Why do sickness rates soar in colder weather?
A. Cold air makes us more susceptible to sickness.
B. Viruses and bacteria migrate to where it’s cold.
C. Viruses and bacteria thrive in cold temperatures.
D. We stay indoors and breathe on each other.
Correct Answer: D
Ah, that took me back to my teaching days and all the joys of test writing. But to the point:
Soaring sickness rates in wintertime have nothing to do with weather temperature, but have everything to do with air cleanliness. When we pack ourselves indoors with little ventilation – such as when school starts or when it gets cold – sickness abounds.
But germs are not all that’s dirtying our indoor air. There are a range of pollutants common indoors. These contribute to the alarming statistic that except for the most heavily polluted urban areas of the world, most of us breathe worse air indoors than outdoors. This is enough of a reality that there are syndromes named after it: Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) and Building Related Illness (BRI). Don’t you wish those terms didn’t need to exist?
Stop and consider: What do you come into the most contact in your home, office, or car? Is it the counters? Floors? Furniture? No. What surrounds you and penetrates deep inside your body, drawn in by the respiration of your lungs? The air. It is flowing into the very core of your body, into your lungs whose primary function is to absorb things out of the air. It’s meant to absorb oxygen, but other contaminants in the air get drawn in, too. So any pollutants in the air are going to end up in you.
Air gets dirty from a variety of sources. If you don’t clean dirty air, dirty air will make you sick.
As a whole we are primarily indoor creatures. One study specified Americans spend 87.6% of their time indoors and an additional 5.5% in a car (which as an enclosed space, can have similar issues to indoor air). So, an average day finds us outdoors only 6.9% of our day, or 1 hour and 40 minutes. Further consider that the most vulnerable populations stay inside the most: the very young, the very old, the ill, and infirmed. These are the people most susceptible and yet most exposed to any indoor air pollutants.
All that to say, it’s important to think about the air. And “indoors” does not mean merely in your house. Your office, car, school, or any other building is also indoors and has air in need of care.
What’s dirtying our air & where is it coming from?
Chemical Contaminants: Volatile organic compounds (VOCs), radon, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, Perchloroethylene (colloquially called “percs”), formaldehyde, flame retardants, lead, arsenic and DDT (yes, even though it was banned in 1972, it is still regularly found in analyses of household dust).
- Sources: Outgassing textiles such as furniture, carpets, fabrics, and wood; dry cleaning; cosmetics such as nail polish, hair products, perfumes, or lotions; cleaning products especially disinfectants and anything scented; home maintenance substances such as paint, varnish, pesticides, or air fresheners; printer ink, adhesives, smoke from tobacco or anything burning; soil under your home; dust. Anything you can smell is a chemical that you are inhaling and absorbing.
Biological Contaminants: Bacteria, viruses, mold, dust mites, pet dander.
- Sources: People, pets, any moisture such as on shower curtains or moist basements, dust.
Particle Contaminants: Dirt, grit, fibers, components of dust.
- Sources: Dust components include shed bits of human skin, animal fur, decomposing insects, food debris, lint and organic fibers from fabrics, tracked-in soil, soot, second hand smoke, cooking.
I wish I could make the words “volatile organic compounds” flashing and neon to make sure everyone remembers them. VOCs are no joke and represent the biggest source of chemical contaminants in the list. In fact, sources of outdoor air pollution in urban areas are shifting away from vehicle emissions due to effective regulations and towards VOCs coming from indoor consumer products. If they’re detecting outside what we use inside, just imagine how bad their concentration is inside. VOCs come from cleaning products, cosmetics, home maintenance products, inks, adhesives… anything “fumey” has VOCs.
What harm can these do?
