If you’re like most people, you rarely consider the quality of your indoor air.  But with people indoors now more than ever, it has never been more important to tackle the issues in your home that may be silently destroying your lung health.

In this article I’ll explain 7 ways to improve the respiratory health of you and your family, along with practical tips for implementation. If anyone in your family has asthma, allergies, pulmonary disease, or an acute respiratory illnesses, these simple tips will be invaluable, but I believe every home could benefit from these simple changes.

7 Ways Your Home Influences Your Respiratory Health

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Jump Ahead…

1. Maintain an Ideal Relative Humidity
2. Eliminate Carpeting and Heavy Drapery
3. Don’t Kick Up Extra Dust
4. Improve Ventilation & Purify Your Indoor Air
5. Improve Bathroom Air
6. Avoid Chemical Cleaners and Disinfectants
7. Avoid Using Candles, Incense, or “Air Fresheners”

 

1. Maintain an Ideal Relative Humidity

Research shows indoor air that is too dry is associated with the spread of infections in humans. This helps explain why the flu season occurs when the air is drier (winter). Additionally, air that is too wet promotes mold, mite, and pest infestations as well as the release of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). So where is that Goldilocks sweet spot?

Most experts agree that the ideal indoor relative humidity (RH) level should be between 40-60%, but when it comes to respiratory illnesses, I recommend we tighten those recommendations to 45-55% RH. Neither viruses, bacteria, molds, mites, respiratory infections, nor allergic rhinitis thrive in this narrow window of humidity. Take a look at the image below, which comes from The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE).

Optimum Values of Indoor Relative Humidity

Source: 2016 ASHRAE HVAC Systems and Equipment Handbook

As you can see in the image above, when relative humidity is in the 45-55% range a majority of allergens and pathogens cannot thrive in the home.  Depending on your particular climate, you may need to employ a humidification or dehumidification strategy to achieve these ideal air moisture levels. I’ll discuss several options for measuring and addressing household humidity levels in the “Best Practices” section below.

Conditioning the air by adding or removing water from it is an important step in avoiding respiratory illnesses in your home. However, please keep in mind that humidifiers and dehumidifiers only influence the amount of humidity in the air and are not acceptable substitutes for air purification systems (which are another important step in creating a lung-healthy living environment).

Best Practices:

  • To reduce household viruses, bacteria, molds, mites, and respiratory infections, maintain a strict indoor relative humidity (RH) of 45-55%. Measure and monitor your home’s RH using an inexpensive thermo-hygrometer and use the recommendations below to bring your home into range.
  • If your home needs dehumidification: Use nontoxic desiccants to passively absorb moisture from the air; use exhaust fans that duct outdoors (or open a window) when cooking, showering, or drying clothes; If you are in a particularly humid climate, utilize a  whole-home dehumidifier (Wholesome Tip: Use the water collected to water plants); Run a medium-sized dehumidifier in moisture-prone areas; Clean your dehumidifier(s) monthly using a vinegar solution for the reservoir and the manufacturer’s recommendations for the air filter; Move furniture away from corners of rooms to promote good airflow; Remove wet clothing and towels from small bathrooms; Use clay as a natural and beautiful moisture-regulating wall finish.
  • If your home needs humidification: If you only need to raise the humidity in your home a small amount, consider adding indoor houseplants, an indoor fountain, or cooking more without the exhaust fan; If you need even more moisture in your air, consider using a humidifier. Humidifiers are notorious breeding grounds for microbial activity and must be cleaned and sanitized regularly to avoid potential long-term respiratory problems including what’s called “humidifier fever.” Here is a great Humidifier Care Fact Sheet from the Environmental Protection Agency that will fully explain how to use a humidifier safely.

 

2. Eliminate Carpeting and Heavy Drapery

Avoidance of wall-to-wall carpeting is widely recommended by healthy housing advocates. This avoidance is even more important when trying to maintain optimal respiratory health! Let’s explore the top few reasons that carpeting causes many negative occupant health outcomes.

