Published on December 6, 2018

When the weather outside is particularly frightful, there’s nothing better than staying cozy and warm indoors. The inside of your home, though, may not be the best place for your health, especially in winter. In fact, indoor pollution is one of the biggest hazards to your well-being, but it can be tricky to detect.

City smog and smoke have little to do with indoor pollution, which is often unscented and invisible. Even if your home smells great, you can still fall victim to less-than-great air quality, which, in turn, cause some unexpected health risks. Luckily, though, indoor pollution is easy to tackle once you know you’re facing it, so let’s break it down.

What Is Indoor Pollution?

Anything in the air of your home that you wouldn’t want to breathe in is essentially indoor pollution. According to Marilee Nelson, cofounder of Branch Basics and environmental consultant, it is made up of a number of different particles: VOCs (volatile organic compounds), SVOCs (semi-volatile organic compounds), PM2.5s (fine particulate matter), biological contaminants, asbestos, and lead.

VOCs are aromatic fumes given off from household items (from furniture to building materials to scented personal products and laundry), while SVOCs are their odorless counterparts, which emit most frequently from plastics and other materials (like PFCs from nonstick cookware, PAHs from mothballs, and pesticides from rugs and window treatments). Fine particulate matter comes from smoke and candles, biological contaminants from bacteria and mold, and asbestos and lead from older home fixtures.

Simply put, there’s a lot of stuff in your air that you might not even think about, and it can cause adverse health effects that can vary in severity from headaches to serious illnesses, both chronic and not. Essentially, indoor pollution is an invisible problem that can cause you serious damage without you even noticing it.

How Does Wintertime Worsen Indoor Pollution?

One obvious factor makes indoor pollution even worse in wintertime: We tend to keep our windows closed. This, according to Nelson enables the buildup of VOCs, SVOCs, and particulates.

“In the winter, when there is less likelihood of opening windows, there is more chance for a buildup of contaminants, especially if the house is tight and fireplaces and fuel-burning space heaters are used,” says Nelson. “Plus, most HVAC systems recirculate indoor air and can also increase the concentration of indoor air pollutants like dust mites, pet dander, mold, and pollen if the vents, ducts, and air filters aren’t properly maintained and cleaned.”

It’s not just air quality that can affect your health, either. Wintertime is cold and flu season, and even if you stay out of frigid climates and unseemly precipitation, you can still get sick. Plot twist: Turning your thermostat up too high is just as bad for you as keeping it too low.

“During winter, outdoor air is typically drier, and the act of heating up the air in your home further reduces this moisture. Dry air raises your risk of getting sick, increases static electricity, and it can also cause your flooring, wood products, and other parts of your home to crack or warp,” Nelson says. “A simple tip? Lower the temperature a few degrees!”

How Can You Cut Down Indoor Pollution?

With so many health hazards, indoor pollution is a scary prospect—but it’s surprisingly easy to combat. Nelson stresses the importance of using nontoxic cleaning products as a first step to cut down on pesticides and synthetic fragrances.

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And yes, if you’re going to take this step, all your chemically based products have got to go. “The complete removal of toxic cleaning products and pesticides is crucial to the entire process of creating a clean environment,” Nelson says. “If you leave bottles here and there around the house, these toxic chemicals continue to undermine your health.”

For greater peace of mind, you can invest in an air purifier that removes allergens and pollutants while simultaneously offering temperature control.

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Even simpler? Just open your windows. “You can instantly improve air quality just by opening windows and providing ventilation for 10 minutes,” she explains. “Also, turn on your venting range hood over the stove when you cook to help remove VOCs and fine particulate matter. Typically, we think of air pollution as something we can smell, but the ‘dirtiest’ place in your home may be the invisible, odorless air you are breathing.”

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Once you know the hazards that might be lurking undetected in your air, you can become better educated on the steps you need to take to abate them. When it comes to your health and your home, knowledge really is power.

“Bottom line,” Nelson says, “You have the ability to control exposure to pollutants in your home, which can take a tremendous load off your body’s detoxification system, increase its capacity for handling unexpected exposures to chemicals, natural pollens, dust, and mold, and strengthen its resistance to viruses and bacterial infection.” Now that’s something you can breathe easy about.

More wellness:

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