The damage outdoor air pollution is doing to our planet and our health has never been more apparent, and you could be forgiven for thinking you’re safer indoors. Sadly, you’re not. Air pollution at home can be worse than pollution found outside – which means you need to know how to improve air quality in your home.

Although the European Federation of Allergy and Airways Diseases Patients’ Associations  (EFA) estimates we spend up to 90% of our time indoors, levels of air pollutants inside homes and workplaces may be up to 10 times higher than outdoors.


Read the Wise Living guide to 6 ways to prevent condensation in your home.

What causes air pollution at home?

Such pollution is caused by many things, including chemicals used for cleaning or decorating, heating, cooking, building materials, tobacco smoke, house dust mites and pet dander. And it can be exacerbated by poor ventilation, room temperature, damp, condensation, and pollution that has come indoors from outside.

Indoor air quality is crucial for human health, and particularly important for vulnerable groups, such as babies, children and the elderly, as well as people living with respiratory and allergic diseases.

Dr Nick Hopkinson, medical director at the British Lung Foundation, says: “Everyone knows outdoor air pollution poses a serious risk to health, but people often overlook the impact of air quality within our own homes. Smoking and any other source of smoke, as well as fumes from chemicals used for cleaning, can contribute to lung disease, and one of the major problems is for people in cold, damp homes where mould can grow.”

What is ‘Toxic Home Syndrome’?

The idea that our homes can make us ill is far from claptrap (ask anybody with a lung condition, like asthma for instance, and things like indoor air quality can be extremely important) and there’s even a term for it: Toxic Home Syndrome.

“Toxic Home Syndrome occurs when individuals and families are exposed to a potent mix of airborne pollutants within the home, arising from poor ventilation, causing respiratory and skin diseases to occur more frequently,” explains Southampton University professor of allergy and respiratory medicine Peter Howarth, speaking on behalf of BEAMA’s My Health My Home campaign.

Things like mould, damp and condensation play a big part in Toxic Home Syndrome. Symptoms can include fatigue, dizziness, headaches and respiratory problems, while young children and the elderly, or people with pre-existing health problems, are often most at risk. In more serious cases, indoor air pollution could even contribute to major illnesses including cardiovascular disease and lung cancer.

How can you avoid air pollution at home?

There’s lots more information on the My Health My Home campaign website – and plenty of expert advice on how to avoid air pollution at home and improve air quality in your home.

16 ways to improve air quality at home

1. Clean your air

Make sure you have adequate ventilation in your home to take out the pollutants and moisture that can build up. All sorts of household products including candles and cleaners contain potentially dangerous pollutants, and if these aren’t removed through ventilation, they simply build up in your home.

Reduce air pollution at home by keeping things ventilated.
Reduce air pollution at home by keeping things ventilated.

Always open a window when cleaning or decorating to ensure there’s plenty of ventilation, so any pollution can escape outside. Allergy UK points out that house dust mites need moisture, and ventilation will reduce humidity. Generally opening windows, particularly in the bedroom, will ensure good air flow throughout the house, and help expel pollution created in the home by heating and cooking. “Keeping homes as well ventilated as possible to reduce the build-up of moisture from bathing and drying laundry can help,” says Hopkinson.

2. Wooden flooring

Carpets harbour dirt, dust mites, pet hair, fungus and other potentially harmful particles that can aggravate the lungs. Swapping carpet for wooden flooring makes it easier to keep clean.

3. Go green when you clean

Use eco cleaning products which have fewer toxins and pollutants in them. Non-eco household cleaners can release formaldehyde when they come in to contact with the air, a substance linked to cancer.

Choose cleaning products carefully and go green if you can.
Choose cleaning products carefully and go green if you can.