First, the way that we manufacture floor carpeting is straight up toxic! From the harsh outgassing of solvent-based bonding glues to carpet fibers treated with dangerous perfluorinated chemicals and anti-microbial agents, the amount of harmful chemicals used in the manufacture of carpets is astonishing. Here’s another example: according to the highly recommended book, Prescriptions for a Healthy House, “synthetic latex, the most common carpet backing, contains approximately 100 different gases, which contribute to the unpleasant and harmful ‘new carpet smell.’ Most underpads are made of foamed plastic or synthetic rubber and contain petroleum products that cause pollution at every stage of production and continue to pollute once installed.”

Second, floor carpeting is really pretty disgusting. Carpets and carpet pads make incredibly effective receptacles for dirt, debris, desiccated insect parts, molds and other microbes, fecal matter, allergens, and more. Even freshly-vacuumed low-pile carpet contains a collection of biological and chemical contaminants buried down in all the cozy crevices of the fibers and pad. As building biologist, Nicole Bijlsma, eloquently puts it: carpets are an archaeological dig site of every occupant who has ever used them. 🤢

Third, health-disrupting chemicals and compounds that hide in carpets can get re-dispersed as people walk and crawl on them. When this debris is kicked up by occupants, it is those closest to the ground (ie. babies and toddlers) who are most harmed. Civil engineers at Purdue University created a thoroughly-creepy crawling robot baby that uses sensors to measure the amount of local air pollution kicked up. It found that the agitation of crawling is enough to expose tiny humans to copious amounts of airborne debris.

For similar reasons that we avoid carpeting, bulky window coverings should be removed to improve respiratory health. Curtains are often treated with toxic chemicals (which leach more quickly there in the blazing sunshine) and are havens for dust and debris which can be re-suspended in the air when opening or closing them.

Best Practices:

  • Vacuum the home (especially bedrooms) regularly. Use a bagged vacuum with a sealed HEPA filter in areas of the home where carpeting remains. Wholesome Tip: Research shows that significantly more dirt and debris are removed from carpeting when you vacuum using slow repetitive movements, focusing on one small area at a time, rather than when you do a quick 1-time pass over everything.
  • Another recommendation that is good for lung health, but super simple: take off your shoes when you enter the home. By implementing a shoe-free policy, your floor will harbor far fewer contaminants that can get kicked up, inhaled, eaten, etc.
  • Wash and dry all bedding on the hottest setting weekly to kill dust mites (one of the most common allergens worldwide). Use dry days (that you’ve checked your local air quality) to air out items such as rugs, pillows, and sofa cushions in the sun.
  • If you still want window coverings in certain rooms, be sure to buy nontoxic curtains which can be easily laundered.

 

3. Don’t Kick Up Extra Dust

Let’s do a dust deep dive, shall we? What we refer to as “dust” is actually an ecosystem of microorganisms (dust mites, viruses, bacteria, and fungi), chemical contaminants (fuels, flame retardants, and phthalates), allergens (pet dander, pollens, and insect droppings), and lung-disrupting compounds (formaldehyde, endotoxins, and antibacterial chemicals). Breathing in this cocktail can be damaging to respiratory and general health.

According a study focused on the pulmonary health of street sweepers, “The inhalation of external materials triggers the lungs to react in different ways, including airway irritation, asthma exacerbation, inflammatory reactions and fibrosis. While short-term exposure to dust may cause immediate and severe damage, chronic or persistent exposure for months or years may result in permanent illnesses or injuries.”  Because “kicking up” dust from carpets and rugs as you walk is a “chronic” or regular activity, it could be argued that dust-proofing your home is one key to avoiding permanent illnesses.

When it comes to dust, particle size is one of the biggest determinant of the seriousness of the health threat. A small enough particle can get past the lungs defenses and make its way to into the bloodstream. We call these particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5), which means that the particles are 2.5 micrometers in aerodynamic diameter or less.  This 20-30 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

Because PM2.5 cannot be coughed or sneezed out like smaller particles, both avoidance and removal from the home is very important. Some sources of PM2.5 pollution include wildfires, cooking fumes, automotive exhaust, and using fireplaces.  Avoid introducing PM2.5 by not opening windows on days when air pollution is high, and avoiding things like candles and incense. Removal of PM2.5 can be accomplished with a true HEPA air purifier, see recommendations below.

