Under the weather? The long, dark days of winter (and the germs that come with them) may not be to blame
With time spent indoors at a peak this time of year, air quality plays a significant role in the health of you and your loved ones. Here’s what to watch for. (For informative purposes only. If you are experiencing symptoms, please consult a physician.)
RH is the percent of water vapor that’s in the air at a given temperature. Indoor levels should be in the 30 percent to 50 percent, range, (45 percent is ideal). The air’s ability to hold water decreases in winter, creating overly dry environments that can be uncomfortable and even unhealthy.
Home harm: Too-low RH levels can cause damage to wood, siding, and paint, making for unpleasant surprises come spring. It can also drive up your heating bills: Your home’s dry air will “steal” moisture it needs from the body through evaporation. This evaporation from the skin makes you feel cold and turn up the heat, when you’d actually feel “warmer” at the same temperature but with more moisture in the air.
Health symptoms: dry/itchy skin, eczema, dry eyes, nosebleeds, colds, respiratory infections, trouble sleeping, feeling cold all the time
What to do: Monitor RH with a hygrometer, available for $10+ (Nest Thermostats have it built in). Readings around or below 30 percent mean the air needs more moisture added – do this using a humidifier, letting your laundry air dry on clothing racks instead of in the dryer, or by simply placing bowls of water in rooms you use the most.
P.S. Watch in summer, too! High RH promotes the growth of mold, bacteria, and dust mites, which aggravate allergies/asthma. Readings above 50 percent should consider a dehumidifier.
These are introduced through heating and appliances that burn fuel, like stoves, fireplaces, furnaces, space heaters, clothes dryers, water heaters and vehicles.
Health symptoms: flu-like symptoms, headaches, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, rapid heart rate, wheezing, persistent cough, eye/respiratory tract infection, chronic eye irritation, chest pain
Home harm: Combustion sources produce dangerous gases like carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide.
What to do: Ventilate rooms with fuel-burning appliances. Install CO detectors on each floor of the home, placed within 10 feet of sleeping areas and near any attached garage entryways. Replace batteries at least twice per year. Consider detectors with digital readouts to monitor CO levels: above 5ppm (parts per million) should be investigated, ~30ppm causes headache and fatigue. Do not idle cars in the garage. All HVAC equipment, fireplaces and flues should be installed and regularly inspected by a trained professional. Pay special attention at the start of each heating season, as this is when equipment has the highest risk of malfunctioning!
As byproducts of living things, biological pollutants exist in all homes and include animal dander, dust mites and fungi/mold.
Home harm: The most common problem from biological pollutants is asthma, but they can also cause infections, hypersensitivity diseases and toxicosis in humans. High levels of these pollutants in a home are often symptomatic of structural issues like roof leaks, drainage problems, improper ventilation, cracks/holes, etc., meaning they pose a risk not only to your health, but also to your home’s value.
Health symptoms: itchy/watery eyes, runny nose, sneezing, congestion, coughing, recurring headaches, fatigue, itchiness, wheezing, difficulty breathing, asthma, sudden fever
What to do: Address leaks or seepage in your home within 48 hours. Be diligent about cleaning appliances that come into contact with water. Change HVAC filters monthly so pollutants are cleaned from air, not recirculated. Clean coils and drain pans of wall and window A/C units regularly with a bleach solution. Keep that RH below 50 percent to avoid mold growth. Make sure exhaust fans in bathrooms and kitchens are working and vent clothes dryers to outside. Do not store firewood inside. Dust mites thrive in sofas, carpets, bedding and blinds; control them by hot washing bedding (at least 130°F), using synthetic mattress covers, removing wall-to-wall carpeting, and using a HEPA vacuum.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are organic chemicals that easily evaporate into the air at room temperatures. They’re emitted by thousands of products: cleaners, household chemicals, Aerosols, paints, plastics, building materials, home furnishings, pesticides and many more.
Home harm: Products containing VOCs emit them continuously—even when they’re tightly sealed and stored. Outdoors, VOCs can dissipate; indoors they become concentrated over time. Some are harmless, but others—like formaldehyde and benzene—are linked to cancer. Chronic exposure to elevated levels can have short- and long-term health effects.
Health symptoms: headaches, dizziness, nausea, eye/nose/throat irritation, visual disorders, memory loss
What to do: Open windows (weather permitting) and run exhaust fans whenever you’re using paint, cleaners or other VOC-emitting products, and store them outside in a garage or shed when not in use. There are many green, low VOC, and VOC-free alternatives for most products available on the market.
You probably already know about the need to test for radon—an odorless, radioactive gas that can enter homes through cracks in floors, walls and foundations and build up indoors. Radon test kits are available from several sources. For more information, visit EPA.gov/Radon.