Our homes are our refuge from the outside world. They’re the one place where we should always feel safe and relaxed. But there is increasing concern about how healthy our homes actually are. In some cases we’re only just realizing that many of the products we use to build and furnish our homes may have serious long term health effects.
Air quality is a technical area and it’s sometimes hard to separate fact from fiction. You may not feel confident or competent to challenge your home designer, builders and suppliers. Or you may not even know what the right questions are to ask.
In this post we go back to basics, looking at how poor air quality can arise and what you can do about it. The good news is that by being aware, and taking some simple precautionary measures, you can control and improve the air quality in your home.
Air tightness and ventilation
There’s been a big focus in recent years on improving the energy performance of our homes. Building codes are getting tighter and we’re slapping extra insulation on properties to make them warmer. All this is great news, but when you make a property more air tight you also reduce the flow of air through the home. As a result air can become more stagnant, leading to a build up of pollutants in the home.
Whether you’re building a new home, or renovating your current home, remember that air tightness and ventilation go hand in hand. This doesn’t have to be complicated. Opening windows brings fresh air into a room. Extractor fans in bathrooms and kitchens help whisk away the moisture generated by showering and cooking.
However, if you’re looking to build an airtight, high performance home you’re going to need a whole-house mechanical ventilation system to maintain indoor air quality. There are different types of system, but the important thing is to make sure it’s installed correctly and you know how to maintain it.
Issues with poor ventilation
If your home doesn’t have adequate ventilation, your may notice moisture or condensation on walls and windows or stuffy, smelly air. Excess moisture may lead to mold developing on books, clothing or shoes. Mold can cause acute and long-term health problems and exacerbate existing medical conditions such as asthma.
The EPA have a useful guide on mold clean-up, but to make sure it doesn’t reoccur, you really need to tackle the root cause of the problem.
Sources of indoor air pollutants
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the most effective way of reducing indoor air pollutants is to reduce or eliminate the sources. Easy right? Except the sources are all around you.
But don’t get too alarmed. In the majority of cases, pollutants don’t occur in high enough concentrations to cause significant health impacts, particularly if you have effective ventilation. Nevertheless, it’s worth being aware of potential sources of pollutants so you can take simple steps to reduce your exposure.
Radon is a colorless, odorless radioactive gas. It comes from the natural breakdown of uranium in rocks and soil and is the second leading cause of lung cancer (after smoking) in the United States. You can get an idea of radon levels across different states by looking at the EPA Radon Zones, but the only way to know what the levels are in your property is by testing. Radon test kits are inexpensive and may be free in some states.
The EPA’s recommended action level for radon is 4.0 pico-Curies per liter. The good news is, there are various ways you can design your new home to be radon resistant.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
A lot of indoor air quality problems are currently being blames on Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). These are organic chemicals that vaporize easily at room temperature. VOCs are commonly used in the production of building products, flooring, fabrics and decorative materials as well as ingredients in household products such as cleaners, aerosol sprays and cosmetics. Although individual products are unlikely to be hazardous to health, because our homes today contain so many different man-made products, the cumulative impact of the pollutants can be significant.
VOCs can range from chemicals that are highly toxic, to those with no known health effects. If you’re interested in finding out exactly what is in the household products you use, the Household Products Database has a comprehensive list of common products, chemical ingredients and health effects.
Although radon and VOCs are two of the most talked-about culprits of poor indoor air quality, tobacco smoke (from cigarettes or pipes) and pollutants from fireplaces, woodstoves and kerosene heaters can also be significant contributors.
How to reduce the level of indoor pollutants
By following these simple precautions, you can help reduce the likelihood of a build up of pollutants in your home:
- Only buy what paints, solvents, adhesives and caulks you need and store any unused products in a garage or shed.
- Dispose of any unneeded products at a household hazardous waste site.
- If you’re carrying out home renovations or decorating, keep doors and windows open or use an exhaust fan to increase ventilation.
- Follow the manufacturer’s guidance and precautions.
- Only smoke outside your home.
- Have central air handling systems such as furnaces, flues and chimneys, inspected annually and repaired promptly to reduce the risk of harmful combustion gases leaking into your home.
When it comes to VOCs, the simplest way to reduce exposure is to avoid products containing them. There are various labeling schemes designed to help consumers select products with very low VOC emissions. These include the GREENGUARD certification scheme, the Declare program and the Green Label Plus program for carpets and soft furnishings.
Some innovative new products even claim to improve air quality, such as CertainTeed Gypsum’s AirRenew drywall board which apparently removes formaldehyde from the air and converts it into an inert compound. Sherwin Williams’s Harmony paint is not only zero-VOC but helps reduce common household odors from pets and cooking.
Healthy home standards
If you’re building a new home or carrying out significant renovations there are several standards that look more holistically at healthy homes.
The WELL Building Standard sets performance requirements in seven areas that impact on the health of building occupants, with certification levels at Silver, Gold and Platinum.
Indoor air quality is a significant component of the LEED Certification standard. The standard specifies use of construction materials and products which have been emissions tested.
All the homes we build at SEED are LEED certified so you can be sure your new home is a healthy home. Get in touch today to find out how we can help you build your perfect home.