Immediate effects of certain chemical contaminants include headache, burning eyes, sore throat, and difficulty breathing. Biological contaminants, especially viruses, bacteria, and mold, can sicken people with a wide variety of acute and long-term illnesses. Particulate matter, especially PM2.5 which indicate particles smaller than 2.5 microns, can penetrate deeply into the lungs and even enter the bloodstream impacting the heart and lungs. Those allergic to particular contaminants could experience sneezing, runny nose, red and itchy eyes, headaches, or fatigue. For those with asthma, all of these symptoms could be intensified and even could trigger an asthma attack. The impact of some pollutants such as radon or formaldehyde may not show up for years, but surface as neurological or behavioral maladies, heart disease, and various cancers. Carbon monoxide poisoning can result in death.
All that to say, this can be serious, but it is not dire because there is much that we can do. Some of these strategies you can implement at this very moment to reduce indoor air pollution.
How can we clean our air?
- Control the Source
- Choose products with minimal fumes especially when it comes to cleaning products and cosmetics. (Yes, that means no bleach. Instead try my All-Purpose Cleaning Spray and other green cleaners.) Look for “low VOC” in paints and varnishes. Ditch artificial fragrances in cleaning products, cosmetics, candles, air fresheners.
- Leave dry cleaning outside for a day without its plastic on. Let new textiles air outside before bringing them in. And above all, clean the litterbox! (Personal pet peeve!)
- Ditch the air fresheners and other things we think make our air better. They cause more problems than they solve. From an indoor air quality perspective, air fresheners have been indicated as a primary source of VOCs within buildings.
- Dehumidify to control moisture. Humidity means moisture and moisture means mold. Not only is mold a danger in itself, but is food for dust mites. Keep the humidity levels in your house under 50%. A weather station or humidity gauge will tell you.
- Clean house regularly. Get rid of that dust which harbors all manner of contaminants. Vacuum thoroughly using a machine with a HEPA filter. Yes, those hard-to-reach places that nobody sees, too. Don’t forget blinds, curtains, and ceiling fans. Any accumulated dust is breeding ground for dust mites, a powerful allergen.
- Take care of any moisture-related issue immediately. Signs of moisture include visible mold or fungus, bubbling paint, discolored carpet, stains on ceilings, smell of mildew. You cannot ignore or put off dealing with moisture. It does not get better and will get very much worse the longer you let it go. Some house defects can be lived with for years, such as the hole in my childhood bedroom wall that may or may not have been carved by my brother trying to see how well his pocketknife worked. That was there til my parents spiffied up the place to sell. But one cannot ignore a moisture. I cast my mind back to one mushroom, which I found growing out of my bathroom wall one morning. I went to bed with no sign of misplaced moisture and I woke up to a mushroom. We had a problem. Turns out it was from poor caulking in our tub surround.
- Make the most of your house’s HVAC system, if you have one, by keeping the air returns clear. Do not block them with furniture or curtains and change the air filters regularly. Get a filter with the highest Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value, or MERV, rating your system can take (look it up or ask a professional). MERV ratings of 13 or higher filter out the smallest particles, 2.5 micrometers, which due to their small size can penetrate the deepest into our lungs. Clean the vent slats where dust builds up.
- Set the HVAC to “Fan” instead of “Auto” to send your air through the filters without running the air conditioning or the heat. However, in high humidity areas, this can cause an increase in humidity in your house (which equals mold), so take a moment to consider whether this is a good strategy for you.
- Use your stove’s extractor fan when cooking and open windows. Cooking, especially high heat methods such as frying, release an exceptional amount of nanoparticles.
- Open windows. “Shut the door! I’m not air conditioning the entire neighborhood!” I get it. I’ve said it. We seal up our homes and offices tightly in the name of efficiency. Otherwise, we waste money and energy. However, in not letting heat or cold in, we also don’t let indoor contaminants out. Simply opening the windows, flushing out the air, letting what’s likely cleaner outside air in, is a free and easy step to take.
