5 Things You Should Know About Indoor Air Quality—and How it Can Affect Your Family’s Health

A home performance professional
A collection of paint cans
Winter is coming and, to prepare for it, families across Minnesota are turning on the furnace, weatherstripping doors and wrapping their windows in plastic.
All these measures help keep the hot air in and the wintry chill out, but they can also have a real impact on the air you and your family breathe.

Here are five factors affecting indoor air quality that you should keep in mind this winter:

1.    Ambient carbon monoxide:

Your home detectors can sense near-lethal rates of carbon monoxide, but even much lower levels of CO can cause health issues such as headaches and burning eyes. The most common time of year for this issue to arise is when temperatures drop and homeowners turn on their furnace for the first time in many months.
2.    Incense and candles: 
The scent of sandalwood or eucalyptus can temporarily transport you to warmer climes, but if you regularly burn candles or incense during the winter, the smoke, chemicals and soot released can have a hard time escaping from tight, well-insulated homes. This can result in stained walls and ceilings, and negative impacts on your indoor air quality.
3.    Moisture:
We all know that we should turn on a bathroom fan when showering and our kitchen fan when cooking or baking. But most of us don’t leave the fan running for the recommended 30 minutes after we finish bathing.
That can result in improperly ventilated moisture and mold buildup in basements, walls, ceilings and windows. Mold can cause a variety of health issues, including upper respiratory tract problems. Homes with many occupants are especially at risk for mold buildup.
4.    Household Products and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs): 
Many of the household items we buy—including composite wood products, carpets, paints and  upholstery fabrics—gradually off-gas volatile organic compounds such as formaldehyde, acetone and benzene. These chemicals can be harmful to your health, especially when your home is tightly sealed for the Minnesota winter.
Ventilation fans, especially  those that continuously operate and utilize motions sensors, help ventilate kitchens and bathrooms and prevent mold buildup.
However, that brings us to factor #5.
5.    Fans that aren’t working properly:
Many people assume that, because their fans are rotating and making noise, they’re properly ventilating the house.
But that’s not always the case—to do their job properly, fans need to move specific amounts of Cubic Feet of air per Minute (CFM). For a variety of reasons, your fan might not be operating at the proper CFM. That means unwanted moisture and indoor pollutants  are not getting pushed out of the house, leading to problematic mold buildup.

What can you do about it?

Behavior modification is one important part of improving your home’s indoor air quality. During the long Minnesota winter, you might want to cut down on the amount of candles or incense you burn.  You should also be diligent about using your kitchen and bathroom fans for the recommended amount of time.
Research is also important. The Minnesota Department of Health and the EPA have great resources for homeowners. If you’re concerned about off-gassing, you can look into the health and chemical characteristics of thousands of consumer products on the website of the Environmental Working Group.
Regular furnace inspections and tune-ups can identify potential problems. And yes, they're worth it.
Scheduling a home energy audit is another important aspect of improving your home’s indoor air quality. Auditors are equipped with tools that help them measure the amount of ambient CO, as well as the CFM rates of ventilating fans. Auditors closely examine less-visited parts of your home—including attics, ceilings, walls, mechanical rooms, basements, crawlspaces and rim-joists,  and can identify mold problems that might otherwise go unnoticed.
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Max Bielenberg is a communications specialist with the Neighborhood Energy Connection. He helps to tell the NEC’s story through social media, blog posts and website content. When he’s not reading up on residential energy savings, he enjoys riding his bike around town. You can connect with Max on LinkedIn.