Best Practices:

  • As suggested in the previous section, avoid wearing shoes into the home, as they track in large amounts of dust and debris. A shoe rack and chair just inside the doorway make this habit easier to adopt.
  • Use a true HEPA air purifier to reduce PM2.5 and other small (viral) particles.
  • Adopt a more minimalist design aesthetic. The more clutter, knick knacks, and stuff you have, the harder it is to maintain a dust-free home.
  • We spend hours each night with our faces shoved into a pillow. Unfortunately, pillows are generally breeding grounds for dust and dust mites. A hypoallergenic pillowcase will help serve as a physical barrier to mites and other lung irritants, thereby improving your respiratory health.
  • When emptying dryer lint traps, air filters, or vacuum bags, do so outdoors and never inside the home.
  • As discussed before, maintaining a relative humidity of 45-55% can also help keep dust levels lower.
  • Reduce indoor sources of PM2.5 by avoiding fireplaces, candles, and incense as well as always venting cooking fumes with a vent hood (be sure it vents outdoors).
  • Dust your home regularly using a damp microfiber cloth. Also, vacuum carpets using suggestions from the previous section.

 

4. Improve Ventilation & Purify Your Indoor Air

In this section, I will explain why introducing outdoor air (by opening the windows) and purifying indoor air is typically a great inexpensive strategy for improving indoor air quality (IAQ). Not only can opening the windows kill certain microbes, daylighting your home improves mental health, air quality, and household energy efficiency.

Let’s start with the basics: on average, outdoor air is cleaner and healthier than what you are breathing indoors*. Under most circumstances, the chemical soup that you inhale into your body is more concentrated indoors than it is outdoors. For that reason, exchanging indoor and outdoor air regularly (via HVAC systems, opening windows, or opening doors) is generally considered good for respiratory health.
*Depending on where you live and the hour of the day, your air quality will fluctuate. Because of that, I highly recommend checking the air quality conditions where you live before airing out your home!

Additionally, by opening the windows you expose yourself to the full solar light spectrum (Wholesome Tip: Most glass that is used to make home windows filters out certain beneficial wavelengths. Be sure to open the glass, not just the blinds). This is important because unfiltered, unmodulated, unflickering, “clean,” color-balanced light is something that modern humans are sorely lacking for optimal health; and it’s something that the sun consistently and freely provides.

In addition to letting fresh air in, it is important to clean the air inside your home. An air purifier will capture the mold spores, dust, pet dander, and toxic chemicals that would otherwise get taken into your lungs. According to the fine folks at Positive Energy, “portable air purifiers can also be effective at controlling airborne particle concentrations. Most quality portable air purifiers use HEPA filters, which capture 99.97 percent of particles. A HEPA filter lets air through but traps viruses (and other chemicals plus bacteria, pollens and mold). Using a HEPA air filter connected to your central air/heat system can drastically decrease indoor air pollutants. This kind of air purification will reduce the viruses in the air, not just swoosh them around the room.”

Best Practices:

  • If weather permits, air out your home for 15 minutes minimum to reduce the concentration of indoor air pollutants. Before doing an air exchange, consider the following: outdoor allergens including pollens and molds, traffic and other fumes, and current outdoor air quality – Check the Real-Time Air Quality Index (AQI) in Your Area Here! 
  • In the housing design phase, orient the home for passive solar gains. This includes methods such as building overhangs that block mid-day summer sun, but allows winter sun to warm the home; south-facing windows; and building with materials that have a high thermal mass (brick, concrete, earthblock, etc).
  • Get a high-quality true HEPA air purifier and run it constantly. Avoid units that utilize UV or ionization – as many of these air purifiers emit ozone, an extremely lung-damaging indoor air pollutant, as a byproduct. Be sure your air purifier doesn’t emit ozone by checking the the California Air Resources Board website.

 

5. Improve Bathroom Air

The air quality in the bathroom is arguably some of the worst in the entire home. And since your bathroom air is shared among all rooms and all occupants, it’s important to focus on air quality in this room first. Let’s start by exploring a few of the reasons why the air quality in the bathroom is so essential to good respiratory health:

First, the bathroom is a high-moisture area, which alone can lead to respiratory problems due to increased mold, microbial, and chemical aerosols taken in with every breath. You are probably familiar with mold,  but there are plenty of other microscopic creatures and contaminants that thrive in a moist environment. These include bacteria, viruses, mites and other allergens, as well as gaseous microbial metabolites called mVOCs. Controlling moisture is central to improving bathroom air.