Some home cleaning and decorating products, including detergents, furniture polish, air fresheners, carpet and oven cleaners, paint, varnish and glue, can contain chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOCs), like acetone, xylene and formaldehyde, which evaporate into the air when used or sometimes even stored, says the BLF. Products labelled allergy-friendly tend to have lower VOC levels, so try using those, or even just use a damp cloth if possible. Try to use solid or liquid cleaning products, rather than sprays, as when sprays get into the air, they can be breathed in more easily and can get further down your airways.

“Overuse of cleaning products should be avoided,” advises Hopkinson, who says more rigorous research is needed before there’s certainty about the effects of breathing in chemicals in homes, although about half of studies suggest being exposed to them increases the risk of developing allergies or asthma.

4. Curtain call

Change your shower curtain regularly to reduce mold growth which releases spores and toxins into the air. These can cause or exacerbate respiratory and skin conditions such as asthma and eczema.

5. Cut the moisture

Shut the bathroom door when showering, wipe down wet surfaces, put on your extractor fan and cover your pans when cooking. Excessive moisture allows dust mites and mould to thrive, can aid bacterial growth and affect the survival of viruses.

6. Watch what you burn indoors

A ‘real’ fire, as opposed to modern central heating, might seem like an appealing style statement, but what you burn indoors could contribute to toxic air pollution at home.

“They may look beautiful as a statement feature in your living room, but wood-burning stoves, particularly older models, are contributing to the air pollution problem. So much so, the UK Government is considering banning them altogether,” says Jayson Branch, creative director at bespoke radiator company, Castrads. “As an alternative, consider a timeless cast iron radiator which won’t leave you compromising on luxury. Both the clean industrial and heavily ornate models make a striking statement in contemporary and traditional interiors.”

Burning candles and open fires can cause air pollution at home.
Burning candles and open fires can cause air pollution at home.

Consider your candle choices, too. “Candles are wonderful when you’re trying to unwind. However, though they look harmless, many scented candles use paraffin wax, which gives off the toxic carcinogens benzene and toluene when burned,” says Branch. “Opt for candles using only natural waxes like soy, rapeseed, plant and beeswax, to make your relaxation all the more satisfying.”

7. Harness some plant power

As well as looking good and nurturing a sense of calm, certain house plants could even help clean up the air in your home. Homebase’s new Air So Pure range (from £4-£10 each, Homebase) features plants with especially good air-purifying qualities, helping ‘reduce air pollutants by up to 80%’.

“The trend for bringing the outside in is still really popular, as more and more people realise the health benefits of adding a touch of greenery. Introducing plants into your home not only creates a fresh look, but it’s also a cost-effective way to naturally boost oxygen levels, improve humidity in your home and enhance your overall wellbeing,” says Homebase greenlife buyer, Gillian Bush.

The plant pros at Dobbies Garden Centres are also keen to highlight how adding greenery can help enhance the health of your home – so if you’re unsure what to go for, pop in and have a chat with the team.

Try these houseplants to help cut down air pollution at home:

Boston fern (Thinkstock/PA)
Boston fern (Thinkstock/PA)

Boston Ferns (Nephrolepis): One of the best plants when it comes to removing formaldehyde from the air. It’s non-toxic so is a great addition to any house, and the feathery ferns look beautiful spilling out of hanging or elevated pots.

Where to put it: Anywhere

How to look after it: Keep your fern in a cool environment and give it lots of attention. They thrive in bright spots but keep the soil moist and directly out of the sun.

Aloe Vera (Thinkstock/PA)
Aloe Vera (Thinkstock/PA)

Aloe Vera: Already well known for its health benefits, but one of Aloe Vera’s lesser known benefits is how well it can remove benzene and formaldehyde from the air.

Where to put it: Great for the bedroom as it produces oxygen at night time while processing the carbon dioxide in the air, giving you purer air and a chance at a better night’s sleep.

How to look after it: Water deeply every two to three weeks and let the soil dry out a couple of inches on top before watering again.

Spider plant (Thinkstock/PA)
Spider plant (Thinkstock/PA)

Spider Plants (Chlorophytum): Popular houseplants and great for eliminating significant amounts of formaldehyde, xylene, toluene and ammonia from the air.

