Have you ever spent time in a building and started to feel unwell? Do you develop headaches, a sore throat, or experience eye or nose irritation in different locations but feel better once you’re outside? You’re not alone. Many people experience sick building syndrome or building-related illness and don’t realize what they’re feeling is due to the air they breathe. Let’s look at ways to improve home wellness and when to opt for indoor air quality testing.
What is Home Wellness?
Home wellness focuses on creating a healthy home. It doesn’t necessarily include how many vegetables are in your fridge or how much yoga you practice, we’re looking more at aspects you can’t necessarily see with the naked eye. Since our homes play a major role in our own health and wellness, it’s important to consider what factors may be affecting us, and how to make necessary improvements.
The Global Wellness Institute states that “wellness is multi-dimensional” and environmental wellness includes “having a healthy physical environment free of hazards.” A large part of our environment is what shapes our life at home including air quality, water quality, and energy efficiency.
Think you might have some poor environmental factors that are contributing to sick building syndrome symptoms or building-related illness? It might be time for a home air quality inspection and overall look at your home’s indoor pollutants.
We often take for granted the air we breathe without much attention to the invisible particles that may be harming us. Illnesses caused by indoor pollutants can come from many sources.
Today we live in air-tight, energy-efficient buildings that depend on an HVAC system to circulate our air. Without fresh air, these tight buildings create perfect breeding grounds for fungal spores, bacteria, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and viruses. Living with mold can be devastating, and although a home inspection report can identify visible “organic matter,” you don’t know what’s hiding behind walls, under carpets, or in ductwork. You also can’t see harmful air pollutants like VOCs, radon, or CO2. The EPA has identified six air pollutants regulated by human health-based and environmentally-based criteria which include:
- Carbon monoxide
- Nitrogen oxide
- Ground-level Ozone
- Particle Pollution
- Sulfur dioxide
The EPA has also produced a full guide to all indoor air pollutants and their sources. This list includes the 6 regulated air pollutants mentioned above as well as asbestos, formaldehyde, pesticides, radon, indoor particulate matter, smoke, and VOCs.
We also rely on city and government regulations to provide the public with tap water that meets drinking water standards set by the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) for access to filtered, quality drinking water. Unfortunately, many people don’t realize that their water is not adequate and although it may be filtered from bacteria that can make us seriously ill, it is not always filtered at the optimal level to remove all toxins that cause long-term disease. You may be surprised that poor water quality and filtration can actually ruin your health, or even your life, and is something each homeowner should research in their local area.
The third component of environmental home wellness is the combination of electric and magnetic fields (EMFs) which is often referred to as electromagnetic radiation. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) says these are typically grouped into either non-ionizing, which is perceived as harmless, and ionizing which has the potential for cellular DNA damage. We are surrounded by these since they are naturally emitted through the earth and light, and unnaturally through our daily household products like microwaves, Bluetooth devices, and even our computers. The NIEHS electromagnetic spectrum shows where products fall in terms of frequency, also showing their danger. Although there is still research being done on the effects of being subjected to electromagnetic radiation, there have been cases of long-term negative effects on health and well-being.
Indoor Air Quality Testing
What does an indoor air quality test involve? Typically, a test looks at what is unseen or even undetected by homeowners. This is much more than a simple mold test from your local hardware store. A professional will look at indoor air quality to a deeper level than a homeowner. If you are feeling symptoms of building-related illness, it’s a good idea to inquire or begin tests.
Start by purchasing an indoor air quality (IAQ) monitor. This device stays on all the time, so it’s constantly reading and reporting on the levels of pollution it detects in your home. The pollutants it tests for include information on particulate matter, chemical pollutants, and humidity. More advanced IAQ monitors might track temperature, carbon monoxide, and formaldehyde levels.
An additional step you can take to test your indoor air quality includes installing a carbon monoxide alarm. Homeowners that don’t have a gas line don’t necessarily need to worry since carbon monoxide is a tasteless and odorless gas produced during fuel combustion – think about a gas furnace, gas water heater, or gas stove. Standard carbon monoxide detectors are affordable, accessible, and should be placed or plugged into outlets in multiple rooms. These alarms give off a piercing noise similar to a fire alarm in the event that they detect high levels of carbon monoxide for a certain length of time.
Many people are tempted to purchase mold test kits from home improvement stores, assuming these are the same as tests used by professionals. Unfortunately, these will do little to help detect actual mold levels. The truth is mold is all around us, both indoors and out. The EPA has no official determination of how much mold is “excessive.” Mold is often a result of water damage and commonly can be found in crawl spaces, carpets, bathrooms, and in your air ducts.
Are you surprised that mold might be growing in your air ducts? Steve Mcleod, owner of Indoor Environmental Systems, Inc., and a professional with over 30 years of experience in the air quality industry, shared with us some things the average homeowner may not realize. “Most HVAC systems are designed to use MERV 8 or medium arrestance filters. When high arrestance filters are installed they capture smaller particles, which is great - yet air leaks, if present, in the air ducts become more active! So, sucking in unfiltered air from areas inside the walls, crawl space, or attic, defeats the benefits of denser, more expensive filters. Bottom line, have your HVAC or Healthy Home tech inspect the air ducts and make filter recommendations".