You May Also Like: Everything You Need to Know About Toxic Mold & Human Health

Second, the water vapor that fills a bathroom during a shower is not only promotes molds, bacteria, and odors, it also can contain noxious airborne gases such as chlorine, chloramine, and even chloroform (yes, that chloroform)! These are the chemicals that give indoor pools and hot tubs their signature (read: headache-inducing) smell. Therefore, it is essential to remove excess moisture from the air quickly (or pre-filter the water that is in your water) to protect your lungs from this daily chemical assault.

Third, for most people, the bathroom is home to many toxic personal care and cleaning products which can contain lung-damaging chemicals.  From hair sprays to grout cleaners, the majority of the ingredients inside these commercial formulations have never been studied for human safety. Read that again. More than half of the chemicals in your bathroom products have never been studied for human safety! What’s worse: if you can smell the product (and even sometimes when you can’t), the chemicals it contains are interacting with your sensitive lung tissues. Not good!

Luckily, with some simple product swaps and a DIY-attitude, your respiratory health could improve drastically!

Best Practices:

  • Improve bathroom air quality by reducing your exposure to the lung-damaging chemicals vaporized in the “fog” that accompanies hot showers.  Get to the root of the problem by reducing chemical exposure in the shower and bath with a high quality whole-house water filter. Additionally, a moisture-sensing automatic bathroom exhaust fan (be certain it exhausts outdoors) will turn itself on when the shower raises bathroom humidity levels and is recommended as a baseline in most bathrooms. Additional measures can be taken in especially small or humid bathrooms.
  • Clay plaster works beautifully as a natural moisture-regulating wall finish. The clay absorbs moisture when humidity is high (during a shower) and slowly releases the water as bathroom air conditions dry out. Clay, like many natural building materials, is subject to containing radon and can be tested by a building biologist or environmental consultant if you are concerned.
  • If your bathroom is small, you may need to take extra steps to promote rapid drying. These include removing wet clothing, towels, and rugs from the bathrooms; manually drying the walls of your shower/bath using a large microfiber cloth; and opening windows during showers to keep relative humidity low.
  • The #1 way to improve odor in a bathroom is cleanliness. Try sanitizing your thrones, floors, and countertops/sinks with a simple vodka and essential oil blend 3-4 times per week (or more if you have young boys in the house #momtruths). Avoid chemical bathroom potions, sprays, and “air fresheners.” Instead, make your own bathroom disinfectant using the recipe below, see “Best Practices” under “Avoid Candles.”
  • Here’s my Personal Pet Peeve Public Service Announcement: Close your toilet seat before you flush! The rapid water movement during the flush sprays into the air and introduces bioaerosols (airborne particles from viruses and bacteria) into the home.
  • When it comes to cosmetics, personal care, and cleaning products, make your own versions or buy from safe and ethical brands. Some of the websites I recommend for choosing health-promoting beauty products include the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep® Database, MADE SAFE®, Think Dirty, and Mamavation.

 

 

6. Avoid Chemical Cleaners and Disinfectants

Let’s start with some terms:

  • Cleaning removes of germs, dirt, and impurities from surfaces. It doesn’t kill germs, but reduces their quantities and thereby the risk of spreading infection.
  • Disinfecting uses chemicals to kill germs on surfaces. It doesn’t necessarily clean dirty surfaces nor remove germs, but by killing germs on surfaces.

In March of 2020, the National Poison Data System noted that poison control calls regarding accidental poisoning by cleaners and disinfectants have risen sharply. Avoiding these types of harsh chemicals not only reduces your pulmonary health risk, but also the risk of accidental poisoning.

I highly recommend making your own soaps and sanitizers to save money and live healthier.  Soap and water continues to be a highly effective way way to live healthfully.  Respiratory viruses and other pathogens that are encapsulated with protein-lipid membranes are damaged (thereby killing the pathogen) with a simple mild soap.  No need for antibacterial agents or other harsh chemicals.

Make your own foaming hand soap: Mix 4.5 cups distilled or filtered water,  1/2 cup liquid castile soap, 1 teaspoon skin-soothing oil (try olive, vitamin E, or jojoba), and 25 drops of essential essential oil (use tea tree, oregano, or lemon for powerful antiseptic properties).  Use (or re-use!) a foaming soap dispenser bottle, and store excess soap for up to 2 months.

