear air takes care, especially if you’re building.
Most people think of their homes as havens, but the air quality inside can be far worse than outside, even in a busy city.
Marianne Baker, president of the Australian Society of Building Biologists, says a number of factors diminish air quality, including dust and mould. In recent years, people have also become more aware – and wary – of products containing Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), chemicals containing carbon that slowly ‘offgas’ into the air.
Although few VOCs have been studied in detail, a number of health effects are known. “The symptoms vary from person to person, but can include headaches, tiredness, or irritation of eyes, nose and throat,” Ms Baker says.
Even so, they’re ubiquitous in our household products, construction materials and furnishings. Unless you take special care, VOCs will emerge from your new carpet, paint, cupboards, varnish, adhesives and synthetic fabrics, as well as from day-to-day cleaning and pest control products, air fresheners and deodorants.
Construction products offgas the most when they are new. For this reason, the decisions you make when you build or renovate are crucial, because you’re installing scores of products all at once.
Low- or no-VOC products are available, including natural paints, sealants and finishes, and natural-fibre floor coverings (such as sisal or jute). Ecospecifier, an eco-friendly product database, is a great place to research what’s on offer. “Seek advice about healthy building materials,” Ms Baker suggests, “and make sure the design allows for excellent cross-flow ventilation.”
Good ventilation is essential for good indoor air quality. “If the air is stagnant, chemicals released from the building materials will accumulate inside,” Ms Baker says.
Jo Immig is an environmental scientist and the coordinator of the National Toxics Network. She says parents should be especially wary of the products they use around the house. “Children are at far greater risk of exposure to any chemicals because their body is developing. They breathe more air per body-kilogram than adults.”
She says most of us can dramatically improve our air quality by adopting a handful of different habits, as well as by improving ventilation. “I encourage people to switch from petrochemical-based, heavily perfumed cleaning products to plant-based, low-toxic cleaning products.” Similarly, she recommends against buying plug-in or aerosol air fresheners.
And if you’ve got pest trouble, try to target the cause of the problem. “For example, with cockroaches, seal up cracks and crevices, rather than getting a pest control company to come once a year and spray the place with chemicals,” Ms Immig says.
Unflued gas heaters are also a health hazard. When gas is burnt it releases nitrogen dioxide, which contributes to chronic respiratory disease. “Any indoor gas appliance that is not properly vented is potentially a big contributor to indoor pollution,” Ms Immig says.
Her other simple suggestions include coughing up for a vacuum with high filter efficiency (HEPA filter) and removing your shoes at the door. Particles of heavy metals, such as lead, cling to the soles of our shoes – so at the least, be sure to place doormats at every entry.
Indoor plants can also help you breathe easy. “Plants have a lot to offer,” Ms Immig says, “not just their potential for cleaning the air, but for the overall feeling of wellbeing in the home.”
For more information, visit safersolutions.org.au