But how can you know if your indoor air is clean?
There is lots of information on outdoor air pollution, but what about the air in our living rooms and kitchens?
In many cases, you need advanced technology, such as carbon monoxide detectors and VOC testing devices, to know if the air is clean.
Testing the air, however, is easier than you might think, and by taking an educated approach to air testing, you can do your part to maintain a healthy indoor environment. Whether you choose a do-it-yourself option or hire a professional, testing the air helps you make the right decisions for your home.
Best of all, when the air pollution tests come back negative, you have complete peace of mind!
Why is Indoor Air Quality Important?According to the EPA, indoor air pollutants can cause a wide range of concerns ranging from immediate problems like nose and eye irritation to long-term health issues such as cancer and heart disease.
There are obvious advantages to having clean air in the home; after all, if you’re not breathing in heavy amounts of dust or pet dander, you’re less likely to suffer from bouts of coughing or complications with respiratory issues, such as asthma or COPD.
But not every air pollutant is as visible as dust. Some are completely invisible and have no smell. Some pollutants, such as lead or asbestos, have been in the building for decades. This makes them detection and removal an even greater challenge.
How is Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) Measured?Now that we understand the importance of a clean indoor environment, we can take strategic steps to create better air in the home. However, you can’t work to reduce the pollutants unless you know exactly what pollutants are floating in the air. This means you need to test the air.
When you decide to test the air for various pollutants, you have broad options: you can either conduct the test yourself or you can hire a professional. Either option is a good choice, so let’s look at a few specifics and see which choice might be right for your home.
DYI Air TestingIf you are more of a do-it-yourselfer, you will find many take-home kits that can be used to test the air in your home. These kits come in many forms and can be used to test for a wide range of pollutants.
So, what should you do if you discover a problem?
The next steps will largely depend on the results, and they can vary from slight adjustments to significant changes to the home. On the most extreme end, if you discover high levels of radon in your home, you will need to take immediate mitigation steps. You may even need to temporarily evacuate the home until the radon has been removed. However, if you simply discover a higher amount of mold spores, you can simply create a plan to tackle the issue; you certainly don’t need to leave the home.
Let’s look at the most common forms of indoor air quality tests...
Radon TestsRadon is a harmful gas that has been linked to cancer. In fact, the EPA claims that radon may be responsible for causing roughly 21,000 lung-cancer deaths every year, including about 2,900 deaths of people who have never smoked.
This tasteless, odorless radioactive gas is naturally produced by decaying uranium in the ground. It’s present in nearly all soils and very low levels of radon are found in the air we breathe every day. Radon seeps naturally from the ground and is dispersed into the air, but the problem occurs when radon is trapped in the home. If radon seeps through foundation cracks or sump holes, it can become concentrated in the home, creating a higher risk to our health.
There are a few different devices that can be used to test for radon. Many of them require short-term testing, which can range from 2 to 90 days. These include charcoal canisters, electret ion chambers, and continuous monitors. If you browse the available products, you’ll likely find that charcoal canisters are the most available. While these are useful items for gathering information, they may not be accepted as part of a real estate transaction.
Charcoal packets can be used to screen your home for high levels of radon on an annual basis. You can also use two or more packets, which are fairly affordable, to make sure the results are consistent. Radon is measured in “picocuries” per liter. If these tests show radon levels at 4 picocuries per liter or more, you will likely want to hire a professional tester and consider radon mitigation.
If you have a radon test that comes back high, the first step will be to call a radon mitigation specialist. This contractor can determine the appropriate steps for reducing the radon and eliminating the source of contamination.
In some cases, soil suction can be implemented to mitigate radon. This involves suction pipes that are inserted through the basement floor and into the rock or soil beneath the home. This creates a way for radon to escape instead of becoming concentrated in the home. Ventilators can also be used to reduce radon, as can natural ventilation.
Mold TestsLike radon, mold is all around us. If you step outside, you are surrounded by naturally-occurring mold that is, for the most part, completely harmless. The problem with mold occurs when you have mold growth in a home, usually in a damp, cool, dark location like a basement.
To reproduce, mold releases spores that float in the air. Like flowers releasing pollen, they release a large amount in the hope that some will land in a welcoming spot. These spores are the biggest problem with mold, as they can cause respiratory issues when inhaled. If you are allergic or have asthma, mold spores can be particularly troubling.
You can even use your nose to “test” for mold. Mold has a distinct musty odor that can tell you if there is growth somewhere in the home. This isn’t the most scientific method, but if you think you smell mold, then it may be time to try further testing.
Mold testing can be completed at home with a special kit. The results will need to be sent to a lab for review. Sampling air for mold spores can tell you if you have a mold problem even if you can’t see the mold colony.
Because mold spores are present outdoors, it helps to start with an outdoor base sample. This will give you a general idea of the amount of spores naturally present in the air and can help you compare the indoor results. If the results are lower than the outdoor air, you likely don’t have a problem.
If your testing comes back positive for mold, you’ll need to take specific steps to remove it. This can include using home solutions, such as watered-down bleach, or cleaning chemicals made specifically for mold. Another measure you can take is to use an air purifier for mold. Purifiers with HEPA air filters are effective for trapping mold, and UV light is another technology that is used for destroying mold. Purifiers with UV-C light pull air through a chamber, blasting the microscopic mold spores with DNA-destroying UV-C light. The result is mold spores that are unable to grow into colonies.
