Most of us spend a large percentage of our lives indoors, so knowing the spaces we spend the most time in are healthy is important. Poor air quality can lead to a range of both short and long-term health conditions. So what impacts air quality, and how can you test the air quality in your home?
What is indoor air quality?
Indoor air quality refers to the quality of air within and around structures and buildings and relates to the comfort and health of people occupying that space.
Why is indoor air quality important?
Studies have shown that indoor air can be five times more polluted than outdoor air, which means we’re breathing in pollutants and chemicals while we’re eating, sleeping and relaxing at home. Poor indoor air quality can cause immediate short-term health effects and have a significant impact on those with pre-existing conditions such as allergies and asthma. Long-term, poor indoor air quality has been linked to cancer, heart disease and respiratory diseases.
What impacts the quality of your home’s air?
The air inside your home can be compromised by a range of contaminants and potentially hazardous air substances, including:
- Pet dander
- Nitrogen dioxide from gas combustion
- Carbon monoxide from gas, kerosene and cigarette smoke
- Chemical pollutants
- Household products
- Building operations and construction materials
- Lead from pre-1970s paint
- External factors from the outdoors
- Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
Whether a source of air pollutants causes an indoor air quality problem or not depends on:
- the type of air pollutant
- the amount and rate at which it is released from its source
- the degree of ventilation available in the home to remove it from indoors.
How can I test air quality in my home?
Monitor your family’s health
Allergy sensitivities can be attributed to seasonal changes and the weather, but also to irritants and contaminants in the air in your home. People are most commonly exposed to air pollutants when they breathe in an allergen or air pollutant or allergen. The body has a range of defences against airborne substances (for example, the liver, skin and immune system). Some defences keep substances out of the body’s others overcome substances once they enter the body.
Generally, the greater the amount of pollutant exposure, the greater the health impact. The duration of exposure is also important. If low-level exposure occurs over a long period of time, the total dose may be large.
Some groups of people in the community are more vulnerable to pollutants than others. These include:
- the very young
- the very old
- those with pre-existing respiratory or cardiovascular disease
- those who are sensitive to a substance.
Common allergy symptoms include:
- Watery eyes
- Nasal congestion
- Bloody noses
Check for signs of mould
Mould thrives in moist areas like dirty drains, ductwork and in air conditioning. It often looks like “fuzz” or appears to be a smudge, stain or discolouration. The most common signs of mould are green, white and black. In terms of the best air quality tester for home that’s free, it’s actually your nose, as mould can be typically detected as a musty, earthy, meaty or dirty sock odour. Mould can also have mild to major implications to our health.
Monitor construction projects
Home construction can impact air quality as the air can be exposed to chemicals, dust particles and other harmful materials that can collect in your heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems and begin to circulate throughout your home. Some building materials — like paints and paint strippers — can release VOCs, which can irritate our eyes, noses and throats as well as lead to more serious health issues like liver or kidney damage.
Purchase an air quality monitor
There is a range of indoor air quality monitors on the market that cost as little as $25 to high-quality professional-grade models that will set you back over $2000. These devices typically detect temperature, humidity, VOCs and PM2.5 levels (which is the level of tiny dust particles and other allergens in the air you inhale).
Purchase an air purifier
Air purifiers can help improve the air quality in your home, especially for those who suffer from allergies.
Electronic versions are typically the most effective, as they can remove mould spores, dust particles and other allergens from the air more efficiently than filtered purifiers. Placing it in your bedroom will give you a longer period of exposure to its benefits as it works while you sleep.
Purchase a carbon monoxide alarm
Carbon monoxide is invisible, odourless, tasteless, and a by-product of many home appliances, including stoves, fireplaces, grills and water heaters. If inhaled, it can be deadly. These devices will alert you to dangerous levels of carbon monoxide, typically by setting off an alarm.
Purchaser a radon monitor
Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas, which has no colour, taste or smell. It comes from the radioactive decay of radium, which is present in small amounts in soil and rocks. It is chemically inert, so it can easily escape from the ground into the air, where it can be inhaled. When we breathe in radon, these particles can cause damage to the lung tissue, and such damage can lead to lung cancer.
Radon levels are highly variable, depending on the type of house and the flow of air through the home. However, according to the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA), the average concentration of radon in Australian homes is low. Generally, homes that are well ventilated, made of timber or built on stumps have lower radon levels compared to homes on concrete slabs with brick walls.
For households, the level recommended by ARPANSA is 200 Bq m⁻³, which can be checked with a radon monitor, available for purchase from ARPANSA.
Get professional help
If you are after a more informed opinion about how to control the air quality in your home, you can enlist the help of a professional. They will generally test for poor indoor air quality by undertaking:
- Dust particulate air sampling — which measures the concentration of physical particles in the air.
- General indoor air quality testing — which includes carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, relative humidity and temperature.
- Mould inspection and mould testing — including addressing the source of the mould problem, so it doesn’t return.