10 steps to cleaner air and fewer asthma attacks

Photo: istockphoto.com/Dagmar heymans

According to the Asthma Society of Canada, 8.4 percent of Canadians over the age of 12 suffer from asthma. Amongst children, the number rises to 12 percent. What's worse, asthma rates have increased by as much as 60 percent since the 1980s.

Indoors sometimes the worse
While the jury is still out on the exact causes of this increase, airborne pollution is certainly a major factor. But before you close your windows to the polluted air on the street, you might want to take a closer look at the air within your home. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), indoor air is often more polluted than the outdoor air in even the largest, dirtiest cities. And the bad news gets worse: most of us spend about 90 percent of our time indoors.

Common triggers
So what exactly is in your home that might be making you or your kids sick, and what can you do about it? NoAttacks, an organization devoted to helping prevent asthma attacks, names the major culprits as dust, mould, secondhand smoke, cockroaches, cats and dogs, nitrogen oxide and chemical irritants. They can be dealt with in one of three ways: remove the source of the irritants, improve your ventilation, or purify your air. Indoor air fresheners and sprays have been proven to cause asthma attacks. They should be removed immediately.

Watch the renovations
Common building materials are also known to off-gas chemical irritants, so if you're planning a renovation, ask your contractor to use non-toxic materials and finishes. Low-VOC paints are now quite common, but also specify either non-composite materials (solid wood instead of MDF or plywood) or ask that your contractor source materials that are bound with low-VOC glues.

Check out the furnace
If you've done as much as possible to remove the source of any asthma triggers, the next step is to improve your home's ventilation. During the summer, fans and open windows can be very effective, as long as your house is clean and you're not blowing dust around. For those with forced air heating systems, hire someone to clean and seal your ducts, get your furnace tuned up, and replace your air filters regularly. Also consider a heat recovery ventilator, which replaces indoor air with outdoor air without sending all your precious heat into the neighbourhood.

The last step, which may be unnecessary, is to buy some kind of air filtration unit. The market is full of machines large and small that promise you (and often cost you) the world. Do your research before setting down $500 on a machine that may or may not work. For reliable product reviews, go to www.consumersearch.com.

Houseplants can't stand alone
And finally, a word on plants. While some people swear by their ability to clean the air, most research indicates that you'd need a lot of plants to have an appreciable effect on indoor air quality. But they can be a great support for other measures you are taking so go ahead and invest in some spider plants but may sure you follow all the other steps as well.

10 Steps to better air
Anyone serious about for ridding their home of pollutants should do all of the following:

  • Never smoke inside.
  • Clean up any mould with soap and water, and use a fan in your bathroom to reduce moisture.
  • Fix leaky plumbing.
  • Keep your house clean, but don't use harsh chemical cleaners. Nature Clean and Seventh Generation both produce a wide range of non-toxic cleaning supplies that are widely available in North America.
  • Vacuum rugs, carpets and furniture once a week, and dust with a damp cloth regularly.
  • Wash your sheets and blankets once a week, and cover pillows with dust-proof pillowcases.
  • If you have cockroaches, keep your food well sealed and your kitchen free of crumbs and spills.
  • Keep your pets outside, or at least off the furniture.
  • Make sure any combustion exhaust (from gas stoves, furnaces, woodstoves, etc.) is vented outside, and that your combustion appliances are tuned up regularly.
  • Always choose paints, cleaners, and toiletries that are scent- and chemical-free. Avoid air fresheners altogether -- they've been linked to asthma.

  • Mark Mallet is a LEED Accredited professional consultant and writer based in Vancouver. He specializes in the green building industry.