Warm and Cozy: Winterizing and Indoor Air Pollution

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Here in New England, cold weather has finally arrived, signaling to all of us that it is past time to put up those storm windows, check that weatherstripping, and lock those windows tight. But with the winterizing process, with shutting out the cold, comes a loss of fresh air in our homes.
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When we bought this house in 2000, my husband was thrilled (energy conservation engineer). This house had enough insulation for two houses, amazing windows that seal tightly, a design that was energy efficient by nature, and a decent furnace that my husband made more efficient by installing a hot water storage tank (so every demand for hot water didn’t trigger the furnace). All wonderful features that would thrill anyone concerned about conserving energy.

It also had wall-to-wall carpet except for the kitchen and bathrooms. That carpet was dated then. After a few years, I developed fairly serious allergy problems from mild asthma to cold urticaria. I had experienced two separate episodes of hives, the second being much worse than the first. And then my youngest son was diagnosed with asthma (he also attended a sick school, getting a double whammy).

After pulling up all of the carpeting, putting in hardwood floors and changing to leather furniture, we all began to do much better; however, I still struggle with strange allergic reactions to unknown irritants. With my chronic Lyme disease, this type of irrational immune response is not uncommon.

Finally, my husband identified that the house was entirely too “tight” for anyone with breathing problems and allergies. He talked about installing an air exchange system.

Winterizing means shutting out fresh air. This traps indoor air pollution inside the house, putting each member of the household (and your pets) at risk. Indoor air pollution is a huge problem here in the United States because of all of the new “stuff” we bring into our homes every week. We buy lots of plastics, new appliances, furniture, items in packaging that is made using a variety of toxic chemicals. Nonstick cookware, hair products, lotions, even those cute little air fresheners and candles that we use to make our homes smell good, all release polluting chemicals that our bodies must then deal with.

The following are a few simple steps you can take to ensure that you are breathing cleaner, healthier air over the winter.

Crack a Window

If your house is not naturally drafty (if it is drafty, ignore this section), if you do not feel a slight draft on occasion, good chances are that you do not have sufficient air exchange. Air exchange means changing out the stale air inside a home or building with fresh air from outside. Commercial buildings usually have an air exchange system built in to the heating and air conditioning systems, but single family homes typically do not, at least not up here in New England where most of us use either oil, propane or wood heat.

We have no vents in our house, just baseboard units for the oil heat system and the same connected to our wood boiler. If you have a wood stove, you typically just have heat radiating from a single source. Some people actually do use fans to circulate the heat better within the home, but rarely have I heard of a home having an air exchange system.

I keep two windows cracked just a teensy bit until I feel the slightest draft when the wind is blowing, and usually nothing when it isn’t. I know this sounds counter-intuitive to what we are being taught about making our homes energy efficient, but a completely sealed up house is not healthy for humans. There must be some way for indoor air pollution to be removed.

House Plants

I grow a fairly substantial organic garden over the spring and summer, but had given up trying to grow houseplants because of the challenges of doing so over the winter. When I lived in the southern part of the country, I always had lots of houseplants — I love green, growing things.
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I recently read a chapter in my Environmental Science textbook on indoor air pollution and was reminded that I need to take as much care with the air in my house over the winter as I take with what I feed myself over the summer. It was time for houseplants.

NASA published an excellent article entitled, “Plants Clean Air and Water for Indoor Environments.” Scientists found that Volatile Organic compounds (VOC) and other pollutants that off-gassed from a completely-synthetic, sealed environment were almost completely removed when a substantial percentage of the interior was devoted to growing indoor plants.

I was in one of those large home improvement stores the other day to pick up a housewarming gift for a new friend, so I grabbed the only pothos plant they had. It was reasonably priced and in good health. I still need to give it a bath to wash off whatever toxic pesticides they sprayed on it before shipping, but it is here in my house removing pollutants and releasing fresh air. I plan to pick up at least one houseplant a week until I have a nice variety and enough to offset the mostly-closed environment we live in during the cold months in New England.

Shop Thoughtfully

Thanksgiving is next week and Christmas is right around the corner. This means lots of shopping, lots of packages, lots of new things entering your home. Consider the nature, chemical composition and packaging of any item you purchase this holiday season. This might mean NOT buying a bunch of cheap stuff, wrapping paper, shiny bows, stuff in plastic packaging, and lots of chemicals. Everything new you bring into your home off-gases. This means lots of toxic chemicals enter your home and its air which are then breathed in by family members (and your pets).

Consider packaging when choosing items. Consider buying in bulk, or buying items that don’t have extensive packaging. Think about the impact each purchase you make this year can have on your home’s air quality and that of the ones you are bestowing gifts.

If you have never visited your local health food store and checked out the bulk bins, this might be a good time to do so. You could buy a case of pint-sized canning jars, buy some organic tea, herbs, yummy treats, and more, put them in canning jars and wrap in a cloth napkin tied up with a cloth ribbon.

Try to avoid anything that is made from plastic, has strong dyes or a foil appearance. Think natural. Think organic (meaning from nature).

Gift your friends with air-purifying houseplants this winter. Give them a pound of organic coffee or chocolate or a unique extract.

Rosemary plant I grew outdoors over the summer. I just brought it indoors and placed it in my south-facing bay window where it will purify the air inside my home.

Rosemary plant I grew outdoors over the summer. I just brought it indoors and placed it in my south-facing bay window where it will purify the air inside my home.


Buy a package of brown paper bags (like lunch bags) to use as gift bags, tied up with a fabric ribbon.

