Tips for improving indoor air quality

Indoor plants on a table near a window in a house. imnoom/Shutterstock

Ah, winter. Time to cuddle up in front of the fire, do some cooking, crank up the furnace, scratch the cat, and unfortunately give your cottage a healthy dose of air pollution.

According to the American Environmental Protection Agency, indoor air pollution comes from three main sources: combustion (including space heaters, gas furnaces and woodstoves), volatile organic compounds, or VOCs (chemicals that are released from certain household products, including paint, commercial cleaners, some textiles and synthetic fragrances), and asthma and allergy triggers (including mold, pet dander and dust mites).

While everyday things in your cottage can cause pollution all year round, winter — when we shut our cottages up tightly to conserve heat — is prime time for bad indoor air. All that energy efficiency means less fresh air from outside, leading to more air pollution inside.

Here are some easy ways to improve your indoor air quality without having to leave the window open all winter.

Open the window

You don’t have to let all the heat out, but cracking a window open for a little while every day can be a great way to let fresh air into your space. Indoor air tends to be more polluted than the air.

Step up your dust busting

Household dust is nasty, holding onto chemicals and allergens wreak havoc on air quality. Invest in a good vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter, and run it over surfaces, especially carpet, two to three times a week (and more if you have pets). Follow up with a damp mop to get any dust particles your vacuum may have missed. After that, run a damp dusting cloth over surfaces, baseboards, and anywhere else dust accumulates regularly throughout the week. If you’re having trouble with allergies or asthma, consider getting rid of your carpets altogether. Solid flooring does a much poorer job of holding onto dander, dust, pollen, and dust mites.

But don’t go crazy with the cleaners

Standard commercial cleaners can release dozens of chemicals into the air, which can be irritating to winter-sensitized airways. Try staying chemical-free as much as possible by cleaning with natural products, including vinegar, lemon juice, baking soda, and plain old water. There are some great recipes to get you started here, but experiment to see what works best in your place.

Try to stay scent-free

Like commercial cleaners, products that are synthetically fragranced, like laundry detergents and air fresheners, can emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including some that may be harmful. When possible, avoid synthetic fragrances in favour of non-scented products, or natural essential oils (just be careful with undiluted essential oils and bare skin).

Wipe your feet

Literally. Put a large mat at your front door and ask visitors to wipe their feet and take off their shoes at the front door. This stops folks from tracking dirt, dust, and pollen into the interior of your house, keeping the air cleaner and helping to reduce allergens. This isn’t just about dusting less, either. Dirt may be contaminated with lead, which can cause serious health problems. (Feeling awkward about asking guests to be in their socks? Provide a basket of inexpensive slippers at the front door.)

No smoking

Don’t smoke in the cottage, and don’t allow guests to smoke indoors either. It’s not only cigarette smoke you need to watch out for, though. Make sure to run your exhaust fan while cooking, and keep your fireplace in good repair so smoke goes out of the chimney where it belongs.

Keep humidity under control

To avoid dust mites and mold, keep your place’s humidity level between 30 and 50 per cent. If you have a damp basement, run a dehumidifier, and empty the drip pan regularly. Use exhaust fans when you have a shower (or leave the bathroom door open a crack to let the steam escape), don’t overwater any houseplants, and make sure to fix any drippy plumbing before moisture can build up.  

Change your filters regularly

Make sure to stay on top of changing the filters in your furnace, air conditioner and vacuum, especially if you have pets or don’t dust quite as often as you should.

Get some plants

Certain plants, such as spider plants, gerbera daisies, bamboo palm, and Boston ferns, are great for filtering VOCs and other pollutants from the air. There’s a list from NASA of the top air-cleaning plants here, but if you have pets, be warned. Some of the plants on the list are toxic to dogs or cats. Check out this list for plants that are safe for Fluffy and Fido. According to NASA, just one green plant every 50 feet can have a positive effect on your indoor air quality.

Seal your mattress

If you have allergies or asthma (or both), invest in dust mite-proof covers for your pillows, mattress and boxspring, and be sure to wash and dry bedding regularly using hot temperatures.

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