Upgrading to higher MERV rated filter does have multiple benefits, but homeowners may not know they have air duct leaks and by installing a MERV 13 air filter, it can cause an increase in pressure within the duct work, actually forcing more air through the air duct leaks or sucking in unhealthy air. In turn, your unit becomes less efficient and if there is mold in the air ducts, it’s also going to be moving through those air duct leaks instead of through the filter. So, for homeowners that do have an older HVAC system, or an older home, it’s a good idea to have a professional check your ducts to make sure they’re in good shape.
These are easy changes homeowners can make: upgrading their air filters or adding an air purifier to their home. During the Covid-19 pandemic, many people opted to upgrade to MERV 13 air filters to help trap airborne viruses and bacteria. MERV 13 air filters are now being used in airplanes, hospitals, and many public spaces in order to minimize the spread of COVID-19.
We spoke with Steve to see what professionals think about additional air filtration methods including air purifiers and scrubbers. He explained the journey that particulate matter would have to make if there were only one air filtration unit set up in one room doesn’t make sense. Thinking of how far apart a bedroom and kitchen can be, can we really expect that an air particle would move that distance? Instead, Steve explained what Indoor Environmental Systems Inc. finds works most efficiently in terms air filtration. “So, for us, we love science, and by using laser particle counters we see the effectiveness of air filters and having a portable air purifier in each bedroom, and in the "busy rooms" as the way to go because of their low cost. If operated correctly, it will quickly reduce stubborn airborne particles levels in that room. However installing a whole house HEPA filter to the HVAC system is brilliant, because it cleans massive amounts of air, as it runs silently, 24 hrs/7days a week. Adding carbon to your HEPA filters doubles the benefits as carbon captures chemicals that can pass through the HEPA".
How to Test Indoor Air Quality on a Deeper Level
Having a professional perform a thorough inspection of your indoor air environment is affordable and can be insightful toward improving home wellness. There are even options to have virtual consultations to enlighten homeowners on best practices for health. Nothing will beat having a professional complete the tests and send them to a lab for accurate reporting, though.
How much does a professional home indoor air quality test cost?
- Indoor air quality test - These tests check a variety of different issues and can be an overall indicator that there may be a problem. Professionals will likely include a check of your HVAC unit and air ducts to make sure that air circulation and filtration is functioning properly and isn’t causing further issues. Tests can run from hundreds to thousands depending on the age and size of the home, and depth of these tests.
- Radon test - Although these are often completed during initial home inspections, they aren’t part of the standard price so not all homeowners bother with purchasing an additional radon test. These can run anywhere between $100 to $300 depending on your location. Keep in mind that radon levels can fluctuate so testing on one day won’t be the same as a long-term test result where a radon monitor collects data over the span of 3 months to a year. If you haven’t done a radon test, you can access a radon map to see average levels in your area. Levels can vary drastically between two homes right next to each other, so it’s important to test your home’s radon output to make sure your family is not being exposed to something harmful.
- Mold inspection - If you’re unsure whether to have a mold inspection done, keep in mind that you may not be able to see the mold, and that is where a professional’s expertise will come in handy. You may also need evidence of mold if you are working or participating in the real estate landscape and having a true representation will be more beneficial than an opinion. As a tenant, if you’re having health issues and would like to break your lease or attribute them to mold, you’ll need a professional for accurate results. On the flip side, as a home or business owner, you might have to prove that your location is mold free. These procedures can be done by room or throughout the whole house or building. If you have mold in one part of your home or building, you’re likely to have it elsewhere. We recommend saving some money by paying for the whole house to be checked, rather than testing on a room-by-room basis, which could cost you more in the end. Prices vary between $100 - $1000 per room. Be sure to also have your ducts checked, as well.
- Mold removal - Now, let’s imagine the worst-case scenario: you end up needing professional mold removal services. Removing the fungus is nasty business and requires professional gear since the toxins released are highly irritating to the human body. Professionals will often wear full-body hazmat suits and ventilation equipment and will be relying on some heavy-duty cleaning products to rid and protect your home from returning fungi. These services can cost anywhere from $500 to thousands of dollars, depending on how large of a problem you have. In some cases, you may also need to seek alternate accommodations temporarily until the problem is resolved and your indoor air pollutants are removed.
When deciding how to test indoor air quality, remember that it’s almost entirely up to you to keep yourself and others safe and healthy. Building-related illness can be a terrible burden and quite detrimental to your long term wellness, so although air quality has recently become a hot topic due to Covid-19, it’s not just an airborne virus we’re trying to keep at bay, but all those other unseen indoor air pollutants that contribute so powerfully to your overall home wellness.