Where to put it: Kitchens and bathrooms

How to look after it: These are super-easy to grow and will flourish in bright, indirect sunlight. They don’t need lots of attention so are perfect for those who are a bit forgetful or are just starting out.

8. Ban tobacco smoke

If anyone smokes in your home, tiny particles from tobacco smoke can drift throughout the house and remain at harmful levels for up to five hours, says the BLF. If you smoke at home, smoke outside, close the door behind you and move away from the house. Or, even better, quit!

9. Purify to reduce air pollution at home

Allergy UK says running an air purifier continually, as per the manufacturer’s instructions, can help to reduce/remove airborne allergens such as house dust mites, mould spores, dander, VOCs and smoke.

Improve air quality in your home by using a dehumidifier.
Improve air quality in your home by using a dehumidifier.

10. Keep floors and furniture clean

Pollutants like house dust mites and pet dander can settle on floors and furniture, so Allergy UK recommends carpets are kept clean using a vacuum with efficient pick up and filtration, hard floor surfaces are washed with hot, soapy water, and soft furnishings are washed regularly on a hot wash cycle.

11. Make your tile grouting water-resistant

In kitchens and bathrooms, Allergy UK recommends householders use water-resistant grouting for tiled areas, applied flush with the work surface to eliminate any chances of mould, which can cause respiratory problems.

12. Ventilate when cooking and heating

Cookers, heaters, stoves and open fires can release pollutants into your home, warns the BLF. They can release particulate matter (PM) – microscopic particles of dust and dirt in the air – and gases including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide. Even when you cook with gas or electricity, tiny easily-inhaled particles are released, particularly when cooking with gas, which can release carbon monoxide, formaldehyde and oxides of nitrogen.

To keep such pollution to a minimum, make sure the house is well-ventilated and gas heaters and cookers have a flue, chimney, or other vent that releases the polluted air outside.

12. Sweep chimneys regularly

Burning wood and coal in a stove or on an open fire releases particulate matter. The BLF says this can irritate your nose and throat, giving you a cough or breathing problems. Studies show smoke from wood heating enters neighbouring homes, too.

Sweep chimneys to reduce risk of air pollution at home.
Sweep chimneys to reduce risk of air pollution at home.

If you must burn coal or wood, says the BLF, make sure the chimneys are inspected and swept regularly by a HETAS-qualified sweep. Avoid buying a wood-burning stove or using an open fire if someone in your household has a lung condition. Install alarms for both smoke and carbon monoxide, and check the batteries regularly.

13. Service your tech

Dangerous, and potentially lethal, amounts of invisible and odourless carbon monoxide can be produced if cooking and heating appliances are faulty. The BLF advises householders to ensure such appliances are regularly maintained by a certified engineer. Install extractor fans over gas stoves and ranges, and always use them.

Read the Wise Living guide on how to choose the best new boiler.

14. Use pea shingle for plants

Cover houseplant soil in plant pots with pea shingle, to stop mould settling and forming, suggests Allergy UK.

15. Be careful with candles and incense

Candles and incense sticks emit particles and other pollutants when they burn. According to the BLF, incense sticks emit more than 100 times the number of fine particles than a candle does. However, while one candle in a room can substantially increase the particle concentration in the air while it’s burning, over a 24-hour period, the increase is minimal. Scented candles emit small amounts of formaldehyde and VOCs but if only used occasionally, they’re unlikely to pose much of a health risk.

16. Watch your radon risk

Radon is a natural colourless and odourless radioactive gas that comes from rocks and soil. The radon level in air outside is very low, but it can be higher inside poorly-ventilated buildings, and high levels can cause lung cancer. The higher the level of radon, and the longer you’re exposed, the greater the risk, warns the BLF. Indoor radon often varies from building to building. If your home is affected, UKradon has a tool to help you decide if you need to reduce the level and how – methods include creating a sump pit under the house, or introducing special types of ventilation.



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