4 Ways to Improve Indoor Air Quality for Seniors

By Fran J. Donegan, Home Improvement Expert

The terms “indoor air pollution” and “sick house syndrome” are getting a lot of attention these days. They refer to some houses that are so tightly constructed that they lack the natural ventilation that was available in the past. The tight construction, whether in a new home or one where the homeowner has reduced air filtration using caulking and weather-stripping to save energy, can trap pollutants inside.

Indoor air quality affects people in different ways, but seniors are considered especially vulnerable to some types of indoor pollution, especially people with asthma, lung disease or those with compromised immune systems. The pollutants can come from a number of different sources, including dust mites and pet dander, mold spores and viruses, as well as gaseous pollutants like tobacco smoke and the off-gassing from paints, cleaning products and some building products.

Here are some tips for improving indoor air quality.

1. Use natural ventilation.
Opening windows and doors can clear the air, but keeping them open or opening them at all in extremely hot or cold weather is not an option. However, you can spot-ventilate at some common pollution sources. Be sure kitchen and bathroom exhaust fans and dryer vent are working properly. These fans remove moisture that could lead to mold growth. Paints, adhesives, solvents and some building products can leave harmful fumes behind. If you engage in a hobby, make a home repair or have one done, flush out any fumes with natural ventilation.

2. Change the furnace and air-conditioner filters.
Forced-air heating and cooling systems have filters that protect the equipment from household dust. The filters should be changed regularly, at least at the start of the heating season and the cooling season if a central air-conditioner is part of the system.

Standard filters cannot remove very small particles like mold spores, bacteria and some allergens. To take those types of pollutants out of the system, you will need a high-efficiency filter. The efficiency of any filter is reflected in its rating. One rating system developed by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers rates filters from one to 20. It's called MERV, which stands for the minimum efficiency reporting value. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, filters in the seven to 13 range are good choices for homeowners.

MERV can get confusing because the system rates all air filters, including those used in hospitals and manufacturing facilities. In response, The Home Depot simplified the rating system for the products it sells. It's called the air filter performance rating (FPR) system. The filters are tested by a third party. Ratings run from four to 10. The higher the number, the smaller the particles the filter can remove from the air, including allergens, mold, bacteria and virus carriers. Most of the higher rated filters use electrostatic charges to filter out contaminants. Some can even remove odors. Here's a look at the Air Filter Performance Rating (FPR) System.

Before upgrading the filter, consult with a heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) contractor. High efficiency filters can reduce air flow in the system, so the technician may have to adjust the blower motor. Reduced air flow can put a strain on the equipment, which could lead to equipment malfunctions.

3. Use non-polluting products.
One way to limit indoor air pollution is to cut down on the product that can cause the pollution. Some of the things we bring into our homes like paints, adhesives, cleaning products, solvents and building products, such as carpets and other types of flooring, can produce fumes that may be harmful to some people. The goal is to purchase low emitting or low-VOC products. VOCs are volatile organic compounds. They are chemical compounds that are volatile enough to evaporate at room temperature, producing fumes. Most VOCs are harmless, but some can produce dizziness, headaches and irritation of the eyes, nose and throat. Long-term exposure can lead to serious diseases.

Most major manufacturers offer low-VOC paints and other finishes. There are also industry certification programs. For example, for vinyl flooring products the Resilient Floor Covering Institute's sponsors the FloorScore certification program. In this program, third-party testing ensures that the products meet stringent indoor air quality standards and that the products emit low levels of VOCs. The Carpet and Rug Institute's Green Label and Green Label Plus programs certify carpets, adhesives and carpet padding for low emissions of VOCs.

4. Test and monitor.
Have your home tested for radon and install carbon monoxide detectors.
Radon is an odorless, invisible gas that is a byproduct of the decay of uranium that occurs naturally in some soil. If it finds its way into your home, it can lead to serious illness. You can do the test yourself, and test kits are relatively inexpensive. In many cases, you take a sample of the air in your home and send the canister off to a lab for the results. If there is a radon problem in your home, there are a variety of techniques for blocking its entry into your home.

Carbon monoxide (CO) is another odorless, invisible gas that can cause you harm. CO is a byproduct of combustion, and there are a number of possible in-home sources, including unvented kerosene heaters, fireplaces, gas-fired water heaters and space-heating equipment that are not properly vented. A car idling in an attached garage can also be the cause of CO in the home. The detector will alert you to a problem before it can harm you. Many building codes require CO detectors in new homes. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends installing one on every level of your home.

Indoor air pollution can be a serious problem for seniors, but by taking a few steps, you can make sure the air in your home remains clean and healthy.
Fran Donegan is a home improvement writer who writes for The Home Depot and several other publications. He offers his advice on senior-related topics like how to choose an AC air filter and how to prevent falls in the bathroom.
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