Carbon Monoxide TestsThis odorless, colorless gas can be extremely dangerous in the home. Because you can’t see or smell it, carbon monoxide, or “CO,” can kill before you are even aware that there is a problem.
To make the issue more serious, there are many potential household sources of carbon monoxide. These sources include unvented gas or kerosene heaters, leaking chimneys, and back-drafting furnaces. Gas and wood stoves can create a problem, as can generators, car exhaust, and tobacco smoke.
When people are exposed to carbon monoxide in low concentrations, symptoms can include fatigue and chest pain. In higher concentrations, people start to experience headaches, confusion, nausea, and flu-like symptoms. When the chemical reaches extremely high concentrations, it can be fatal.
With CO, you don’t so much test for the problem, as you monitor the problem. CO detectors act like smoke detectors, keeping a constant lookout for this harmful chemical. These detectors are installed throughout the home and should be tested regularly to make sure they are functioning properly.
Every single home should have a carbon monoxide detector, and these testers should be located on every level of the home, from the basement to the top floor. Also, if the home has an attached garage, it’s often recommended that a CO tester be placed in the adjacent room.
If the carbon monoxide detectors go off, it’s best to reset the detector and immediately call 911. Then move to fresh air, either outside or near an open window. The 911 responders will be able to make sure the home is safe, but if the alarm goes off again, you may need to have a technician inspect your appliances and find the source of the CO leak.
Airborne Lead TestsWhen you hear the word “lead,” you probably think about a heavy, solid mass of metal. It may surprise you to learn that lead is one of the six Criteria Air Pollutants that are monitored by the EPA. Microscopic particles of lead are released into the air from many sources, including ore and metal processing facilities. Piston-engine aircraft that operate on leaded fuel are also sources of airborne lead. Waste incinerators, some battery manufacturers, and utilities are all places where airborne lead can be created.
Inside the home, lead can often come from old materials and supplies, especially lead-based paint. If you have recently moved into an older home, it may be wise to test painted walls, doors, window frames, cupboards, and cabinetry for lead. While lead has largely been phased out, older buildings may contain this harmful product.
Fortunately, lead testing can be done in the home using a swab check. With these swab checks, you will score the paint with a utility knife and place a small amount of liquid chemical from the testing kit to the scored area. If lead is present, you should see a change of color in the liquid. (3M’s lead testing kit, for example, goes from yellow to pinkish-red.)
If you find lead in your paint, you may be able to simply paint over the existing surface, which can trap the lead and keep it from being released into the air. However, you may need to have the lead paint carefully removed so that future contamination is not possible. Removing or covering lead paint is especially important if you have seniors or young children in the home.
Volatile Organic Compound TestsYour indoor air can also contain volatile organic compounds, or VOC’s. This category of indoor air pollution includes many different chemicals, so there can be a variety of short and long-term health effects. VOC’s are a concern indoors, as there can be concentrations ten-times higher than outside.
Organic compounds (volatile and non-volatile) are found in all living things. VOC’s, however, easily become vapors or gases. When the carbon becomes a gas, it brings with it certain elements such as hydrogen, chlorine, sulfur, nitrogen, and other elements.
VOC’s are found in many household products, such as paints, varnish, and cleaning products. Some cosmetic products also contain VOC’s.
Testing the inside of a home for VOC’s requires home-air kits, which are designed to detect a wide range of VOC’s, including formaldehyde and other harmful chemicals.
You can also find hand-held testing devices that give you a rapid and accurate reading for volatile organic compounds. Many of these devices take a reading and are then connected to a computer where the information can be downloaded. There are also devices that can be placed in the home to continually test for VOC’s.
Some of the tests will be multifunctional, so you can use them to test for a wide variety of air pollutants. If you are experiencing physical reactions in the home, such as irritated skin or respiratory issues, but have no indication why, these tests may help you identify the source.
If you discover VOC’s in the home, you will likely need to determine which products are releasing the chemicals. Consult the labels of cleaning products, candles, air fresheners, and other products in your home that may be causing the issue.
Simple ventilation can often reduce the concentration of VOC’s in the air, but you can also use air purifiers to trap and remove these airborne pollutants.
You should also purchase products that won’t release these chemicals in the future. Choose furniture that uses solid wood rather than particle board, use unscented products, and avoid PVC products and you can reduce volatile organic compounds in your home.
Professional Air TestingIf you want a reading that is extremely reliable and trustworthy, you may consider hiring a professional for this service. The cost of this service, however, can be difficult to predict because the price is based on many factors.
First, the size of your home will affect how much the service will cost. The professional will likely need to test different rooms in the home, so a test (or multiple tests) for each room may be recommended. Your service professional may also recommend more tests if the room is significantly larger.
If you are testing for a specific chemical or pollutant, the price for professional testing should generally be less than if you are testing for a broad range of pollutants. If the test is more specific, it should also be more affordable.
Professional testing for multiple pollutants requires more samples for greater accuracy. It will also likely increase the time required for consultations, so the price could go up. However, there are many positive reasons to test for multiple pollutants, and testing for all pollutants is generally more affordable than testing each pollutant individually.
One of the main benefits for having a professional conduct the testing is that you will get accurate, reliable results. Or at least more reliable. While take-home tests and kits are generally easy to use and extremely effective, having a professional do the testing takes away some of the guess work and eliminates concern that your results may not be perfect.
If you are seriously concerned about poor indoor air quality and want accurate, trustworthy information on specific pollutants, a professional test will likely be your best choice.
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