A: We recently talked to environmental strategist and air quality expert Dr. Tim McAuley, founder and CEO of CHANGE Environmental, LLC.
Dr. McAuley told us that the best thing we can do to protect ourselves is to create cleaner indoor air *in general*. Ventilation–exchanging indoor air for outdoor air–is just one part of cleaner indoor air.
Having clean air will help protect your lungs and immune system from being susceptible to infection. Also, viral particles and other small particles interact with each other. For example, viral particles can hitch a ride on other small particles in the air–so the cleaner your air is in general, the better off you’ll be.
Indoor air pollution stems from sources both inside our homes (like cooking, smoking, air fresheners) and outside our homes (such as factories, car traffic).
Here are some specific tips we got from Dr. McAuley:
1️⃣ The best single way to clean your indoor air is to use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter on it! Even on hard surface floors. They suck in air and particles from all around the vacuum head, filter them, and exhaust clean air. Do not use a Swiffer or a broom… that just moves contaminants around without really removing them.
2️⃣ HEPA filters: yes, it *does* help to have one on your HVAC system, if possible. Look for one that has a MERV rating of 13 or higher. If you’re getting a portable HEPA filter, get one that is sized correctly for your room and filters to 0.3 microns. Change your filters on time. And if you can, hire a professional to assess the specific needs of your home–air filtration systems are not plug-and-play.
3️⃣ Skip the ionizers, ozone filters, and UV purifiers. These don’t really help.
4️⃣ Take off your shoes at the door. Dirt and other debris get tracked inside on your shoes and then gets spread all around your home and resuspended again and again through foot traffic. This can lead to higher particle loads in the air that you breathe.
5️⃣ Clean your house from the top to the bottom (high surfaces to low surfaces) so that dust and other small particles fall to lower surfaces and then ultimately get sucked up by that amazing HEPA filter vacuum you just bought.
6️⃣ Check your dryer connections and make sure it’s venting outdoors correctly. Dryers can produce a lot of fine lint, which can be a major source of indoor air pollution.
7️⃣ Air fresheners, scents & fragrances, some household cleaners, and (somewhat obviously) smoking are all big sources of indoor air pollution. Get that stuff out of your house. Here’s a resource (EWG) for finding safer cleaning products.
Editorial note: several of our readers have raised issues with EWG as a reliable, scientific source. Although we are not endorsing everything EWG says and does, as far as we are aware it’s the only source where you can search just about any product and get an idea of how toxic it is. If you know of another one, we’re all ears and would be happy to update. Meanwhile, know that EWG is not the end-all be-all of information on this subject, but we think it’s not worse than nothing. Another listing of EPA-certified safer cleaning products is available here.
8️⃣ Fireplaces–both wood and gas–can be a major source of indoor air pollution if they are not well-maintained. If you have a gas fireplace, place a carbon monoxide (CO) monitor nearby. If you have a wood fireplace, have it professionally cleaned and make sure the doors fit tightly. Also, avoid having fires on windy nights. The wind can force smoke back down your chimney and into your house.
9️⃣ Stop worrying about the small stuff like whether using a hair dryer is risky, or which way your fan is pointing. It doesn’t actually matter very much.
Indoor air quality is really not one-size-fits-all. If it seems like you’re not getting a straight answer to your indoor air question, it’s because every building and every room is unique. Dr. McAuley compared buildings to living things and said each situation has specific challenges–so it’s tough to give general advice.