NDSU Extension Service - Ramsey County


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Why Winter Makes Indoor Air Quality Worse

Why Winter Makes Indoor Air Quality Worse


            Keeping the indoor air quality in your home fresh and clean during the winter months can be difficult especially when there are weeks at a time of inclement weather

            Homes are built to be energy-and so cost efficient by holding heat in during the winter time and keeping heat out during the summer.  Our Midwest winter weather prompts homeowners to tightly seal any cracks in insulation that could allow cold drafts into the home. This, in turn, also seals off the home from any fresh air and raises the concentrations of both allergens and pollutants in the home.

            Pollutants in the home come from a variety of sources. The first step in making sure that your family has the cleanest possible air is knowing where the pollutants come from. Following is a list of common sources of indoor air pollution:

            Combustion sources such as oil, gas, kerosene, coal, wood. Any household appliances that use any of these fuels can lead to indoor air pollution. Such appliances include wood-burning stoves, fireplaces, water heaters, dryers, and stoves. It's crucial to make sure that these appliances are well-maintained and properly adjusted so that they don't release dangerous levels of pollution into the home. Heating systems themselves are one type of combustion source.

            Building materials and furnishings, ranging from insulation, to carpeting, to cabinetry or furniture made of pressed wood. Formaldehyde is one of the main volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and is often found in adhesives or other bonding agents present in carpets, upholstery, particle board, and plywood paneling.

            Household cleaning and maintenance products, personal care products; air fresheners, for example, release pollutants continuously.

            Hobby or home improvement activities including painting, varnishing, sanding, welding, using adhesives, and more. Basically, if it produces fumes, it's probably not good for you to be breathing it or filling your home with it, especially when your home is sealed tight against winter cold - and the healthy circulation of fresh air.

            Outdoor sources like radon, pollen, lead, and more. Radon occurs in the soil as the natural decay of uranium occurs and can leak into the home. Pesticides, pollen, lead, and other outdoor pollutants may be tracked by people or pets into the home, where their levels become concentrated.

            Pets’ animal dander and other particles from pets with fur or feathers are a major aggravation of allergies and asthma to sensitive individuals. As people stay indoors more, so do pets that go outside during less inclement weather.

            Mold and mildew - when windows are closed tight against cold air, steam from the bathroom and the kitchen, as well as other kinds of moisture can build up in the home. Mold and mildew reproduce through spores, which become airborne and easily inhaled.

            Dust mites - because more time is spent indoors during the winter, the concentration of dust mite food - shed human skin cells - increases, as do dust mite populations. Dust mites are present wherever there is dust, including household surfaces, upholstered furniture, draperies, carpets, and especially bedding.

            Environmental tobacco smoke (ETS), or secondhand smoke, is also a major indoor air pollutant.

            Lead - lead can be present in the home as paint or dust. Older homes routinely used lead paint, and cracked or chipping paint leads to both paint chips and paint dust, both dangerous pollutants, especially if there are young children in the home.

            Here are a few tips for maintaining healthy indoor air, especially during the winter:.

            Clean regularly - dusting safely with proper cleaning equipment like dust cloths and masks, and regular and frequent vacuuming go a long way in reducing airborne pollutants like mold, pollen, pet dander, and dust mites.

            Replace furnace filters frequently - with your heating unit running during the cold winter months, your furnace filter is working hard to keep your air clean. Ensure that airflow is not impeded - or worse, that contaminants aren't being reissued into the air you breathe - by checking your filters regularly and replacing them as needed.

            Test for radon - the Surgeon General warns that radon causes lung cancer and recommends testing your home. The EPA's Web site has more information about testing for radon.

            Consider purchasing a carbon monoxide detection device to alert you to the presence of this colorless, odorless, lethal gas.

            Use non-toxic cleaning products. Especially when cleaning in the winter when ventilation is typically less, chemicals' fumes stay inside the home and on surfaces cleaned with them.

            Keep bedding clean. Wash bedding frequently (once a week) in hot water.

            Look for low- or no-VOC products when doing any hobbies or home-improvement projects. If possible, wait for spring, when you can open the windows for adequate ventilation.

            Air out and clean mold-prone areas of the home. Make sure bathrooms, kitchens, and basements, which tend to collect extra moisture and may not receive adequate ventilation, are routinely aired out, and cleaned of any mold.

            Open windows and doors when you can. When weather permits, open a window. Easy and free. Many plants are known as nature's air purifiers because of their ability to absorb toxins from the air. Just be aware that mold often grows around plants, especially if they're watered often.


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