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Indoor Air Pollution and How to Clean the Air in Your Home

You may not realize it, but the air quality in your house can make you sick.  Sometimes it is difficult to tell that the air you’re breathing is filled with pollen, toxins from household chemicals, environmental factors like smog, and other factors.  You may experience seasonal allergies, and the air quality in your home can make the symptoms worse. There are ways you can clean the air in your home, and you may be surprised at how you feel afterward.  

What is Indoor Air Quality?

According to the EPA, indoor air quality is the air within and around a building or structure.  Your health can be affected by the quality of the air you breathe, and while you cannot control the environment outside, you can certainly try to improve in-home air quality. Advanced age, a chronic health condition, or other sensitivities can worsen a person’s reactions to poor air quality. 

Causes of indoor pollution and poor air quality 

  • Asbestos and lead
  • Beauty and hygiene products
  • Carbon monoxide released from fuel-burning stoves, heaters, and appliances  
  • Dirty air filters
  • Household cleaners and fragrances
  • Lack of air circulation
  • Mold, mildew, and dust mites
  • New carpeting, furniture, or paint 
  • Outside smog, smoke, or other air pollution
  • Pesticides 
  • Pollen and dust 
  • Secondhand smoke from cigarettes, cigars, or vaping products 

Some of the sources of indoor pollution can worsen with heat and humidity.  Environmental factors, including living in an urban area, a highly polluted region, and places where wildfires occur, can also contribute to bad air quality.

What are the health impacts of poor air quality?

Bad air quality due to indoor pollutants can cause a range of health issues – both acute and chronic. It is also a trigger for many chronic illnesses, including autoimmune disorders.  

  • Asthma
  • Cardiovascular diseases
  • Cough
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Hormone imbalances 
  • Increased risk of morbidity and mortality
  • Irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat
  • Respiratory diseases 
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing


Air Quality and Immune Function

According to the Institute for Functional Medicine, air pollutants are particularly hard on those with autoimmune disorders and can cause inflammation and increased permeability of the airways. Your airways carry oxygen to your lungs and are made up of the mouth, sinuses, larynx (voice box), trachea (windpipe), and lungs.  

Studies show that those with diabetes are particularly vulnerable to the effects of air pollution, although researchers are not sure why.  Evidence shows that it may be due to the mechanisms of proinflammatory responses when exposed to air pollutants.

Another autoimmune disease that seems to be more affected by air pollution is rheumatoid arthritis.  Those with RA are more sensitive to exposure early in life; even a single exposure can have long-term effects and increase arthritis rates.

How to Clean the Air in Home to Improve Air Quality

The good news is you can improve the air quality in your home and dramatically reduce the number of pollutants in the air. Sometimes it is just as easy as removing one thing in your home!  


This Common Household Item Flared Up My Patient’s Multiple Sclerosis

One of my patients had multiple sclerosis (MS), but it had been in remission for quite some time. She was doing very well. One day she came to me saying, “For the last few weeks, I’ve been having a flare-up and I don’t know what happened.” She had extreme brain fog and memory issues. She was feeling weak and couldn’t move around or exercise comfortably. We brainstormed on what could be the cause. Dietary changes? Stress? Poor nutrition? A recent gut infection? What we finally figured out was that she had bought a new mattress. Mattresses emit toxic gases, especially flame retardants and VOCs. When she got rid of the mattress, all of her brain and neurological symptoms vanished. She was back in remission and feeling good again.


Air purifiers to the rescue

Air purifiers are a significant first step in removing pollen, dust, and other toxins from the air.  It is a good idea to use them in the rooms you are in the most, like the bedroom where you spend one-third of your life sleeping

Choosing a HEPA air purifier for your home can be a journey, but choosing the best option in your budget is adequate to start filtering your air and breathing easier.  HEPA filters are a type of air filter that can remove at least 99.97% of dust, pollen, mold, bacteria, and any airborne particles with a size of 0.3 microns (µm) or larger.

Become a Plant Mama

Air filters are the best for filtering out dust, pollen, and pollutants along with microbial and antifungal properties, but plants are also known for their air-purifying benefits.  Some of these include Boston fern, spider plant, pothos, peace lily, and Chinese evergreen.  

In addition, some plant-based essential oils can help clear the air at home and add fragrance yet do not contain the toxins that air fresheners contain.  Tea tree oil, lemongrass (use sparingly), pine, spruce, and citrus oils are good places to start.

