Exploring Indoor Air Quality & COVID-19

Written on: May 1, 2021 by J. Paige Freeland

Most of us have seen images of outdoor pollution from vehicle exhaust, wild fires, pollen, industrial emissions, dust, etc. The adverse effects of such pollution on our environment and our health were brought to the forefront in the 1950s and 1960s, resulting in widespread public concern.
In response, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was formed in 1970 to protect human and environmental health. Legislation introduced by the EPA over many years has worked to clean the environment and restrict the release of pollutants in our waters and the air.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, indoor air quality was hardly a thought for many. Indoor air pollution is less obvious; however, pollution indoors can be up to five times higher than outdoors. How serious is the problem? Air pollution is estimated to have caused more than 6.7 million deaths globally in 2019.

Consider this—the average human drinks 0.5 to 0.8 gallons of water per day, and we expect the water we drink to be clean. The average human breathes 3,000 to 5,000 gallons of air each day, yet we rarely think about what we’re breathing.
Indoor air pollution
New homes are tightly sealed to save energy. Unlike Mother Nature outdoors, where the air is cleaned by sunshine, plants, wind and rain, pollutants get trapped inside. Since we spend most of our time indoors, we actually spend more time in spaces with higher levels  of pollutants.
Air pollution exacerbates allergy and asthma symptoms, causes headaches, eye irritation,  fatigue, coughing, dry skin and an inability to concentrate. Over time, people without allergies or asthma may actually develop these chronic health issues. Furthermore, poor indoor air quality exacerbates other health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, depression, stroke, obesity, chronic lung ailments and more. Environmentally you may experience excess dust, mold, mildew, strange smells, hot or cold spots within your home.
The financial costs of poor indoor air quality (IAQ) are in the billions of dollars in the U.S. alone, and can include premature death, increased health care needs, absenteeism, building remediation, elevated hospital budgets, higher energy costs, reduced work productivity and increased criminal activity.
The pandemic & pollutants
There’s no mistaking it. Just like clean water, clean air is essential to good health, comfort and the health of our home. With the advent of COVID-19, healthy indoor air has been on the minds of business owners, hospital administrators, educators and home owners alike. While many of the COVID-19 safety guidelines focus on public places, people have taken great interest to ensure the air in their homes is safe as well.
COVID-19, however, is only one of many harmful airborne pollutants potentially present inside with us. The  U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) identifies three categories of indoor pollutants: gases particulates (pollen, dust, smoke, pet dander, dust mites), and germs (viruses—like COVID-19, bacteria, pathogens, germs, fungi, allergens).
We also track pollutants into our houses on our shoes, clothes and packages. We bring it into our homes through hobbies, pets, cooking, cleaning, beauty supplies, new furniture, carpet and tobacco use. Opening doors and windows along a busy dirt road or highway lets pollutants inside.
People make many different choices about their self-care—the choice to exercise, visit a doctor, go to places of worship, enjoy the spa, eat healthy foods, go to counselors, get ample sleep, keep a clean house. We ask advice from family, friends and professionals about a whole plethora of health and well-being decisions. As such, breathing clean indoor air should be part of that entire comprehensive health plan.
HVAC systems
Whole-house air treatment products, installed with an HVAC system, exist to keep indoor air fresh, clean, pure, comfortable and healthy. They include:
• Air Filtration: Quality Minimum Efficiency Reporting Values (MERV)-rated air filters remove the smallest airborne particulates from indoor air; these are pollutants that would normally reach your lungs. The EPA agrees: When used along with other best practices recommended by CDC and others, filtration can be part of a plan to reduce the potential for airborne transmission of COVID-19 indoors. (Consult your HVAC professional before upgrading to higher MERV-rated filters).
• UV Air Purifiers degrade pathogens (like COVID), germs, VOCs, odors, bacteria and fungi. From the EPA: When used properly, air purifiers can help reduce airborne contaminants, including viruses, in a home or confined space.
• Humidifiers: Maintaining 40–60% humidity ensures moist nasal passages prevent pollutants from reaching your lungs. Proper humidity levels also reduce the spread of pathogens indoors. From the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: Studies suggest that higher humidity can enhance the body’s ability to fight off infection; that the coronavirus decays faster at close to 60% relative humidity than at other levels; and that drier air can lead to greater numbers of tiny coronavirus particles that travel farther and penetrate deeper into the lungs.

Steam humidifier control panel

• Mechanical Ventilation: This brings clean, fresh air inside while simultaneously dispersing polluted air outside. From the EPA: Ensuring proper ventilation with outside air can help reduce the concentration of airborne contaminants, including viruses, indoors.
Children, older adults, and those with chronic health conditions are most vulnerable to poor indoor air quality, but anyone can succumb to its effects. Breathing 3,000 to 5,000 gallons of air daily is not a matter of choice, but rather survival. Consider the data. We can’t choose not to breathe, but we can make a choice to Breathe Healthier™. ICM