How to improve air quality in your home
Gas stoves, furniture, carpets and even the items in your garage might be polluting the air in your home. Here are some steps you can take to improve air quality and protect yourself and your family.
A growing body of research is revealing that gas stoves create air pollution in our homes that is bad for our health. However, stoves aren’t the only threat to indoor air quality—furniture, carpets and even the items in your garage might be releasing toxic chemicals into the air in your home. Thankfully, there are steps you can take to improve the quality of the air in your home and protect yourself and your family.
Sources of indoor air pollution
Burning methane in gas stoves releases nitrogen dioxide, fine particulate pollution and volatile organic compounds, pollutants that increase the risk of developing asthma, make asthma worse, and can cause cancer. Even when a stove isn’t turned on, it might be leaking pollutants into your home.
Other items in your house likely are degrading indoor air quality, too. Furniture or cupboard shelves made with pressed wood (such as particleboard and fiberboard) release formaldehyde, which is a respiratory irritant that can trigger asthma attacks and may cause cancer. Household products including cleaners and even beauty products can release organic chemicals that may degrade air quality. Furniture and carpets that have been treated to be stain-resistant may release toxic “forever chemicals” (per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances, or PFAS) into the air. Poorly functioning fireplaces and wood stoves can increase levels of fine particulates that can damage lung tissue.
A third major source of air pollution in your house might be your garage: if your garage is attached to your house, items kept in your garage – such as your car, gas-powered lawn equipment, cans of paint, pesticides and other chemicals – may be adding to the pollution in your home. This pollution can enter your home not only every time you open the door between the house and the garage, but also through leaks around the door, electrical outlets and even heating and cooling ducts (if the furnace is in the garage).
How to improve indoor air quality
Thankfully, there are steps you can take to improve indoor air quality and protect your health. Some require little or no money. The long list of suggestions below may seem daunting, both in terms of time and money, but don’t let that put you off. Start with small changes for incremental improvements in air quality.
Reduce sources of indoor air pollution
In the kitchen, replace your gas stove with an electric induction cooktop. That will eliminate pollution from the stove both while it’s in use and while it’s switched off. The Inflation Reduction Act provides subsidies to help with the cost of replacing a gas stove with an electric one, including wiring upgrades if needed. If that’s still too pricey, you can reduce how frequently you burn gas in your house by replacing stovetop cooking with a countertop single induction burner, an electric rice cooker, a pressure cooker or the microwave. An electric toaster oven can replace many uses of a gas oven, such as for cooking a small frozen pizza.
Elsewhere in the house, try to limit what pollutants you bring into your house with furnishings and household chemicals. For example, buy furniture made of solid wood instead of pressed wood, or look for furnishings that have been certified to have low emissions. Before you bring new furniture or carpets into your house, air them out outdoors or in your garage for several days, or even longer if you can. Seek out household cleaning products with lower levels of volatile organic compounds, with these tips from the Environmental Protection Agency. Have wood stoves and fireplaces inspected to ensure that they are properly vented and not releasing smoke into your home.
Address pollution from your garage. In the long term, electrify everything that you can: by replacing your fossil-fuel powered home heating system, car, lawn equipment and water heater with electric versions, you reduce sources of air pollution. (The Inflation Reduction Act offers financial help with buying an electric vehicle and also with electric heat pumps.) Get rid of paint, chemicals and extra gasoline that you don’t need, and in the future buy only as much as you will use immediately so you don’t have to store it. More immediately, you can limit how much pollution in your garage gets into your house by sealing all gaps between the house and garage.
Vent air pollution to the outdoors
The next step to improving air quality in your home is to increase ventilation. Good ventilation means that polluted indoor air is frequently replaced with cleaner air from outdoors. If you have a house with ductwork, consider getting a heat or energy recovery ventilation system. This air exchanger vents polluted indoor air to the outdoors, recovers the heat from that indoor air, and uses it to warm up the clean outdoor air that it brings into the house.
If your house doesn’t have ductwork, or if such a ventilation system is too expensive, there are cheaper options for increasing ventilation. When you cook, use a kitchen exhaust fan that vents to the outdoors, and open a window or door. You’ll get better air exchange if you can open two windows to create a slight cross-breeze. Elsewhere in the house, open the windows as often as the weather allows. (If outdoor air quality is bad, then these ventilation strategies will not improve indoor air quality, but typically outdoor air is cleaner than indoor air.)
You can even improve ventilation in your garage: consider installing an exhaust fan that vents air in the garage to the outdoors. And always raise the garage door before starting your car.
Filter out pollution
A third approach that can help reduce indoor air pollution is to filter the air in your home. High efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters can get rid of 99.97% of airborne particles as small as 0.3 microns. This can lower the amount of dust, pet dander, smoke, bacteria, pollen and mold in the air you breathe. (HEPA filters also can capture viruses, potentially helping to reduce COVID exposure by lowering the amount of virus in indoor air.)
If you live in a home with ductwork, use the highest quality filter your furnace can handle to help reduce air pollution throughout your house. (This advice from the New York Times’ Wirecutter or Consumer Reports can help you figure out your options. If you are stymied by a paywall, you might be able to access the information if you log into your public library’s website and use their subscription.)
In addition to an improved furnace filter, or if your house doesn’t have ductwork, run freestanding HEPA air purifiers. They cannot remove all indoor pollutants, such as volatile gases and the smallest particles, but they can lower particulate pollution and nitrogen dioxide levels. Unfortunately, marketing claims by air purifier companies aren’t well regulated and you can’t always trust the information that manufacturers provide. To find an effective purifier for the size of the space you are trying to clean, seek out reviewers who conduct independent evaluations, such as Consumer Reports and the New York Times’ Wirecutter. You can also build a highly effective air purifier from high-grade furnace filters, a fan and a lot of tape, for less money than you’d spend on a commercial purifier. You can learn about how effective and safe these are, get links to order parts, and find instructions on how to build one here.
While it may be disheartening to think of how many sources are potentially creating pollution in your home, we have plenty of opportunities to chip away at the problem. Air quality exists on a continuum, and each of us can start to make small changes to reduce pollution in our homes.
Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group
Elizabeth Ridlington is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. She focuses primarily on global warming, toxics, health care and clean vehicles, and has written dozens of reports on these and other subjects. Elizabeth graduated with honors from Harvard with a degree in government. She joined Frontier Group in 2002. She lives in Northern California with her husband and son.