When it comes to sanitizers, a 70% ethanol solution is one of the most effective and least toxic solutions available. The efficacy of ethanol in killing microbes is so great that biology labs use 70% EtOH (70% ethanol) for disinfecting the lab. I’ve been cleaning my home with vodka for years, but was recently made aware that the ethanol content of most grain alcohols is not enough to kill some pathogens. I’ve tweaked my recipe (below) to use Everclear (which, at 190 proof, is 95% ethanol), and am very pleased with the results!

Make your own household disinfectant spray: Combine 16 oz (2 cups) Everclear with 5.5 oz (1/2 cup + 3 tablespoons) of distilled or filtered water in a clean spray bottle.  Please be exact with this ratio to ensure a 70% ethanol solution.  If you want more disinfecting power and a fresh smell, add essential oils such as rosemary, cinnamon, or peppermint to the solution.

Best Practices:

  • Like prescription meds and alcohol, commercial cleaners and chemicals should be stored away from children in a locked cabinet. But we go a step further with those toxic cleaners. Don’t even store them indoors. Ideally, they should be stored in a detached garage or storage unit (pay attention to storage temperatures).
  • Certain plants reduce lung-assaulting chemical emissions and can be potted indoors for cleaner indoor air. Peace Lily, Areca Palm, Kentia palm, and Dracaena all help to reduce chemicals in the home.

 

7. Avoid Using Candles, Incense, or “Air Fresheners”

Candles, as peace-promoting as they may be, have no place in a wholesome home. Many commercial candles (including soy and even beeswax candles) create dangerous chemicals as the byproducts of combustion. Did you ever consider that burning a “mountain breeze” candle releases contaminants such as heavy metals, carcinogens, terpenes (asthma triggers), and other lung-damaging particulates?

The image below is of an air filter located in an office that burned candles almost every day.   As the wick (which likely contained the neurotoxin, lead) vaporized the petroleum-based wax, the soot, chemicals, and other particulates that were released floated around the air, eventually getting trapped in this filter.  Do you really want your family breathing that?

Source: Jessica Steinhoff

Incense is just as dangerous because it can emit carbon monoxide and other gaseous pollutants. Burning incense creates indoor concentrations of PM 2.5 which can far exceed the outdoor concentrations specified by the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards. In addition to tiny particulate matter, “When burned, incense releases carcinogens such as polyaromatic hyodrcarbons (PAHs),” Dr. Jon Barron explains, “a class of toxins that includes formaldehyde and that has been linked to lung cancer in smokers… Incense typically contains other carcinogens such as carbonyls and benzene, which can trigger DNA mutations in human cells.”   Turns out, the slow smolder of a cheaply-produced stick of incense exposes occupants to significant health risks via inhalation exposure.

Air fresheners, plug-ins, and pine-shaped auto rearview fresheners contain an innocent-sounding, but rather nefarious ingredient name: fragrance. The popular ingredient “fragrance” is a loophole in the FDA’s product regulation policies. Under certain trade secret considerations, companies could use the word “fragrance” rather than list specific ingredients, preventing their formulas from being replicated as easily. The problem with the catch-all term fragrance is that it doesn’t concern itself with the nuisance of public safety. In fact, some 80% of chemicals that can be grouped under the fragrance-umbrella have not been tested for human safety. Others are downright toxic.

Best Practices:

  • Stop burning candles. I know this can be tough to hear, but candles and their byproducts of combustion simply do not belong in a Wholesome House! When in doubt, refer to the picture of the air filter above.
  • If you are not sensitive to natural fragrances, make your own air freshening spray with 1 cup vodka, 1 cup filtered or distilled water, 15 drops wild oil of oregano, 10 drops organic lavender essential oil, 10 drops organic frankincense essential oil.
  • Activated charcoal is a natural deodorant and can be used in musty areas such as coat closets, small bathrooms, and gym bags. I recommend placing these little charcoal bags anywhere that needs some natural air freshening.
  • Use nature’s fragrance by making herb sachets filled with dried herbs and flowers that smell divine. Place herbs in a small muslin bag or tea strainer and place them in a drawer or small closet.

Additional Resources:

 

Viruses & Designing For Health Outcomes In Buildings