With the president extending social distancing guidelines for the coronavirus through the end of April, and data showing a lot of states may not see their peak of COVID-19 cases until May, it’s safe to say we’ll be continuing to spend a lot of time at home.
And while you are likely disinfecting surfaces regularly, you might be forgetting to clean a critical part of your home: the air.
If you’ve been working from home and getting sudden urges to go outside for fresh air, your body is telling you something, according to Joseph Allen, director of the Healthy Buildings program and a professor of exposure assessment science at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
“This pandemic has really forced us all to think a little differently about where we spend the majority of our time,” he said. “With people following strict stay-at-home guidance, people are probably looking around their home a bit differently.”
Improving the quality of your home’s indoor air ― which can be full of pollutants, emissions and germs ― is beneficial for many reasons and important, pandemic or no pandemic. But it’s perhaps even more critical to clear the air, so to speak, during the COVID-19 crisis.
Why Your Home’s Air Quality Matters
Just because you are inside, that doesn’t mean you are protected from air pollutants.
“Right off the bat, it’s important to know that indoor air quality is not necessarily better than outdoor,” said Jane Clougherty, an associate professor in the department of environmental and occupational health at Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health. “The air quality can be complicated by traffic and industry nearby that comes inside through leaks in the home, as well as burning candles or incense, cooking on stove tops and more.”
Volatile organic compounds, called VOCs for short, are also emissions that may be lurking in your home. Common liquid and solid household products will give off these VOC gases, like paint, aerosol sprays, disinfectants, “deodorants, scented surface cleaners, plug-in air fresheners, carpets, couches,” Allen said. “We are constantly exposed.”
VOCs have been linked to some health issues. “Probably most of the evidence is associated with allergies and asthma,” Clougherty said. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, exposure to these pollutants can also bring about nose and throat irritation, headaches and migraines, and nausea. Longer-term exposure may even lead to organ damage and central nervous system issues.
Have you ever felt a boardroom or conference room was so stuffy that it was hard to concentrate or be productive? If your indoor air quality at home is poor right now, you may also find it challenging to do your work effectively. Allen’s team at Harvard has worked on research showing that with higher VOC emissions and higher carbon dioxide levels, indicating there may not be enough ventilation, decision-making and problem-solving skills tend to tank.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s also worth noting that viruses can linger in rooms through coughing, sneezing or even breathing, Allen said. “Some of these germs can float, and there are strategies you can utilize in your home to reduce the chance of transmission.”
How To Improve Your Indoor Air Quality
If someone in your home has symptoms of the coronavirus (or any other virus), Allen said it’s worth purifying the air as much as you can to avoid passing germs.
“Get outdoor air moving,” he said. “Open doors and windows as much as possible. Higher ventilation rates can be helpful in reducing the risk of viruses in general.”
Most of us are cleaning our surfaces pretty regularly. However, “over time, the use of a lot of chemicals in your home increases personal exposures to chemicals we don’t necessarily want in the system over the long haul,” Clougherty said.
This is why it is critical to get ventilation going when you use chemical cleaners and disinfectants, she added. Keep the air moving.
You should also be careful around entryways, Clougherty said, noting you should consider taking off your shoes to avoid “tracking in a lot of dirt and particles,” which can then be kicked up into your air.
Additionally, avoid overusing products like air fresheners. “Stay away from plug-ins and things that make the air smell nice,” Clougherty said. “It’s not cleaning, but rather just masking odor. Stick to simpler cleaning instead.”
Finally, pay attention to cooking with an unvented stove, as those fumes and particle levels can be dangerous over time as well.
“People probably don’t think about particle levels while cooking on stove-top, but if you are not diluting or capturing that, things can linger in the home for a long time,” Allen said. Use an exhaust hood if you have one or open windows if you don’t.
Air filters can trap viruses in addition to pollutants and particles, so make use of portable air filters if you have them, Allen said. Using humidifiers on your indoor air, as well, may be beneficial.
“Viruses generally survive longer in lower humidity,” he said. Humidity ranging from 40% to 60% is generally the sweet spot for staying comfortable and still keeping viruses at bay.
If you are sharing spaces with others, make sure to keep the doors open as much as you can to improve air flow. “If you are keeping the door closed a lot, like in a bedroom, and trapping air so it can’t move around, that’s probably not a great setup,” Clougherty said.
Beyond that, make sure you get outside as often as you can ― every day if possible. “It’s always preferable if you can get yourself to a less emissions-intense area, as well, like a park or some vacant streets,” Clougherty said.
Reducing stress through physical activity, meditation, calling friends and general self-care may also reduce the chance of adverse health outcomes associated with environmental pollutants, according to Clougherty.
“The evidence indicates both children and adults in high-stress settings are more susceptible to pollutants,” she said. “Our stress patterns have a lot to say about how susceptible we are to these pollutants, so reduce exposure, yes ― but manage your own stress, too.”