People are restless. Honestly, who can blame them? It’s been a year since COVID-19 forced many of us to isolate at home. It’s for a good cause, though; our collective effort has helped limit the spread of the virus. But this achievement hasn’t come without sacrifice. Spending all this time at home has certainly taken a toll on our mental health, and due to the presence of indoor air pollution, it has likely also had a substantial effect on our physical health as well.
Most days, the air in our homes seems unassuming—unless you’ve recently burned dinner, it lives up to the phrase “out of sight, out of mind.” But according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), this air can actually be just as polluted as the air we breathe outside. Sometimes this can happen because outdoor pollutants manage to sneak their way into our homes, but researchers Christopher Long and Peter Valberg point out that more often than not the pollution is actually generated indoors. For example, high concentrations of gases and particles are released into the air every time we cook and clean—two activities we’ve been doing a lot more often as a result of the pandemic.
In fact, Long and Valberg explain that people are often exposed to worse air quality while standing in front of their stove than they might be when walking outside. That’s because high-temperature cooking methods (such as sauteing and frying foods) all emit high concentrations of both fine and ultrafine particulate matter. These tiny particles are small enough to travel deep into our lungs and irritate the surrounding tissue. Even short-term exposure is “causally related to increased risk of premature mortality and cardiovascular health effects.”
Additionally, cleaning products can emit a wide variety of volatile gases. While more research is needed to determine if any of these compounds can cause any ill effects on their own, we know they can readily undergo chemical reactions and produce even more indoor particles, or even form toxic gases like formaldehyde, a known carcinogen.
This all sounds dire, especially as many of us are still sheltering at home as we wait for vaccines to become more widely available. In the meantime, however, Long and Valberg explain that regulatory agencies, like the EPA, have provided three basic strategies that can be used to reduce indoor concentrations of air pollutants. First: source control. While most of us can’t avoid cooking, the EPA has a list of cleaning products that are considered safer for us and the environment. Next, improve ventilation by opening a window or turning on the kitchen exhaust fan in order to help prevent the buildup of pollutants in your home. Lastly, consider investing in a portable air purifier or installing filters in central air-conditioning systems. While it’s unrealistic to strive for a truly pollution-free environment, following these three steps can certainly limit the amount of pollution we allow to linger in our homes.