When winter’s bitter chill forces us indoors more than usual, the risk of exposure to air pollutants can be significantly higher than when we are outside.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 72 percent of chemical exposures in the average individual comes from inside the home. So, when you are spending more time indoors, it is especially important to know about potential risks and how to improve your home’s indoor air quality.

Pollutants from cleaning products, smoke, pet dander, mold and radon are just some of the causes of poor indoor air quality. Here are six ways to improve your home’s air quality that are recommended by Mid-America Regional Council and Kansas State University.

  1. Test for radon in your home. Radon is a radioactive gas that is linked to causing lung cancer. It is unnoticeable in homes because you cannot see, taste or smell it. According to the EPA, radon is the number one cause of lung cancer among non-smokers and is responsible for about 21,000 lung cancer deaths each year. “About 40 percent of the homes in Johnson County have elevated levels of radon,” said Mike Boothe, environmental compliance manager for Johnson County Department of Health and Environment. “One of the best things someone can do if they are building a new home is to install Radon-Resistant Construction as the house is being built. The current cost for a system installed in an existing house is around $700-$900, but it depends on a lot of factors.” For Kansas homeowners, Kansas State University’s Kansas Radon Program (KRP) offers inexpensive radon testing kits at several county extension offices. Kits range from $6-$8. Missouri residents can order a free radon testing kit from the Missouri Department of Health & Senior Services. Kits can also be purchased at area hardware stores. If your test shows levels higher than 4 pCi/L, it is recommended that a mitigation system be installed at a cost that can range from $700 – $1,200.
  2. Check out humidity levels. Make sure that humidity in your home is kept at an acceptable level. When humidity levels are too high, homes are more susceptible to mold and mildew, and family members may be more susceptible to respiratory problems. Not enough house humidity can lead to scratchy throats, skin irritation and static electricity. Homes must have an adequate amount of ventilation, focusing on areas that tend to have more moisture build up. Overall, though, humidity levels should be less than 50 percent. To test humidity levels, hardware stores sell hygrometers between $11 and $40. Some temperature gages and humidifiers also measure humidity levels.
  3. Be on the lookout for mold. Any area where there is standing water, water stains or damp surfaces can be a host for mold growth. Bathrooms and basements are unusually susceptible because of the potential for moisture. Watch for signs of mold growth. At times there will be a smell and it can be visible to the eye. Household plants are good for filtering out carbon dioxide and common volatile organic compounds in homes, but can also be a host for mold if overwatered. Make sure you are taking care of any indoor plants properly. If furnishing or carpets get wet, take steps to dry them as quickly as possible so mold does not form.
  4. Reconsider flooring options. Carpets make it easier for dust mites to collect, affecting those with allergies and mite sensitivity. Replacing carpets with harder surfaces like wood or tile can be a better option. If you have rugs, clean them with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter vacuum, which filters out 99.7 percent of small particles.
  5. Regularly clean A/C condensing units, humidifiers and dehumidifiers. Germs and mold spores can be found on heating, cooling and humidifying equipment. Even dead mold spores can cause allergy symptoms. To clean and disinfect equipment, use chlorine bleach or more eco-friendly mixtures of white vinegar and water, tea tree oil and water, or hydrogen peroxide.
  6. Make smart furniture and building supply choices. Certain types of plywood and particleboard off-gas fair amounts of formaldehyde and other pollutants. When selecting furniture or building materials, look for products that are formaldehyde-free. If unavoidable, ask manufacturers to air out new furniture or carpets prior to delivery.

Photo: Bill Wilson / CC