I’ve been an indoor air quality professional for most of my adult life. During the COVID-19 Quarantine, I’ve been hearing more and more from clients who are allergy sufferers and struggling with increased coughing, wheezing, or runny noses as a direct result of the increased time spent at home and particularly indoors.
These reports are not surprising. Many indoor air quality issues are related to the number of occupants, and the resulting increase of dust and dirt, more cleaning and other factors which can trigger such reactions.
I got into the IAQ field after our son was hospitalized for five days due to a severe asthma attack. I’ve been a building inspector and have an advanced degree in organic chemistry, so I decided to examine our home to see if there were any triggers present that could have sent our son to the hospital. What I found and the steps we took to rid our home of allergens drastically improved our son’s health, changed the way we lived, and sent me on a new professional path.
So, I know from personal experience that improving indoor environmental conditions has a beneficial effect on human health. This was true then and it’s even more true now as we demand more and more from our homes during the pandemic.
The good news is that there are steps you can take to reduce allergic reactions and help keep the air in your home free of contaminants, irritants, and other allergens. Here’s where to begin to avoid allergens and breathe easier in your own home.
Dealing with dirt, dust and dust mites
- Wash clothing and bedding in hot water and/or turn your dryer to the hot setting. This will kill dust mites (one of the major triggers for asthma and allergy symptoms worldwide) as well as denature many allergens.
- Be sure that your dryer hose is intact and venting to the exterior. If there is lint behind your dryer, the hose may be leaking. If that happens, a lot of moisture as well as laundry chemicals on lint can be introduced into your indoor air. Plus, the excess moisture can lead to condensation and mold growth on cold surfaces.
- If you are sitting down for extended periods of time reading a book or binge-watching Netflix, it’s better to use a leather- or vinyl-covered chair or sofa. These surfaces are not as conducive to a dust-mite infestation as fabric-covered furniture can be.
- In the kitchen, kick spaces under the cabinets are often an overlooked area that can lead to air quality issues. These spaces collect dust and when dampened by floor mopping, can become moldy. Clean your kick spaces as needed. If you see spots of mold, wipe those surfaces with a dilute bleach solution (one-part bleach to eighteen parts water) or with any suitable cleaning agent.
- Avoid burning candles and incense! Jar candles in particular produce a lot of soot particles that not only stain walls and ceilings but that are also unhealthy to inhale.
- Use a vacuum with a HEPA (high efficiency particulate arrestance) filter, such as a Miele model. Conventional vacuums, as well as bagless vacuums can emit particles in the exhaust stream and right back into your house air.
- If your home-office is in your basement, move your work-station to a table located above-grade (above ground level) to reduce moisture levels which can be very conducive to a variety of allergy triggers.
Tips for toilets
- Toilets have lids for a good reason. Close your toilet seat before flushing to minimize bioaerosol (airborne particles from living things such as bacteria and viruses) from being released into the air.
- Now, let’s talk toilet paper! TP is a pretty hard commodity to find these days, so make what you have last. Paper towels, napkins, and Kleenex do not disintegrate in water the way toilet paper does and can thus clog drain pipes.
Cleaning without making it harder to breathe
- This is a good time to tackle some cleaning projects, but be careful what you use. Never mix ammonia-containing products with products that contain bleach, and never add vinegar-containing products to bleach. When such products are mixed together, highly toxic gases are produced.
- Avoid using fragranced body and cleaning products as well as plug-in fragrance emitters. Fragrances may smell pleasant, but they add to the chemical load in indoor air.
- Scrubbing your hands with plenty of soap for at least 20 seconds can be very effective in killing microbes.
Editor’s Note: Jeff May, is the Principal Scientist of May Indoor Air Investigations LLC in Tyngsborough, MA, and has been investigating IAQ problems for over 25 years and has collected and examined by microscopy over 40,000 air and dust samples. He is author or co-author of 4 books on IAQ, published by Johns Hopkins University Press: “My House is Killing Me!” (2nd edition due in Fall 2020); “My Office is Killing Me!”; “The Mold Survival Guide”; and “Jeff May’s Healthy Home Tips.” A former adjunct professor at the Department of Work Environment at U MA Lowell, Jeff is a Certified Microbial Consultant (CMC, through ACAC), a Certified Indoor Air Quality Professional (CIAQP, through AEE), and is licensed as a mold assessor/inspector in NH and in FL. Jeff holds a B.A. from Columbia University (chemistry) and an M.A. from Harvard (organic chemistry) and was inducted into the Indoor Air Quality Hall of Fame (IAQA, 2018).