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Indoor Air Quality: Is Your Home’s Air Safe?

Here are some common culprits of indoor air quality problems— mold, smoke, candles, formaldehyde, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), carbon monoxide and radon—and what you can do about them to maintain a healthy home.
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You can go online each morning and check your city's daily air quality, the allergen rating and the ozone levels. But while you may know exactly what your hometown's air is like, you probably don't consider what's lurking in the air inside your home.

Because most people spend more time inside their home than in the outdoors, indoor air quality is an important and often overlooked consideration for the general health of everyone in your household. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that, depending on where you live, your indoor air is two to five times more polluted than outdoor air.

Why is the average American home's air so dirty? While a variety of factors and behaviors contribute to each home's individual air quality profile, the increased energy efficiency of homes is one major reason indoor air has become a problem, says Lisa Cleckner, Ph.D., assistant director of operations at the Syracuse Center of Excellence in Environmental and Energy Systems.

"Conventional thought is that as buildings were made tighter in the 1970s for energy efficiency reasons, the problems of adverse indoor air quality became more common because not as much fresh air was entering homes, offices, schools and other buildings," explains Cleckner. "People are becoming more aware of the issue and are paying more attention."

But while the problem is widespread, the causes vary from household to household, depending on the region you live in, your household's habits and even your house itself.

"There's no one test for indoor air quality issues," explains Michael Dooley, certified home inspector and owner of ESI Inspections in Albuquerque, N.M., an environmental consulting and inspection firm that specializes in air quality inspections. "It's like detective work—you often see the symptoms of a problem with health issues or home problems, then you have to work backward to determine what's causing it."

Here are a few common culprits of indoor air quality problems and what you can do about them.

Indoor Air Quality: Is Your Home's Air Safe?
Improper ventilation can encourage the growth of mold behind wallpaper and drywall.

You don't have to be the victim of flooding to have a mold problem in your home. A leaky window, an improperly vented bathroom or even a pipe with faulty insulation can cause the notorious fungus to thrive in your home. While not everyone experiences physical symptoms associated with mold problems, those who do can really suffer when it enters the home environment. "Everyone reacts differently to it," Dooley says, "but if you have a mold problem in your home, those who aren't affected by it right away can build up a sensitivity that can cause problems."

Mold often shows itself in obvious ways like discolorations, spots of spores or even as bubbles in wallpaper or drywall. But if someone in your home begins to feel sick while inside the house and better when not there, mold will probably be one of the first things to look for as a culprit because it is so common. "It can grow in 24 to 48 hours, and homes have lots of materials like Sheetrock® and wallpaper that really encourage growth," says Dooley.

If you spot a mold problem, don't reach for the bleach: the EPA recommends using regular detergent for basic remediation. If you have a big problem, however, it's best to call in a professional to get it fixed correctly. Specialists in carpet and rug cleaning or fire and water restoration usually work on mold remediation, as well, and are generally listed in the phone book. Your certified home inspector may also be able to recommend someone.

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