Clearing the air: how to breathe easier at home

E: The Environmental Magazine

July-August 2005

By Melissa Knopper

Most people look to the sky for billowing smokestacks when they're concerned about air pollution. But Karen Spector of the Los Angeles-based Children's Health Environmental Coalition (CHEC) says parents of young children usually look down. "We get so many calls from people concerned about new carpeting--they're worried about the strong smell," Spector says.

And rightly so. Americans spend nearly 90 percent of their time indoors, according to an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study. And EPA researchers estimate the air inside our homes is two to five times more polluted than the outside air.

While indoor air pollution is an important priority for everyone, parents of babies and toddlers tend to worry about it the most. Statistics show childhood asthma rates are rising, along with certain types of childhood cancer. Approximately 20 percent of American children have asthma, and it sends 160,000 kids to the hospital each year, according to the Mt. Sinai Center for Children's Environmental Health.

As adults, we spend hours working inside unhealthy office buildings with very little control over what we are breathing. As a result, more doctors are diagnosing people with immune system disorders such as multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS).

Health experts believe the large number of chemicals we use in our homes contribute to the problem. Luckily, many companies are now starting to offer viable alternatives, such as nontoxic paint and organic cotton shower curtains.

To make your home less toxic, it makes sense to start from the bottom up, says CHEC's Spector--especially if you have a crawling baby or toddler. Many well-meaning parents invest in new wall-to-wall carpeting in the nursery to create a cozy and fall-proof environment for their baby. But synthetic carpet probably isn't the best choice, Spector says. "Solvents used in the manufacturing process, or volatile organic compounds (VOC's), give wall-to-wall carpet its strong smell," she explains. But those chemicals have caused seizures and neurological damage in some children and chemical hypersensitivity in adults.

Once the carpet is installed, it's like a sponge that soaks up dirt, germs, mold spores and dust mites. It's hard to clean. And often, the spot cleaners or toxic chemicals professional cleaners use are worse than the carpet itself, Spector says. (The most reputable companies have an Institute for Carpet Cleaning and Restoration certification:

Instead of synthetic carpeting, Spector suggests a natural-fiber throw rug made of wool, cotton, jute or sea grass. "Area rugs are easier to care for and replace," she says.

For people who need to keep their wall-to-wall carpet, Spector suggests going with a company such as the Atlanta-based Interface Carpets (, which has made a commitment to environmental health. Interface agrees to air out all of its carpet in a warehouse before installing it.

The company's residential line, Flor, comes in tile-sized squares. "You can take the affected section and either replace it or clean it and put it back," says Daniel Price, an Interface microbiologist. Price helped develop a special nontoxic preservative to prevent mold and bacteria growth in the carpet. Flor products are made of post-consumer plastic, and they can be recycled.

If you must buy traditional carpet, Spector says it's wise to plan a vacation around the installation. Let the new carpet air out for at least 48 hours. Avoid VOC-laden glue; tack strips are better. Check into the Carpet and Rug Institute's Green Label Plus program for low-VOC products (

Moisture, and the mold it creates, is another top indoor air concern, according to Gina O'Connell, a health educator with the American Lung Association's Health House program. Tiny mold spores can get into the lungs and cause asthma and other respiratory problems.

Dust mites reproduce more quickly in humid weather. Humidity also causes formaldehyde gas to seep out of pressed-wood furniture, O'Connell says. In humid parts of the country, it's probably wise to invest in a dehumidifier, she says. The Lung Association says it's best to keep the humidity between 35 and 55 percent. At the very least, homeowners should install exhaust fans in the bathroom and kitchen, O'Connell adds.

Other top indoor air threats include radon gas, which seeps into basements through foundation cracks, and carbon monoxide gas (from malfunctioning furnaces or auto exhaust). Carbon monoxide can be a killer and justifies the expense of a detector.

Often, indoor air problems will disappear with common-sense solutions such as washing bedding once a week in hot water to kill dust mites or using a fancier pleated furnace filter. But some families need to be more vigilant.

"If you have a child with asthma, and you've addressed all the sources of air pollution as best you can, then maybe you should look at a portable air cleaner for the bedroom," O'Connell says. In fact, people are buying more air purifiers these days, says Jill Notini, a spokesperson for the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM). Interest also peaked after September 11, when the federal Department of Homeland Security endorsed air cleaners in case of a chemical or biological attack (see

AHAM, a trade association for air purifier manufacturers, does independent testing on different air cleaner models and gives the performance data to consumers. This information is particularly helpful because, as air cleaner sales picked up over the past few years, several companies began selling questionable products via e-mail spam.

So how do you know if you should spend thousands on a whole-house system or $200 on a small High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter? Many health experts say air-cleaning machines really aren't necessary for most of us. But for those struggling with environmental health issues, these machines can offer relief.

Notini advises measuring the size of your room so you can get an appropriate type. Consider the overall design, noise issues and how often you must change the filter. Next, take a look at the performance ratings. Some families may do just fine with a portable HEPA filter, which cleans larger particles, such as pollen and pet dander. To remove chemical gases, such as formaldehyde, a carbon filter is needed. Many new homebuilders offer a central vacuum system that feeds into a whole-house filter.

Also, consider how much ozone the machine produces, either as part of the service (ozone can kill mold, for example) or as a byproduct. While ozone can be helpful, too much can cause serious health problems, Notini says. Ask the manufacturer--and your doctor--before purchasing an ozone-producing machine. The EPA offers a helpful report on the ozone issue at iaq/pubs/airclean.html.

Meanwhile, houseplants may be a cheaper alternative, says retired NASA researcher Bill Wolverton (see www. While trying to improve indoor air quality for astronauts living in a sealed chamber full of toxic materials, Wolverton discovered that plants cleared the air by absorbing chemicals and converting them into food and energy. Top air-cleaners include philodendron, Boston fern, peace lily and English ivy. Wolverton recommends using two or three houseplants per 100 square feet of room space, although some critics counter that the air cleansing abilities of plants have been exaggerated (see "Living Filters" July/August 1998).

If you want sweeter air inside, don't forget to check outside, says the Lung Association's O'Connell. For example, lawn chemicals usually waft indoors, so it's best to avoid them. If you must have them, invest in an outdoor storage shed.

All of these changes can add up, acknowledges CHEC's Spector. But it doesn't take a lot of money to get started. Get an inexpensive throw rug, mix up some homemade cleaning solutions and throw open the windows. "If you try to make your home as nontoxic as possible, it will give you a sense of control and well being," says Spector. CONTACT: American Lung Association, (800)LUNGUSA,; Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, (202) 872-5955,; Children's Health Environmental Coalition, (310) 820-2030,