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How — and when — to check indoor air quality in your home

If you are coughing, short of breath, wheezing or have chronic headaches, you may need to become a detective

(The Washington Post illustration; iStock)

Whether you are working remotely, home-schooling or simply hunkering down as the weather gets cooler, spending more time in your home means you’ve had a chance to get up close and personal with all of its quirks. And that may have you wondering, “What is that smell?” or, “Why do I start coughing when I work in my spare room that was converted into an office?”

One possibility: Your home’s indoor air quality (IAQ) could be less than ideal.

Mold, radon, pet dander, tobacco smoke and carbon monoxide can negatively affect your health. “We spend most of our time indoors, so that air is just as important as that on the outside,” says Albert Rizzo, a pulmonologist in Newark, Del., and chief medical officer for the American Lung Association.

Radon, an odorless, colorless gas, is the second leading cause of lung cancer behind smoking. Carbon monoxide, if left unchecked, can be deadly. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are emitted by building materials and household products, can exacerbate respiratory conditions. Other particulate matter may cause shortness of breath, chest congestion or wheezing. It is also linked to an increased risk of cardiological events, says Jonathan Parsons, a pulmonologist at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center. With all these health hazards potentially lurking, what can homeowners do to make sure the air around them is safe?

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Do I need to test my air?

If you are buying a home, any IAQ issues, especially radon, will probably be noted during the presale certified home inspection. Beyond that, Parsons doesn’t advise patients to have their home air quality tested without cause. “In my clinical experience, most triggers are detected by reviewing a patient’s medical history,” he says. “Poor air quality is real, but most issues are obvious: pets, a wood-burning stove, mold on a wall, things you can see. If you buy or remodel and find a major mold issue, then obviously you need to take care of it, but a spot of mold in your bathtub or on the carpet is easy to self-manage.”

In most cases, the Environmental Protection Agency also doesn’t recommend general home IAQ testing. “Each indoor environment is unique, so there is no one test that can measure all aspects of IAQ in your home,” a spokesperson for the agency wrote in an email. “In addition, no EPA or other federal limits have been set for indoor air quality or most indoor contaminants; therefore, there are no federal standards to compare the results of sampling.”

But if you are coughing, short of breath, wheezing or have chronic headaches, you may need to become a detective. “I ask homeowners to keep a daily journal,” says Jay Stake, president of the Indoor Air Quality Association (IAQA). “Do you feel off when you walk into the kitchen, but good in the office? This helps zero in on the problem and may save you money over having a full indoor air-quality assessment.”

Rizzo agrees. “Be observant. Is there something or someplace that makes your symptoms worse or better? Ask yourself, ‘What has changed in my home? Is there water damage or new carpet? Have I switched detergents or cleaning products?’ One drastic option: Leave your home for a few weeks and see if your symptoms improve,” he says.

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Getting an evaluation

If amateur sleuthing still leaves you stumped, what should your next step be? You’d think it would be simple: Find an indoor air-quality specialist who can diagnose your home from roof to basement, then fix any issues. Unfortunately, though, inspection and/or remediation are not easy one-stop shopping, according to Edwin Bender, vice president of marketing for Broan-NuTone, a company that manufacturers ventilation products. Although there are generalists who may be able to conduct a broad assessment, you’ll probably need a specialist in mold, radon, VOCs or other pollutants to deal with any problems, says Bender, who works with the Indoor Air Hygiene Institute.

To find a reputable indoor air-quality specialist, look to organizations such as the IAQA, the American Industrial Hygiene Association or the American Board of Industrial Hygiene (ABIH). Their websites often have a tab labeled “Find A Pro” or “Find Consultants.” Bender also suggests asking local real estate agents for recommendations, because they are probably connected with home inspectors who can suggest a specialist.

When you interview a potential IAQ assessor, ask these questions: How long have you been in the industry? Will you be looking at the full spectrum of IAQ issues, or do you have a focus? What certifications do you hold? Will you be available for consultation after the report comes in to interpret the results? Will you be available after any work has been done to confirm the problem is really fixed?

Dealing with specific contaminants

If mold is the issue, look for someone who has completed industry-approved coursework in mold investigation from the ABIH or the American Council for Accredited Certification (formerly the American Indoor Air Quality Council). Inspectors should work independently of a mold remediation company, and they should tell you whether your problem has a DIY solution or whether you need a pro. “Sometimes, all you need is a visual inspection to find an indicator of moisture or mold, and mitigation can be as simple as cleaning it off,” Stake says. Hiring a pro should be considered if the area of contamination is large or behind a wall, according to the EPA.

Because you can’t see, smell or taste radon, it can easily be overlooked, especially by homeowners who have been in their spaces for years. Testing is the only way to know whether you and your family are at risk. Radon test kits can be purchased online or in home improvement stores for less than $20. If you aren’t comfortable using a home test kit and want to find a pro, contact your state radon program. The EPA has a webpage to help you find qualified professionals in your state.

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Don’t panic if radon has been detected. Virtually any home can be fixed by sealing and/or caulking the foundation and having an exhaust system that’s designed to work best for the type of foundation your home has: basement, slab-on-grade, ground-level concrete or crawl space.

Want other suggestions? The EPA has a page devoted to indoor air quality and how to improve it.

The bottom line

You’re probably wondering how much this is going to cost. There is no definitive answer. “That would be equal to asking what a car repair would cost without diagnosing it first,” Stake says. “Prices vary by locale, the problem, the size of your home and the methodology to remove the contamination or clean it up.”

The good news is that, for the most part, there are safe and affordable ways to ensure good indoor air quality. It’s often easy to recognize the problem and take steps to fix it yourself, whether it’s diluting cleaning products, dusting on a regular basis or spot-cleaning mold. Keep the relative humidity in your home between 30 and 50 percent. Install carbon monoxide detectors. Test for radon. Use portable or whole-house air purifiers.

Bender suggests turning on the bathroom fan when you’re in the shower or tub and running it for 20 minutes after to reduce the humidity and prevent the growth of mold and bacteria. And when you’re cooking, turn on the exhaust fan to draw out smoke and particulate matter. “Using ventilation devices to bring fresh air in and get bad air out is such an easy thing,” he says.

“Look into an air-quality sensor,” he adds. “You can find them for carbon monoxide, humidity, VOCs and particulate matter. These devices make sense, but they can’t do everything.” If you do find a fixable issue — such as mold around a toilet waterline — address it before it grows into a bigger problem.

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