Clean Up the Air In Your Home

Shape | April 2007

You know outdoor pollution is bad, but the indoor variety can be just as hard on your lungs. These expert tactics will help you breathe easier today.

by Jen Uscher

You exercise, eat right, slather on sunscreen, and don't smoke to be as healthy as possible--yet you spend a large part of each day in an environment that could be distinctly unhealthy: your home. "Concentrations of many air pollutants are usually two to five times higher indoors than outdoors," says John Girman, the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) indoor-air science adviser. Everything from pillowcases to candles to your shower habits can affect what--and how well-- you breathe in your home. Fortunately, there are simple ways to clean up the air around you. And many of these strategies, such as switching household cleansers and choosing sustainably harvested solid-wood floors, are not only good for your health, they're also better for the environment.

1. Leave your shoes at the door.

Your comfy sneakers track in dirt, pollen, and pesticides. What better excuse to buy a cute new pair of slippers?

2. Find a good chimney sweep.

Fireplaces, wood-burning stoves, and gas or oil furnaces, boilers, and water heaters can all emit carbon monoxide (CO). At low levels, CO--an odorless gas--may cause flulike symptoms, but higher concentrations can be lethal. A chimney sweep or heating contractor will inspect your fireplace, furnace and other appliances to make sure they're clean and operating correctly. To find a professional, check your phone book, call your power company, or go to

3. Starve dust mites.

Everyone has these microscopic pests that can aggravate allergies and asthma, but you can minimize their presence by being a poor host. Since mites feed on dead skin cells, cut off their food supply: Wash your bedding in hot water at least once a week, and zip up your mattress and pillows in allergen-proof covers, which prevent skin cells from settling deep into your bedding and attracting the little critters. We like Lifekind's cotton dust mite-barrier pillow and mattress covers (from $49; Keeping humidity levels in your home below 50 percent will help mitigate a mite problem, too.

4. Run a fan while taking a shower.

Excessive moisture and humidity create a breeding ground for mold, which can cause rashes and hay fever-like symptoms. And all the scrubbing in the world won't help if you don't have adequate ventilation. Give humidity the heave-ho by running a ceiling-mounted exhaust fan, or open a window while you take a bath or shower and leave it open for about 10 minutes afterward. Fix leaks pronto, and if you have a mold problem that won't go away, consider hiring a mold remediation contractor to safely clean it up (find one at

5. Use more natural cleaning products.

Traditional cleansers often contain harsh chemicals like chlorine bleach and ethylene glycol, which release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can cause headaches, nausea, and nose and throat irritation. A warning to use the products in a well-ventilated area or to avoid contact with skin is a tip-off. Reduce your exposure to VOCs by stocking your cleaning arsenal with some of the following: Dr. Bronner's Sal Suds, an all-purpose cleaner ($6,; Ecover Floor soap ($4,; and Seventh Generation Glass & Surface cleaner ($5, 6. Switch to soy or beeswax candles. These renewable resources burn cleaner and produce less soot than those made from petroleum-based paraffin wax. Look for cotton wicks, not metal, and avoid lighting incense, which can release unhealthy amounts of particulate matter (a mix of extremely small particles and liquid droplets) that can irritate your respiratory tract and skin. 

7. Get some fresh air.

Opening your windows will help reduce buildup of contaminants like VOCs, smoke, dust, and dander. On summer days, when outdoor air pollution can be high (check levels in your area at, run your air conditioner to increase air flow, filter out some pollutants, and reduce humidity.

8. Ban smoking.

It's the most important thing you can do to improve your indoor air quality.

9. Switch to hard-surface floors.

"Carpeting collects and holds dirt, dust, and animal dander, and it's hard to get it really clean," says Janice Nolen, assistant vice president for national policy and advocacy at the American Lung Association. But that's not your only worry: Manufacturers have, in some cases, added toxic flame-retardant chemicals, called polybrominated diphenylethers (PBDEs), to carpet padding--as well as to upholstered furniture, mattresses, and evenplastic computer housings and other electronics. Studies have linked these compounds to thyroid and reproductive problems in animals. It's hard to avoid PBDEs completely since they're in so many products, but you can reduce your exposure by choosing hardwood or tile floors instead of carpeting. To help the environment as well as your health, look for sustainably harvested wood-flooring products with low VOC emissions, such as EcoTimber's Forest Stewardship Council-certified maple or walnut (

10. Use low-VOC paints.

Opt for traditional products and your walls could emit noxious vapors for up to a year. The next time your paint job needs freshening, try these low-VOC, easy-on-the-lungs brands: Benjamin Moore Eco-Spec Interior Latex (, Sherwin-Williams Duration Home Interior Latex (, and Yolo Colorhouse (

11. Cut down on dry cleaning.

Clothing, bedspreads, rugs, and curtains that have been dry-cleaned can release a solvent called perchloroethylene--a probable human carcinogen, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer. To protect yourself, try to buy clothes and textiles that you can wash at home. We know that's not always practical, so at least consider less toxic alternatives, such as "wet cleaning," which relies on water instead of chemicals as a solvent (find a cleaner near you at Always remove the plastic as soon as you get home to air items out.

12. Buy solid wood.

Bookshelves, entertainment centers, tables, chairs, and desks--virtually any kind of furniture--are often built with pressed wood (the label will usually say the item is made from particleboard or medium-density fiberboard), which may contain formaldehyde, a chemical that can trigger allergic reactions and asthma attacks. Although solid-wood pieces are typically more expensive because they're of higher quality, consider them an investment in your health, too. When you're shopping for furniture, ask the salesperson if the product contains adhesives made with urea-formaldehyde resins (it's a mouthful, but if the answer's yes, keep looking). If you do buy pressed wood, open the window and use a fan (point it out the window, not into the room) until the odors dissipate.

13. Ditch your vinyl liner.

Not only is it hard to keep clean, but your shower liner can also release toluene and methylene chloride, two hazardous pollutants that can cause allergic reactions. Replace it with nylon and the curtain with hemp or cotton--both are machine- washable and eco-friendly.

14. Get a do-it-yourself radon kit.

A radioactive, odorless gas emitted when uranium decays in the ground beneath your home, radon is one of the most dangerous indoor air pollutants. It's also the number one cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers, according to the EPA. To check your home for radon, get an inexpensive (usually about $10) test kit at a hardware store or hire an accredited contractor (find one at If you do have radon, a contractor can install a system to vent the gas to the outside. For more info, contact your state's EPA radon office at