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How to maintain healthy air quality in your home

By Emma Smith

Now that we’re spending an increased amount of time indoors, many of us may be starting to wonder about the state of the air we breathe in inside the home.

I was so interested that I sent the filter in my Dyson Pure Hot and Cool purifying fan heater back to the lab for testing. The results that came back were both intriguing and terrifying.

The Dyson Hot+Cool comes with an LCD reader and app that helps you understand what’s in the air.

The air in our homes can contain myriad substances, from particles like dust, pet dander and allergens to gases such as VOCs (volatile organic compounds), NO2 (nitrogen dioxide) and benzene.

The testing on my unit checked for degrees of mould, carcinogens and allergens found in my home’s air. Two key findings stood out:

  • The levels of 2-ethylhexanol (a VOC found in plastics, coatings and adhesives) was at the higher end of the usual range.
  • The bacteria counts in my filter were higher than the yeast and mould counts.

What does it all mean? Am I breathing in harmful bacteria along with terrifyingly high levels of plastic? Am I doomed to a shorter life expectancy? Fated with respiratory issues?

The good news is: not quite.

The overall VOC count for my home fell within the normal range, with 2-ethylhexanol the only compound coming in at ‘high’. However, it was well below toxicity levels, where if reached could cause skin, eye or respiratory irritation.

“2-Ethylhexanol is a kind of volatile organic compound that easily evaporates at room temperature,” explains Sandy Lam, analytical scientist at Microanalysis Australia. “A reading of 16mg/kg over a course of six months (how long this filter was run for before testing) is actually well below the level of the dosage for any expected health effects.”

Phew! So should we be worried about 2-ethylhexanol in the home then?

Cleaning can kill bacteria, but using chemical-laden cleaning products can increase VOCs in the air.

“2-Ethylhexanol is found in common household items such as plastics, adhesives, coatings (paints, lacquers, etc) and will be released into the air over time as these things are degraded,” Sandy says. In other words, in most cases, the compound gets rid of itself, like when paint dries or cleaning products dissolve.

Bacteria, mould and yeast are types of microbes found in indoor and outdoor environments in various concentrations. In my home, the bacteria counts were considered higher than the yeast and mould counts. Alarming at first, but not entirely unusual.

While the source of the results is not completely traceable, it can be noted that dampness and moisture is necessary for microbes such as bacteria, yeast and mould to grow. Humidity in the air, which my home is susceptible to given its location, can be responsible for any of these microbes forming.

NSW or QLD homes may be more prone to bacteria or mould growth than homes in cooler states.

However, concentrations of bacteria, mould and yeast found indoors will vary depending on a range of factors, including ventilation and the frequency/effectiveness of your cleaning.

We take in up to 30,000 breaths a day – a significant portion of those in our own homes. But the reality is no matter how often we clean, open and close windows or how diligent our efforts in managing humidity, our homes can’t escape air pollution.

Most of the causes of common home air pollutants come from everyday activities and can include air fresheners, deodorants, cleaning products, pollen, dust, pet dander and auto emissions from cooking with gas.

Shocked into submission? Find out how you can start breathing healthier air in your home.

5 steps to healthier air

Dyson Head of Category, RDD Health and Beauty, Dominic Mason offers these simple steps to keep indoor pollution levels as low as possible.

1. Use natural cleaning products

Opt for natural cleaners found in your pantry before reaching for chemical-laden cleaning products.

“The VOCs found in our homes can come from the chemicals in cleaning products we use on kitchen surfaces, bathrooms and windows,” Dominic says.

“Limonene is one of the compounds that makes cleaning products smell like citrus, but it can react with naturally-occurring ozone in the home to create formaldehyde.”

Use real lemon, vinegar and a bicarb soda solution (for tough grease and stains) instead.

2. Vacuum regularly

“When you sit on the sofa or plump up a cushion, you might notice a dust cloud,” Dominic says. “This dust may remain in the air and can be breathed in, but vacuuming regularly is an easy way to decrease particulate pollution at home.”

Keep your carpets, hard floors, upholstery and surfaces free from dust and pet hair. The most effective way is by vacuuming. Pay special attention to crevices and nooks where dust particles can settle.

3. Ventilate, cautiously

“Be wary of letting in ‘fresh air’,” Dominic says. “If you live next to a busy road or train line, opening the window can allow outdoor pollution gases like NO2 and SO2 into your home.”

Err on the safer side and keep windows shut during summer if experiencing extreme dry heat. Bushfires or burning off can cause high levels of dust particles to seep into the outdoor air, which can be harmful.

4. Light candles sparingly

“Some of the things we might enjoy at home like flowers or scented candles can also be sources of indoor air pollution,” Dominic says. “Rather than avoiding them completely, try lighting candles in moderation, ensuring that you ventilate the room or use an air purifier afterwards.”

5. Invest in an air purifier

If you are looking at purchasing a purifier, here are some things to look out for: Fully-sealed filters – that don’t allow the airflow to bypass the filter media, so you can be sure the machine is properly filtering the air of particles and gases

  • Dual filters – HEPA or other types of particle filter remove particle pollutants from the air, like dust, pollen and pet dander. If you can, also look for a machine with an activated carbon filter that will absorb VOCs, NO2 and other gases.

  • Fan functionality – to project clean air across the room, not just in the corner where the machine is sitting.

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