Think outside the box, so to speak, while shopping this holiday season.

Oh, and as much as we love our Christmas trees, what are live cut trees sprayed with? What are artificial trees made from? I have an older artificial tree (actually 3 small ones) that I might use this year, or I might cut down a small bare sapling and decorate that instead.

But I need that new 60-inch flatscreen TV

I hate to tell you, but all of that amazing new technology that we buy, the latest television, that new computer, even that gaming console, are made using toxic chemicals, and they will off-gas after you take them out of their boxes.

You might consider unboxing and leaving that product in a basement — but who is going to do that?

Okay, buy a bunch of large houseplants and place them around that new technology. That should help.

Sigh.

Sustainably Produced, Non-Toxic Products

Again, my science textbook provided some interesting information on the availability of products manufactured with the goal of being environmentally safe. What a novel concept! Products that don’t contain carcinogens and benzenes and formaldehyde. Why didn’t anyone think of this before we were all exposed to hundreds of toxins by the time we were born.

Many furniture chains are selling low-toxicity furniture and products that were made with sustainability in mind. If you must buy new furniture before the holidays, please keep in mind that furniture, especially, will off-gas lots of dangerous chemicals.

One solutions is to buy vintage and antique furniture that has not been refinished recently. It is better to buy a piece of furniture and refinish it yourself using low-toxicity products than to buy a new piece of furniture unless it is certified low-toxicity.

Green Guard is a certification organization created to ensure the low-toxicity of products in particular.

Keeping in mind that new products are made using chemicals, most toxic to humans, and that those products will off-gas after they are brought into your home (even the packaging they come in), can direct each of us to thoughtfully choose what we purchase.

Flame Retardants

Flame retardants are made with chemicals that are toxic to humans. And, sadly, they have not been proven to actually accomplish anything worth the chemical exposure.

When my children were little, I bought all-cotton underwear for them that I then used as sleepwear. When I moved up here, I bought those really warm sleepers made from who knows what and treated with who knows what dangerous chemicals. If I had known what I know now about the chemicals that are used to make flame retardants, I would have sewn sleepers from organic fleece for them.

Since this blogger wrote such an amazing article on flame retardants in children’s sleepwear, I will just link to that article instead of regurgitating all of the carefully-compiled information.

Flame retardants are toxic to humans, period.

Consider buying all-cotton underwear such as Carters union suits (I loved these things) and layering them as a way to avoid using synthetic fabrics in children’s sleepwear, most of which are treated with flame retardants. It is the law that any loose sleepwear, such as little girls’ night gowns, be treated with a flame retardant. Simply avoid those kinds of sleepwear.

Read Labels

Although manufacturers are not required to label the chemicals used in the making of a product’s packaging, you can read labels on sleepwear, cookware, furniture, and so on. Ask salespeople where products are manufactured before purchasing, and then do a little internet research into products made in that region. Research companies, distributors, and then, as a first resort (not as a last resort by any means), use common sense. If a product is made from a synthetic of any kind, it will contain toxic chemicals. Most furniture is treated with something before it leaves the factory. Fabrics are treated with sizing, so wash linens, towels, and clothing immediately.

Here is a great article on fabric treatments that are toxic. Eye opening to say the least.

You know that new car smell Americans love to love? That is a myriad of materials off-gassing all at one time. This happens in your car and it happens in your home. It can even happen in your office space. Keep some indoor plants in your own workspace, too.

We can deal with indoor air pollution through some simple and inexpensive actions and choices. I will be working on my home’s air quality. I hope you think about doing the same in your home.

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4 responses »

  1. hey michele! not sure this is going to get to you…but i’m trying. i tried to comment but since i let my real food roundup blog go, i no longer have wordpress login. i was saying that one other thing i would suggest is a himalayan salt lamp. it is supposed to help w/ emf in the house. so by electronics might be a good idea, if it doesn’t interfere with it. but i love your article and you are right on. i need to get some house plants, tho right now with the dry heat, it may not be a good idea. cuz i’m not good at remembering to water. looks like you are progressing with your school! i’m so proud of you and inspired by you. keep up the great work!

    gigi

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    • Great to hear from you Gigi! Sad that you didn’t continue with your food blog. I still make your tomato soup recipe as my kids ask for it specifically. I will research EMF pollution. There is light pollution, EMF pollution, chemical pollution, etc. inside our homes.

      Dry heat and houseplants can be a problem, the main reason that I stopped trying to keep them during the cold months. But that is when we need them the most. I actually plant to write a post on keeping indoor plants which will, hopefully, address the issues of that warm, dry air. The plants in my living room are not only in a house which is very dry, the baseboard heating unit is right below my bay window. They get direct sunlight and heat from the baseboard. I will need to create some humidity for those plants.

      School is going well, but this has been the most challenging semester because of personal issues (broke bone in elbow and am recovering from the flu now on top of chronic fatigue). Hanging in there, though.

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  2. Wow…alot of information! Good info. Its too bad that we need it now-a-days. Geeze everything is tainted or a problem one way or another. Now I hear that our rice is mainly arsnic tainted in the united states. Sure its off topic but its one more issue. Oh…indoor plants really help with the air in a home for sure. I think winter or not a house should be aired out…I do it quite a bit.

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    • Yep, arsinic is the main reason I don’t eat much rice anymore, which is tragic as brown rice is an amazing food. We are about at the tipping point with the environment and the earth. It will soon reach a point where it cannot recover. So sad.

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