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10 ways to save your health and improve indoor air quality

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This article originally appeared on the 11th December in the Irish Independent and online on www.independent.ie.

pablo 100There is increasing recognition that air pollution is not just an outdoors problem, it is important to also consider indoor air quality. Indoor air quality is significant because it can affect our comfort, productivity and, most importantly, our health. You can influence your indoor air quality in three main ways: source control (ie limiting the source of pollutants), ventilation, and cleaning of any pollutants that may be present. Here we break those three main strategies down even further to list 10 things you can do to improve your indoor air quality.

1. Be air aware

Although you may think of pollution as being "outside", indoor air can be more polluted than outdoor air. This is because unlike the open outdoors, indoor spaces are contained, any pollution or contaminants that may be present can accumulate. You should be conscious of the indoor air quality, especially as nowadays people spend, on average, 90pc of their time indoors - eg at home, at work, in other public buildings such as shops or in a vehicle.

2. Be Goldilocks and keep your relative humidity 'just right'

If you keep track of the relative humidity at home or at work, you should aim for levels between 30pc and 50pc. Below 30pc relative humidity, your eyes and skin may become dry. Above 50pc relative humidity dust mite populations increase and above 60pc relative humidity, mould growth can increase.

3. Think before you buy

Every fixture and fitting that makes up your home or workplace, and every other item that you bring into the indoor space, can influence your indoor air quality. The paint on the walls, the flooring, the furniture and many other daily items can be sources of chemicals known as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). You may have come across VOCs when you experience that 'new car smell'. That source of that smell is often VOCs released from the plastic, adhesives and sealants in the new car's interior. VOCs can also be emitted from building materials and household products. Look out for labels such as "low VOC" or "no added formaldehyde" on products like paint and furniture. Even better, check if the products have been independently tested to back up these claims.

4. Don't smoke indoors

One of the best ways to limit the introduction of pollutants in your indoor space is to never smoke indoors. Extend the smoking ban already present in workplaces and other enclosed public spaces to your own home. A recent study in Scotland found that over a lifetime, a non-smoker who lives with a smoker can inhale as much of a pollutant called PM2.5 (potentially dangerous fine particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometres) as a non-smoker who lives in a very polluted city like Beijing. Source: tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/24/e3/e205

5. Try to cut down on the candles

Although they add to a cosy atmosphere, burning candles produce both particulate matter and gaseous pollutants. Scented candles can also release VOCs, even when unlit. If you do light a candle indoors, be sure to keep the room well ventilated

6. Ventilation

In recent years, there has been a trend towards increased air tightness, insulation and double glazing and other strategies designed to improve the energy efficiency of buildings. However, the drive for improved energy efficiency does not necessarily have to come at the expense of reduced indoor air quality. The way to achieve this balance is to focus on ventilation. In the old days, increasing ventilation simply meant opening a window. Nowadays there are more sophisticated ventilation strategies available such as heat recovery ventilation or mechanical ventilation heat recovery that can both provide fresh air without the loss of heat, thus saving energy.

7. Don't Cook up a Storm

Have you ever noticed a smoky cloud in the kitchen after frying a steak? This is because cooking, especially frying, is an important source of airborne particles in the home. Counteract this with an effective exhaust hood above your cooker, and remember to regularly change the filter. Another tip is to use the back rings where possible.

8. Don't be fooled by claims that plants clean the air

Plants have many benefits, including brightening up indoor spaces, but claims that they can clean the air are often overstated. In fact, there have only been a few studies of the effect of plants in indoor air quality in homes and offices and results have been mixed. It is definitely not advisable to rely on plants alone to clean your indoor air as by one estimate, 680 plants would be needed to clean the air in a 1,500 square foot house.

9. Vacuum Clean 

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Regular vacuum cleaning can improve air quality at home

Regular vacuum cleaning can help to improve indoor air quality by removing dust and allergens from the floor. Removal of these particles prevents them from being resuspended from the floor into the air when people walk around their homes or office. But make sure the vacuum cleaner itself isn't a contributor to poor indoor air quality. An Australian study in 2012 found that vacuum cleaners can release dust, bacteria and allergens back into the air. Look for a model with a filter to ensure that what you clean up is not simply being released back out. And again, look for vacuum cleaners that have been independently tested to back up any advertising claims.

10. Cleaning

Vacuuming is only part of the solution. To truly tackle indoor air quality, you need a multifaceted approach. Regular cleaning can also make a valuable contribution. But thinking back to the issue of source control, be careful about the products you use and only use the amount of cleaning product necessary to do the job. Read the label and ventilate the area when using cleaning products.