We hear a lot about the air quality of various cities, and probably think about and notice the quality of the air when we’re outside. But we often forget to think about air quality when it comes to our indoor environment — and given how much time we spend in our own homes, this is a major oversight. In this article, interior designer Laura Kern leads us through the primary concerns when it comes to indoor air quality, and how you can make interior design choices that contribute to a healthy, nontoxic home.
What Are the Major Indoor Air Quality Issues?
Maybe you’ve seen or heard about weather warnings that encourage you to avoid going outside on days with high outdoor air pollution, but according to the Environmental Working Group’s Healthy Living: Home Guide, indoor pollution is 2-5x higher than the pollution found in outdoor air. Indoor environments contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) present in the air from building materials and furnishings. Though the effects of VOCs on human health aren’t fully understood, we do know that many of these chemicals are known carcinogens, or are bioaccumulative (meaning they build up in your body over time) chemicals that can disrupt your endocrine (hormone) and/or neurological (brain) processes, which can then lead to various chronic diseases. All this is to say that it’s crucial that you understand the materials in your home and what they are doing to your health every day.
For those of us who are renters, or homeowners living in a space that was built long before we moved in, this can seem like a tall order. How can we address the issue of toxic materials when we’re not in control of the construction or maintenance of our homes? If you’re not building a home from scratch or up for a major renovation, what are you supposed to do?
Luckily, you have options. Let’s break down the top priorities, and look at what interventions are most effective.
Improving Indoor Air Quality with Easy, Noninvasive Steps
If you’re experiencing the “new house smell” from new construction or a recently painted home, the cause of those chemical smells may be VOCs. If you’re worried about this being an issue in your home, systems like AWAIR help you monitor and track many aspects of indoor air conditions, including temperature, humidity, CO2, and presence of chemicals. It uses all this information to give your air quality a rating, which you can use as a baseline against which to measure your improvements.
If measuring your air has shown high level of chemicals, the first and best thing that you can do to improve your indoor air is often to open the windows. Good ventilation can go a long way toward improving air quality.
Air filters are another easy way to boost air quality. If you don’t live in a home with central air or sophisticated HVAC filtration systems, you can supplement with a good air filter. For urban dwellers for whom footage is at a premium, Molekule is a lovely, aesthetically pleasing option. Dyson also makes an effective, small-footprint model.
Improving Indoor Air Quality By Addressing the Built-in Sources
If you do have control over choosing your indoor surfaces, wall paint or flooring are good places to start as those are generally the largest surface areas in a home. There are tons of low- or zero-VOC paint options. For a broadly accessible solution, the Benjamin Moore Natura line is an easy switch for only a few more dollars per can and you can still use their popular, well-known colors. If you’re going beyond paint and trying something funkier, wallpapers that are made from true paper products are not a source for concern, but look out for vinyl-based wallcoverings, which are known to emit various harmful chemicals. Many companies produce vinyl alternatives that are free of pthalates, PBDEs, and VOCs. When selecting adhesives for any wallcovering, make sure to look for brands that are Greenguard-certified.
If you’re lucky enough to have hardwood flooring, the natural porous wood material will require some kind of sealant to make it durable. While wood itself does not contain any harmful chemicals, curing agents in the sealants can contain VOCs, so it’s important to select a low- or zero-VOC-emitting finish. Vermont natural coatings is a good go-to option. Avoid any flooring that is made of vinyl or polyvinyl chloride (PVC), as materials containing polyvinyl chloride are known to release bioaccumulative and toxic chemicals. A good durable surface alternative to vinyl flooring is Linoleum, which is made from linseed oil, a completely natural product. If you have carpeting in your home, try and install it with a low- or zero-VOC adhesive that is Greenguard-certified.
Improving Indoor Air Quality by Addressing the Moveable Sources
For most renters and non-renovators, it is much easier to control your furniture and furnishings than construction materials. Although it’s tempting when purchasing furniture to simply seek out the best deal or items that are quickly available for shipping, conscious consumerism around furnishing is crucial both for the planet and our health. Though it can be hard to discern the ingred