Nobody likes to live in filth, but according to a recent survey, we're too concerned with the dirt that we see and not concerned enough about the filth we breathe in; namely, all the particles and chemicals floating in our indoor air. The survey, commissioned by 3M (a company that manufactures air filters), found that 73 percent of us are worried about mildew in our bathtubs and 69 percent, about bugs and mice, but only 40 percent are concerned about indoor air quality.
And that is concerning, says the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which frequently states that indoor air is more polluted than outdoor air, even in the largest, most industrialized cities. Indoor air-quality problems can vary season to season, since the sources of pollution are so varied, so here are a few ways of dealing with summer-sensitive air-quality issues:
Check your air filter
Air conditioner filters (whether in a central-air system or a window unit) trap a lot of the junk that comes in from the outside—pollen, smoke, smog, and dirt—but they also filter out dust, dust mites, and pet dander that builds up in recirculated indoor air. Check your system's filter once a month and either change it or clean it, depending on the type.
Open the windows
We've gotten so good at weatherizing our homes that we've actually cut down on the exchange of bad air with good, and that leads to a buildup of VOCs, formaldehyde, and other compounds emitted by furniture, cleaners, and other household products. When it's not too hot, leave the windows open and allow some fresh air in. When it gets hot enough to close them again, switch your air conditioner to recirculated air; it's more energy-efficient, since you're cooling already-cool air, and the filter you just cleaned/replaced will trap most of the pollutants that were blown inside.
Vacuum and damp-mop regularly
Open windows bring in fresh air—and particles of dust and soot that can settle in carpets and on surfaces. Your AC's filter can catch some of them, and a vacuum cleaner, preferably one with a HEPA filter, will catch the rest. Pesticides and household chemicals, such as brain-damaging PBDE flame retardants used in electronics, bind to dust and dirt as well, so a weekly damp-dusting session will keep them from getting stirred up and inhaled.
Control bugs with boric acid
Spring and summer are prime times for pest-control problems. Rather than reach for that smelly ant spray, which likely contains pyrethrins that have been found to trigger headaches, nausea, and asthma attacks, use a less-toxic product like boric acid, which isn't harmful unless eaten or directly inhaled. Better still, use "integrated pest management" techniques, such as caulking cracks where bugs enter, keeping trash bins tightly covered, and storing food in the pantry in airtight containers rather than the box or bag in which it was sold. If you have ants, wipe and mop surfaces frequently to disrupt their trails. Go outside.
The best way to avoid health problems associated with indoor air is to leave it behind. The EPA says that we spend 90 percent of our time indoors, which is a shame when outdoor activities give you the opportunity to breathe less-polluted air, and get some exercise in the process. Just be sure to check the EPA's Air Quality Index and slather on the sunscreen before you head out on an excursion.