However, opening windows is not an “all the time and all the way” recommendation. Several factors may make opening the windows not a good idea: high pollen counts, high humidity, high wind kicking up dust, or in my case in October, high smoke. All of these could worsen your indoor air. Check the Air Quality index on your weather app. In areas or on days prone to these conditions, perhaps early in the morning when humidity is low and winds are low, you could open the windows to swap out the air. Here in San Diego, most of the year we can have the windows open at least in the morning or evening, if not all the time.
- Don’t rely on plants. This was a surprise to me when I read the research last week. I can still picture in my mind the tidy drawing of the respiration cycle in my grade school science book: We breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. Plants breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen. It turns out that this is a little unrealistic. The number of plants required to make a significant dent in our respiration would make our houses resemble dense jungles. Also, carbon dioxide is not the only indoor air pollutant, nor the most problematic one.
This does not mean get rid of your plants. If they make you happy, keep them. But do not let them become breeding grounds for molds due to excessive moisture, and don’t think of them as adequate air filters.
3. Purify the Air
The first two strategies of source control and ventilation should be your primary strategies. As a supplement, or when those two methods are not possible, take steps to purify the air.
- Use an air purifier. Despite the intention communicated in their names, many devices sold as air purifiers do anything but. There is no oversight of the claims made about air purifiers. Those that are ozone generators operate on the idea that ozone can engage and deactivate pollutants. The problem with this premise is that ozone itself is hazardous and causes a variety of respiratory issues. The concentration at which it might decrease other pollutants happens to be the concentration at which it is harmful to human health. Furthermore, several compounds that commonly outgas from textiles react readily with ozone to form an even more problematic airborne pollutant: formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. So definitely ditch the ozone generators.
Any electronic air purifiers that tout UV light, ionizers, electrostatic precipitators, or hydroxyl generators not only also emit small amounts of the hazardous ozone, but have not been proven effective.
The best option for air purifiers are those with High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters. Even so, air purifiers are at best a supplement to other the other air cleaning strategies.
- Let the sun shine in. I learned a new term: Daylighting. Sounds like the opposite of “moonlighting,” doesn’t it? Like daylighting is the job you have in the daylight. It’s not, though. Here, it’s the idea of letting daylight in. One study found that simply raising the shades and letting normal daylight come through glass helped reduce bacterial levels in dust. How easy is that?!
4. Test your air
- The only way you will know if you have two deadly contaminants in your house is to test. Radon and carbon monoxide are both invisible, odorless, and potentially deadly. Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers, and approximately 50,000 people end up in the ER each year from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning. Both radon tests and carbon monoxide detectors are readily at home improvement stores. A radon test is something you set out for a few days (quick results) or a few months (more accurate results). Then you send in the test for analysis. Carbon monoxide detectors are mounted on your wall and have a siren like a smoke alarm if CO levels get too high. The latter is especially important if you have fuel burning appliances in your house. If either of these pollutants are high, bring in a professional to help you find the best remedies.
Don’t be overwhelmed by all this. First, identify what you’re doing right. Likely you already have some of these under control. Give yourself a gold star for those! Second, identify the ONE step that will have the biggest impact and start with just that one. After you have that under control, pick another.
I started out discussing germs that make us sick. These often get the most attention because such sicknesses surface so quickly, and because we’re emerging from a global pandemic when germs have been on everyone’s mind. While these are a key reason to clean your air, they are not the only reason. Even if you live alone or work alone or drive alone, there are many other types of contaminants whose ill effects may not surface for years.
What are your best ways to keep your inside air clean?
Anytime I research for an article, I am always amazed and grateful for the experts I come across. There are people who have made it their life’s mission to dive deeply into obscure corners of the world and to know them completely, digest that knowledge, and spread it out in ways I can take in as well (at least if I’m paying very close attention). For this article, I learned about the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), the Energy Vanguard blog, and the Green Science Policy Institute. If your curiosity has been piqued by any of what I’ve written, I highly recommend you check out these sources, from which I learned much of what I now know.