While visiting a friend’s East Village apartment in New York in early March, I noticed a fancy air purifier in his living room. “It’s for the virus,” he responded blithely when I complimented him on it. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, what we can’t see lurking in the air has never felt more present. And while an air purifier alone won’t keep you from catching a virus, it may reduce other health issues caused by poor indoor air quality.
Optimizing indoor air quality has become a mainstream wellness concern – and for good reason. Indoor air pollution is generally far less understood than pollution found outdoors. In our homes, it comes from sources that release gases or particles into the air including biological pollutants such as mould, dust, pollen and pet dander, and chemical pollutants such as particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide – biproducts of cooking – as well as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are found in cleaning and personal care products.
“The American Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that in some homes, indoor air quality can be 10 times worse than it is outdoors,” says Neil Johnston, a registered respiratory therapist and the president and CEO of the Manitoba Lung Association. According to Johnston, this pollution can affect breathing health by causing new lung diseases and exacerbating existing issues like asthma. But beyond tests for radon, a naturally occurring radioactive gas that comes from the ground, Health Canada does not recommend testing the air quality in your home. If you find respiratory symptoms like sniffles, a cough or a tight chest clear up when you leave the house, Johnston says you may need to take action.
For architects like Vanessa Fong, indoor air quality is a consideration when designing a home. “More and more, our clients have come to us being more aware about how we can not just design a house, but design a house that has health and wellness benefits,” says the principle architect at VFA Architecture and Design in Toronto. Fong considers a home’s air quality from all angles, including the materials she uses in the build, which can release VOCs, as well as active and passive ventilation, such as windows.
“We all have a pleasant, invigorating experience when we feel a gust of fresh air – it’s a way of inviting nature in,” says Nels Moxness, president and CEO of Velux Canada, a Danish skylight company that follows the belief that letting in fresh outdoor air leads to a healthier indoor environment. The company’s sensor-based Active system monitors a room’s humidity, temperature and carbon-dioxide levels and automatically operates skylights and blinds accordingly. “For example, if the room is too humid or too hot, the skylight will automatically open,” says Moxness. The system also completes three daily house airings, a Scandinavian habit Moxness says exhausts VOCs, humidity and allergens.
Depending on your home’s location and the time of year, it’s not always realistic or even a good idea to open a window. Mechanical ventilation systems should always be properly maintained, and they also can be boosted by air purifiers. At Dyson, cleaning products such as vacuums that address what you can see, like dust and pet hair, also specialize in clearing out what you don’t. Namely, gasses and particulate matter. “Your body has quite a clever protective system for larger particles like pollen, et cetera. But these are so small that they bypass all of those, and that’s what makes them the hardest to deal with,” says David Hill, senior design engineer of environmental care at Dyson. Dedicated to air regulation, its Pure Hot + Cool purifier fan reports to the Dyson Link app in real time which gasses and particles it has detected and filtered, including VOCs, particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide, before dispersing clean, temperature-regulated air throughout the room.
And at Ikea, you can now find $40 curtains that tackle indoor air pollution, the company’s first product to do so. Available in pink, grey and yellow, Gunrid is treated with a mineral-based coating that reacts to light and breaks down pollutants such as odours and acetaldehyde, a product of incomplete wood combustion in fireplaces.
For another easy fix with multiple wellness benefits, look no further than the humble houseplant. According to a NASA study that looked at which plants best cleaned the air in their space stations, some of the top options for air purification include snake plants, spider plants, Boston ferns and the peace lily. Fong recommends adding greenery to areas where you spend the most time, such as the living room or home office, and those with less natural air circulation, such as the bathroom.
Ultimately, being mindful of the activities and conditions that can cause indoor air pollution may be the best way to improve your environment. “We recommend that folks really keep an eye on anything they’re doing that produces smoke, gasses, smells or scents,” Johnston says. He advises reducing the use of perfumes and scented products, as well as avoiding smoking and burning anything indoors. Humidity should be regulated to discourage mould from growing and any activities where air pollution can’t be avoided, like painting, should be done with adequate ventilation. “It is something we need to be thinking about every day but particularly when we’re spending more time at home.”