Everything you need to know about

Indoor Air Quality

Episode 1 - Particulate Matter and Volatile Organic Compounds

90% of people worldwide inhale air that exceeds recommended pollutant levels

How can you improve indoor air quality (IAQ)? Over the past few years, the topic has been brought to the forefront of public conversation. With the deadly COVID-19 virus spreading through airborne particles, large forest fires resulting in air pollution miles away from the original source, and unprecedented heat waves, causes of poor air quality have become ever more prevalent and visible.

Breathing in air that’s high in pollutants can directly impact our health and well-being. A 2017 study in Boston found that older adults faced a higher risk of premature death, even when levels of short-term particle pollution remained well below the national standards; research suggests that the U.S. can prevent about 34 000 premature deaths each year if the annual levels of particle pollution are lowered by 1 µg/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter - the standard measurement when referring to the average concentration of particulate matter in the air).

So, what can we do to ensure that the air quality at home is clean and safe? The first step is to understand the types of indoor air pollution, and how they can affect our health. In this article, we will focus on two common sources: Particulate Matter and Volatile Organic Compounds.

What is Particulate Matter (PM)?

Particulate Matter definition: PM is the term used for a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets that are suspended in the air, such as aerosols, smoke, fumes, dust, ash, and pollen.

There are different types of Particulate Matter, and it comes in various sizes. Particles with a diameter of 10 microns (PM10) or less can be inhaled and become lodged deep inside our lungs. Breathing in fine Particulate Matter with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less (PM2.5) is incredibly health-damaging as it can penetrate the lung barrier, and enter our circulatory system. Prolonged and chronic exposure to fine Particulate Matter is known to cause serious health problems, such as respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, lung cancer, and even premature death.

Fine particles (PM2.5) pose the greatest risk to health

What is a Volatile Organic Compound (VOC)?

perfume spray bottle sources of VOCs

VOCs are chemicals that can be found in many commonplace household products, such as paints, cleaning supplies, pesticides, and printers. Scented products often contain VOCs.

Many VOCs are human-made chemicals found in industrial solvents, such as tetrachloroethylene, benzene, or formaldehyde, which evaporate quickly at room temperature when released. Products that contain these chemicals can emit VOCs into the air while you are using them, or while they’re stored. In fact, concentrations of VOCs are consistently higher indoors - often up to 10 times higher than outdoor spaces. Studies show that using products that contain VOCs exposes individuals to high pollutant levels, and elevated concentrations can remain in the air long after the product has been used.  Breathing in VOCs may not be harmful in small doses, but chronic exposure can result in long-term health effects.

Common Sources of PM and VOCs

So, where do PM and VOCs come from? And how many of your daily or weekly activities affect your indoor air quality?

Particulate Matter Examples
Non-human Activities Human Activities
Pollen Smoking
Mold spores Cooking - especially when the food is fried, grilled, burned, toasted, or sautéed
Forest fires Residential wood burning: furnaces, fireplaces, and chimneys
Volcanic eruptions Burning of candles, incense, air fresheners, and diffusers
Dust storms Cleaning: sprays, dusting, vacuuming, sweeping
Motor vehicles: automobiles, airplanes
Power plants
Agricultural burning

Both categories can result in PM build-up in the air. Some non-human activities can be seasonal - such as a higher pollen count in springtime, or forest fires in summer. When outdoor air quality is poor, it’s important to ensure that your doors and windows are closed to prevent particulate matter pollution from getting into your home, and into your lungs. It’s also crucial that the air is filtered, to catch suspended particulate matter. If you have a central HVAC furnace, this essentially works as a whole home air filtration system! With the right filter, this alone can go a long way to help you improve air quality at home.

When engaging in activities that produce PM, be conscious and take precautions - like wearing appropriate protective gear, and making sure that your home’s HVAC system is activated for effective air filtration.

Volatile Organic Compounds list:

  • Paints and paint strippers
  • Aerosol sprays, cleansers, and disinfectants
  • Moth repellents
  • Air fresheners
  • Stored fuels and automotive products
  • Dry-cleaned clothing
  • Pesticide
  • Hobby supplies

 

  • Copiers and printers
  • Carbonless copy paper
  • Glues and adhesives
  • Permanent markers 
  • Building materials (eg. plywood, particleboard)
  • Perfumes
  • Hair spray 
  • New furniture 
  • Carpets

VOCs are generally released by human-made products and chemicals. These Volatile Compounds examples are just a fraction of items that release them. If something has a scent or is made of chemicals: the chances are, it’s a source of VOCs. As a rule of thumb, if you are planning to use VOC-emitting products, make sure that you’re doing it in a well ventilated area and not in an enclosed space. Off-gassing can occur once products are opened (even if the containers seem securely fastened) so try to find a safe area like a basement or secluded closet for storage.

How habits affect the indoor air quality in your home

Woman at open window ventilation fresh air improve indoor air quality

What does the word “home” mean to you? For me, it’s a word that invokes an image of a haven of comfort, safety, and relaxation. It’s a place that I like to keep clean, clear of clutter and ideally, guest-ready. Whenever I speak to other homeowners, they tend to echo these sentiments. It’s widely agreed that messes should be cleaned up to avoid bacteria colonies, and that sweeping and cleaning to get rid of dust is important.

While we focus on cleaning the various surfaces, we often overlook the impact this can have on healthy air quality at home. Because air is invisible to the naked eye, it’s easy to forget that typical chores (like cooking and cleaning) can lead to poor air quality. It’s especially easy when the thing that we’re doing - like cleaning - is supposed to have the opposite effect!

Just the other day, I was enjoying Korean-style indoor BBQ at my dining table. It was tasty and enjoyable until I received a notification on my phone from my HAVEN App - the levels of PM and VOCs in the room were at a record high, and my app was worried about me! I looked up from my meal to see that the room was indeed filled with smoke and haze. In all my excitement I had forgotten to keep a window open and have my air filters running. Rookie mistake!

The first step to improve indoor air quality is simple: awareness, and the desire to do better. Every home is different and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. The path to cleaner air involves learning more about your home, your habits and figuring what strategies work for you. It’s a journey and you’re not alone. We will be here with you every step of the way!

HAVEN IAQ Community Manager Beka Chen headshot

By Rebecca Chen, HAVEN Community Manager

📍 Vancouver, British Columbia

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Looking forward to seeing you there!

About the Everything you Need to know About Indoor Air Quality series:

We started this series to help homeowners learn more about indoor air quality solutions, so thank you for joining us on this journey. Stay tuned for the next article where we focus more on how our health is affected by PM and VOCs!

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