Open the windows or close your windows (depending)

Air can become stagnant if it isn’t circulating, meaning pollutants can linger as well. If you live in an area where the air outside is clean and you don’t have seasonal allergies – opening the door and windows to air out your house can be just the thing you need.  If you live in a polluted region, have a high pollen count, or suffer from frequent wildfires, you may opt to keep all doors and windows closed at certain times to limit your exposure.

Freshen your air naturally

Air fresheners may seem harmless, and there are so many choices – wall plug-ins and sprays – but they can wreak havoc on your body.  Even the ones listed as “natural” and “unscented” can be toxic.  Air fresheners contain phthalates, which can be breathed in or land on the skin and absorbed when pumped into the air.  In addition, they may contain other pollutants, including formaldehyde, limonene, ethanol, acetone. Researchers have detected up to 133 different VOCs or volatile organic compounds in a single product!  

Symptoms caused by air fresheners and household fragrances include:

  • Migraine headaches
  • Asthma 
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Respiratory difficulties
  • Mucosal symptoms
  • Infant diarrhea
  • Infant earache
  • Neurological problems
  • Ventricular fibrillation
  • Skin problems
  • Cognitive problems
  • Immune system issues

One of the most concerning health risks is hormone-disrupting chemicals, according to Jodi Flaws, Ph.D., the director of the Interdisciplinary Environmental Toxicology Program at the University of Illinois. “They can interfere with the production, elimination or binding of any hormones in the body.” Female fertility can be impaired by the toxins found in these fragrances, and even cause polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).  Endocrine disruptors bind to hormone receptors, interfering with healthy estrogen and testosterone balance.  Studies show exposure to phthalates can disrupt menstruation, cause ovulation dysfunction, and increase the risk of endometriosis. They have also been found in amniotic fluid and may increase the risk of preterm delivery as well as poor growth and unhealthy cardiometabolic outcomes in children later on. 

Phthalate exposure has also been shown to cause diminished sperm count and lower sperm quality in men.  

Instead, freshen your air with non-toxic air fresheners – essential oil diffusers are usually a good option, boiling spices and citrus fruit on the stove, or search online for non-toxic alternatives. 

Get romantic with soy or beeswax

Candles are wonderful for setting the mood, whether that is a romantic dinner or some self-care – but the hidden truth is candles are incredibly toxic. Most of them are made of paraffin wax which is a petroleum waste product that is chemically bleached.  When burned, they create highly toxic benzene and toluene fumes that are known carcinogens. Also, many scented candles have lead core wicks instead of cotton or paper – releasing five times the amount of lead considered hazardous for children.  Candles also contain phthalates and have a similar health impact as air fresheners.  

Instead, choose non-toxic options such as beeswax or soy candles and make sure they have a paper or 100% cotton wick.  

Clean those filters

Dirty air filters are also a cause of poor air quality. They trap dust, dirt, pollen, bacteria, spores, and pet dander.  If you have central heat and air, that little air filter is essentially your whole-house air filtration system. Some experts recommend changing them every 30-90 days. Make sure you regularly change your HVAC filter, vacuum filter, and humidifier filter. Also, have your ductwork checked and cleaned.

Reduce indoor air pollution

Minimizing exposure to toxins can be as simple as removing toxic items from your home and replacing them with less harmful options.

  • When getting rid of rugs, mattresses, couches, and other furniture, choose non-toxic replacements.
  • Take a look at your makeup, hair products, skincare, and other hygiene products.  Many contain toxic chemicals that can add up quickly.  Choose products that are natural or DIY beauty treatments.  
  • Many household cleaners are full of toxins. This EWG consumer guide lists common household products, ranks them for toxicity, and gives natural non-toxic alternatives.  
  • Use low toxic paints. Zero or low volatile organic compound (VOCs) paint is better for indoor air quality. Choose non-toxic building materials for home improvement projects.  

Clean more often

  • Vacuum and mop your floors to decrease the amount of pollen and dust in your home.
  • Wash your bedding and rugs more often.
  • Dust with a damp cloth or microfiber cloth so you don’t push dust back into the air.

Your dog or cat

Your pets can also bring air pollutants into the house, like pollen.  Giving them baths more often and brushing them outside instead of in your home can help.

Reduce seasonal allergies by purifying your indoor air

Improving the air quality in your home can take time and effort, but it’s well worth it.  Improve your family’s lung health and reduce allergy symptoms by filtering your air, bringing in fresh air, and using healthier alternatives to air fresheners, candles, and home improvement supplies. 


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Board Certified in Integrative Medicine
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