13 tips to drive pollutants out of your home

The sources of air pollution in our homes are multiple. A few simple steps to take to breathe better.

The sources of air pollution in our homes are multiple. A few simple steps to take to breathe better. Allergies, headaches, hives, nausea, irritation of the throat and eyes, even fatigue and weakening of the immune system… The consequences of stale air on health are numerous. “Health depends on good oxygen levels. Breathing fresh air means that there is an adequate level of oxygen in the ambient air”, explains Emmanuel Cosgrove, co-founder, and general manager of Écohabitation. The problem? Contaminants are everywhere.

Sources of contamination

First, there are biological pollutants, such as dust mites, dust, animal hair, and mold. The latter is caused by a high level of humidity, caused by water infiltration, inadequate ventilation, or even daily activities such as long showers or cooking food. In large quantities (greater than 3 m2), mold can have harmful effects on health.

Chemical contaminants include carbon monoxide (CO). This comes from, among other things, combustion devices that are poorly maintained or in poor condition, tobacco smoke, or even volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These can come from new furniture made of chipboard (engineered wood made from wood particles and glue), insulating foams, varnishes, strippers, paint, solvents, aerosols, and plywood. “As in some kitchen cabinets containing formaldehyde,” adds Bruno Nantel, technical writer at the Provincial Association of Home Builders of Quebec (APCHQ).

They may also be industrial compounds. These are found in a multitude of products made of plastic, in electronic devices, bedding, sofas, and carpets as well as in cleaning products, in bleach to air fresheners, and in certain construction. “In new homes, contaminants in building materials have decreased significantly,” says Yves Perrier, healthy home consultant and founder of guideperrier.com. As for older homes, they hardly emit anymore. In fact, indoor pollution is mainly caused by the occupants and the maintenance of the house, hence the importance of good ventilation and effective reduction of problems at the source.

Simple steps to take

1. Ventilate

In a new home, the ventilation system (such as the HRV heat recovery ventilator) is operated to extract stale air and regulate humidity levels. “It can be used continuously at low speed, or 15 minutes per hour at high speed,” suggests Yves Perrier. In an old dwelling, we ventilate by opening the windows for five minutes a day (we lower the heating to avoid energy waste). “But we avoid over-ventilating because we risk drying out the air.”

2. Control humidity

We make sure to have a good level of humidity in the house. In winter, the Canadian Lung Association recommends maintaining a humidity level of 30 to 50%, which can be checked with a hygrometer. “But there is no absolute rule. We try to find a balance according to the health of the occupants. If the humidity is too high, there will be condensation on the windows; if it’s too low, you feel your throat is dry,” Bruno Nantel gives an example. To remove excess moisture, the fan and the range hood are on while the food is cooking, and the laundry is not over-dried inside. To avoid infiltration problems that can cause mold, the exterior of the house is inspected once a year (gutters, caulking, drainage, etc.). The air is too dry? You can use a humidifier, which you clean with vinegar water at least once a month because it can become a source of contaminants if it is poorly maintained.

3. Clean up

To improve air quality at the source, we clean up! We throw away items that we no longer use or that have suffered water damage, in the basement or in the garage, we clean the carpet with steam, and we regularly wash sheets, duvets, pillows, curtains, and other fabrics that accumulate mites. For the floor, we prefer the vacuum cleaner to the broom, the filter of which is changed regularly.

4. Use low VOC paints and stains

We are looking for acrylic-based paints (water or latex) with no or low VOC content, such as the Natura ranges from Benjamin Moore or the Premium Plus paints from Behr. One can also opt for recycled paints, which, while being less toxic, also offer good performance. These include the Rona Éco line and the Boomerang line from Société Laurentide (available in particular in paint stores and liquidation centers). “That said, the whites may be less bright,” warns Bruno Nantel.

5. Choose less irritating products

Detergents, air fresheners, strippers, and other household products contain harmful substances. It is, therefore, better to favor ecological brands (such as Attitude, Bio-Vert, and Lemieux) that are natural and biodegradable, and store toxic products in airtight containers. Another option: make your own mixtures: lemon juice and vegetable oil to polish the furniture, baking soda, and water to clean the bath or the top of the stove, etc.

6. DIY as much as possible outside

Spray cans, oil paints, glues, and other artists’ tools can affect air quality.

7. Wear a carbon monoxide alarm

Do we have a fireplace or a gas stove? “The carbon monoxide alarm is recommended because you don’t feel any symptoms of poisoning before fainting,” says Bruno Nantel. You can get it at hardware stores and supermarkets. They are installed on each floor (including the basement), especially near the bedrooms and the door giving access to the garage.

8. Reduce the presence of plastic

Certain types of plastic (those with the triangular symbols 3, 6, and 7 in particular) are considered harmful to health, but they are still ubiquitous in our familiar objects. To reduce their presence in the house, we can, for example, swap plastic bags for fabric bags, avoid plastic packaging, and choose containers and kitchen tools made of stainless steel or glass rather than plastic.

9. Remove rugs and carpeting

Hair, mites, toxic substances, microbes… In addition to being difficult to maintain, rugs and carpets are real reservoirs of pollutants and it is recommended to get rid of them. “The amount of dust is eight times greater in the presence of a carpet,” says Yves Perrier. Do we absolutely want it? “We choose brands identified with a Green Label Plus, with lower chemical emissions,” suggests Bruno Nantel.

10. Maintain heating and ventilation devices

Poor maintenance or improper use of fuel-burning appliances (wood, gas, oil) can cause carbon monoxide emissions. In addition to checking their good condition annually, “we change the filters of the furnace with the seasons. We also have to take care of the air exchanger, whose filters must be replaced every three months,” adds Emmanuel Cosgrove. It is advisable to have CSA-certified equipment, which does not release particles into the house. We also think about cleaning the electric baseboards.

11. Eliminate scented candles and incense

Incense, air fresheners, and most candles release VOCs and chemicals that can affect breathing. To perfume the interior, we rather think of organic essential oils.

12. Buy used

Since it is not easy to avoid chipboard, MDF panels, and plywood (significant sources of VOCs), one can opt for used furniture that is at least five years old, whose fumes are already evaporated, or antiques, or give preference to furniture made of real, untreated wood.

13. Ensure good hygiene of pets

Animal fur contributes to allergy problems. It is therefore advisable to wash and brush dogs and cats frequently and ideally, they are forbidden access to bedrooms.

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