It’s harder to breathe easy these days.
You may think indoor air quality is an issue only in developing countries, where particulate matter from the burning of biomass such as wood or charcoal was estimated to result in 1.5 to 2 million deaths in the year 2000, but chemical off-gassing from modern homes and airborne environmental pollutants have made air purification a necessity for optimal health.
Air quality in urban areas has long been indexed and monitored with the increase in pollution, but rural areas are not exempt. Drift from pesticide and herbicide spray compromises outdoor air quality, and poor ventilation in our homes can prolong exposure to mold spores, dust, and pollens.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maintains a user-friendly website that monitors outdoor air quality and is searchable by map, state, or ZIP code. The data is presented as an air quality index (AQI) with forecasts and alerts of potential air quality issues. The EPA has also produced an infographic detailing the AQI along with respiratory and cardiovascular health risks from common air pollutants.
To measure indoor air quality, consumer kits are available to screen for a number of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) commonly off-gassed from paint, carpet, vinyl flooring, and compressed (glued) cabinetry wood in new construction and remodeling projects. VOCs can be persistent, and their indoor concentration during the winter may be three to four times higher than during the summer, when windows can be opened.
Children are the most vulnerable to VOCs, with the highest rate of asthma correlated to off-gassing of new carpet installation and the highest rate of allergies linked to new particle board brought into the home.
Unless you wish to live in a bubble or keep lots of houseplants, there are proactive steps you can take to mitigate these environmental stressors.
Negative ion generators are inexpensive and available in models sized for one’s home, vehicle, and personal space. Ionizers are intended to remedy brief encounters with airborne particulates and are less helpful for long-term exposures, such as a new carpet, that will off-gas for months. The latter requires air filtration and purification.
Here’s the difference: Ionizers release negative ions to attract positively charged particles that then drop out of the air. The toxicants could then be vacuumed up and removed from the home, provided that the vacuum has industrial-strength high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration. Most vacuums just kick the particulates back into the air, and the problem persists. Air filters sequester particulate matter, removing them from circulation.
Furnace filters are helpful for larger particulate matter, contingent upon the filter’s minimum efficiency reporting value (MERV) rating, but are insufficient for off-gassing of VOCs. Professional air filters use medical-grade HEPA filters to trap the smallest microns of particulates as well as carbon to sequester gas particles, similar to the carbon block in a water filter.
There are several premier brands available, but the brand we have vetted at our clinic is Austin Air. We chose Austin Air for several reasons. Made in America and designed to last a lifetime, the units are solidly constructed of stainless steel. They are heavy yet rest on wheels and can easily be rolled around one’s home or office.
The standard-sized Austin Air unit covers 1,500 square feet in one hour. For a 300-square-foot room, the unit is capable of performing five air changes in one hour, effectively removing any continuous source of chemical off-gassing. Austin Air purifiers are able to perform this impressive filtration rate by utilizing a combination of technologies.
Even with regular use, the 15 pounds of activated carbon and zeolite mix in the filter of the standard unit is substantial enough to last five years before needing to be changed.
All Austin Air units contain true medical HEPA filtration, effectively capturing 99.97 percent of particles down to 0.3 microns and 95 percent of particles as small as 0.1 microns.
Rather than inefficiently radiating air in all directions, Austin Air units do the opposite. Air is pulled in from all directions, and a fan forces clean air toward the opposite side of a room. When the unit is placed about a foot from a wall, air flow is maximized and cleared in a fraction of the time required by many other brands.
Each unit has three speeds. The high setting, at 147 watts, is used to quickly clear a room. The lowest setting can maintain indoor air quality at only 56 watts. Austin units are designed to run constantly if needed.
The two models we recommend are the basic HealthMate, for everyday maintenance of indoor air quality, and the HealthMate Plus, which has a layer of the filter impregnated with potassium iodide to sequester VOC gases such as formaldehyde and benzene. The HealthMate Plus provides ultimate protection for the chemically sensitive individual and is also the preferred unit to mitigate chemical off-gassing from new construction or remodeling projects. The unfortunate and uncomfortable truth is that either you have an air filter or your lungs are the air filter. This applies to water filtration as much as air filtration. We can decrease the burden on the lungs and liver by externalizing detoxification to technology designed to meet the increasing toxin and toxicant exposure of modern living. For the health and safety of our families, we must proactively create awareness of the problem even as we seek solutions for our homes and communities.
To learn more about Austin Air, visit our online shop.
Addendum: After editorial review by environmental medicine expert Mary Cordaro, it was brought to my attention that purifying indoor air to any significant degree with houseplants would take a veritable indoor jungle and that mold growth within wet potting soil that goes airborne poses its own health risks, especially for those with respiratory issues. Also, ion generators are generally considered insufficient, and some models emit ozone at unregulated and dangerous levels that react negatively with airborne chemicals, worsening indoor air quality.