Breathe Easy: Healthier Indoor Air in Cold Weather, Part 1

Indoor air quality typically deteriorates during the colder months, but small fixes can make a big difference. In this four-part series, we go room to room to see how to improve indoor air quality. In the first part, we look at your primary living spaces – the foyer and mudroom, and the living room.


In much of the country, winter means you can’t let fresh air into your house. But without it, the quality of the air inside your home goes down.  

Weatherproofing your house doesn’t solve the problem. It just means the pollutants have nowhere to go. In fact, the air indoors can be two to five times more toxic than the air outdoors. Worse, most people spend much of their time indoors in winter.

It’s no wonder respiratory health problems may spike during cooler weather. Children suffer the most, because their developing lungs are particularly vulnerable to exposure to toxic chemicals.

Poor indoor air quality has a variety of causes: chemical off-gassing from furniture and appliances, plus odors, pet dander, mold, smoke and the chemicals in household products. The result can be colds, coughs, skin irritation, rashes and even asthma, which afflicts one in 10 kids. Lead from old paint can also be an issue. Lead exposure in children can result in learning and memory impairment, and behavior problems.

The good news: Small but significant changes can improve the quality of the air in your home. In this series, we’ll go room to room, looking for ways you can make indoor air healthier.

Let’s start with the entryways.

You may think of dust as a nuisance or cleaning issue, but it’s a pollutant. It can be especially harmful to children because they spend more time on or near the floor.

House dust is a mixture of dirt, dust mites, dander, pollen and other particles. Chances are lead dust has gathered, too, especially in homes built before the 1970s. To make matters worse, dust may also contain chemicals emitted by furniture, electronics, plastics and fabric.

Dust gets into a house the way people do – through the foyer or mudroom. Your first line of defense against it is to use doormats that are regularly cleaned, plus extra-long mats inside to capture the worst of it before it gets inside completely. You can also institute a no-shoes policy to cut down on the pollutants tracked in.

In addition, at least twice a week, vacuum using a machine with a high-efficiency particulate air, or HEPA, filter, making sure to clean the filter regularly. Follow with a damp mop and plain water to pick up any excess. You can also dust with a damp cotton or microfiber cloth. (For more ways to contain dust, visit our Healthy Living: Home Guide.)

Now let’s move to the living room or den.

A carpet is a nice surface for your kids to play on and feels cushy under your feet. But it’s not the best flooring option when it comes to indoor air quality.

Wall-to-wall carpets are nearly impossible to keep clean, trapping dust and other pollutants like dander and mold. You can mitigate the problem by vacuuming at least three times a week.

But even if you can remove all the dust, carpets can also contain an array of harmful chemicals – in the fiber, backing, padding and glue, and in flame-retardant and stain-resistant, waterproofing treatments. Some give off harmful emissions of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. Anti-stain and water treatments can cause cancer, reproductive problems and other health problems. Your best bet is to remove the carpet altogether and replace it with wood or tile flooring.

Furniture can also worsen air quality. Like carpet, upholstery is often treated with chemicals that are similarly harmful to people and the environment. Foam cushions can also be a problem because they’re made with petroleum chemicals that can emit VOCs. Natural latex foam cushions are the best alternative. As with your carpets, make sure to vacuum regularly to control dust.

And with furniture, it’s not just the upholstery that can be a source of contaminants. Plywood, particle board and composite wood frames can also emit toxic chemicals. Your best choice is solid wood, but if you do need to select a different option, our Healthy Living: Home Guide lists some standards to look for.

In Part 2, we’ll look at how you can clean up the air in your kitchen and bathrooms.

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