Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A Fresh Air Oasis in Boston?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans spend on average 90% of our time indoors, or roughly 2.5 hours outside daily. However, the recent sub-zero temperatures keep us almost entirely indoors lately. My unique symptom of cabin fever is to fret about every chemical and toxin in our house and their impacts on our indoor air quality.

While the understanding of indoor air quality issues is evolving, the adverse impacts of poor air quality on health are well-established.[1] Unfortunately for New Englanders an accumulation of studies link poor air quality in the region to high rates of asthma, the leading cause of long-term illness in children. Even higher asthma rates are prevalent in Boston compared to the region overall.[2] Asthma itself is a concern, but it is also a symptom of air quality issues that may have other long-term affects (e.g., carcinogenicity, neurotoxicity, cardiopulmonary issues, etc.) Thus, my most recent mission is to maintain our home as a fresh air oasis in the city; an objective much easier said than done.

The existing body of available research and recommendations are ambiguous and often contradictory regarding which products are safe to have indoors as well as which methods of purifying air are effective. My fresh air oasis drifts in and out of sight in that smog. Nevertheless, the following is a summary of findings toward creating a fresh air oasis that I have accumulated thus far.

Furniture Matters


Paints, finishes, fabrics and pressed wood products (i.e., as opposed to hardwood) not explicitly labeled nontoxic or low-VOC contribute to poor indoor air quality by off-gassing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like formaldehyde. Throughout their life toxin-containing furniture contributes to unhealthy dust in a home as well. Generally hardwood, metal and glass furniture costs more and cheaper materials are more toxic, though exceptions exist. Affordable furniture is produced by IKEA which adheres to German standards, notably stricter than U.S. standards for limiting VOCs.[3] The following quote from a recent NPR segment  on plastics, applies broadly to chemical regulation in Europe compared to the U.S.

"In the United States chemicals are presumed safe until proven otherwise. That is not the case in Europe. In Europe they have what is called a precautionary approach so they air on the side of regulating chemicals that may be hazardous rather than waiting until it is basically proven 100% that something is hazardous."[4]

For this reason IKEA and other European-manufactured furniture is perhaps less unhealthy than American-branded furniture (i.e., furniture found anywhere from Target to Crate and Barrel). That said, the jury is out on what, if any, amount of off-gassing is safe. The Sustainable Furnishings Council - MA stores and Green Guard product guide are reliable sources for vendors and manufacturers of nontoxic furniture. For hardwood, metal or glass furniture on a budget, Boston Craigslist, South End consignment shops, Garage Sale and South End Exchange as well as the Sowa Vintage Market are options for second-hand furniture. The Mill Stores (with various Boston-area locations) offers cheaper unfinished hardwood furniture creating the option to apply nontoxic finishes. An economical find for storage are eco friendly and nontoxic Way Basics storage cubes which have no VOCs.

Floored by Flooring


The American Lung Association recommends against rugs and carpets in the home.

"Carpets may trap pollutants like dust mites, pet dander, cockroach allergens, particle pollution, lead, mold spores, pesticides, dirt and dust. Toxic gases in the air can adhere to small particles that settle into carpets. These pollutants may become airborne when disturbed by renovations, vacuuming or even daily activities like walking across the carpet.  In the home, children are more likely to be exposed to pollution in carpets. They spend time playing on the floor and place their hands in their mouths. Chemicals used in some new carpets, carpet pads and the adhesives used to install them . . . [may be] made with VOCs. New carpet installation also has been associated with wheezing and coughing in babies in their first year of life."[5]

We have a cat who likes to shred rugs so it was an easy decision for us not to have them. Ultimately I plan to replace the carpets that came in the bedrooms of our home with the same sustainable hardwood that is in the rest of our home. However with pre-walkers hard floors are not safe from an accident perspective. When my daughter was born, I purchased Skip Hop's foam play mat (pictured left) to protect her on the hardwood floor, and I recently purchased their brand new Funspot Activity Circles for our baby. Healthy Choices, Happy Tots identifies One Step Ahead and SoftTiles foam mats as choices free of unwanted chemicals including formamide, BPA, and phthalates. Still, some sources claim no foam mat is truly nontoxic and suggest washable cotton mats or wool carpets instead.[6] Even for families with older children, washable wool or cotton carpets (without PVC backing) are a nice option for anyone looking to create a finished look in their home as well.


Take out the Toxins

Most recommendations regarding indoor air quality center around avoidance of toxins, but what can be done to remove existing toxins in a home? Discussions regarding air purification techniques, even from the EPA, mostly confused me as the recommendations are often contradicted by other seemingly reliable sources. Below I address three ways that potentially improve indoor air quality and why they are controversial.

1. Plants: Despite oft-cited NASA reports from the late 1980s indicating that houseplants are highly effective at improving indoor air quality and reducing airborne toxins in homes, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) states there is no validity to these claims.[7,8] Regardless of their efficacy, house plants create the perception of fresh air. I am fond of the Boston Fern (nontoxic to cats) which is considered to be highly effective at removing household toxins.[8] Pemberton Farms Marketplace, a source for plants and home gardening needs in Cambridge, is dedicated to organic and healthy living.

2. Mechanical air purifiers: Portable air purifiers are controversial due to the fact that some, like ionic purifiers, actually intentionally emit ozone. Current recommendations for improving indoor air quality suggest using a vacuum with a HEPA filter and for homes with HVAC systems to use and regularly replace filters with a MERV rating 10 or higher, rather than purchasing a portable air purifier.[9]

3. Natural ventilation via open windows: Opening windows is a consistent recommendation to easily improve indoor air quality.[10] However this seems counter intuitive living in a polluted city center. In the textbook Natural Ventilation in Buildings: A Design Handbook, it is stated,

". . . pollution of outdoor air in urban areas is a frequent and rather intense phenomenon, as very high concentrations of various of pollutants are observed, mainly during the daytime. Consequently, outdoor air entering a zone may give rise to serious indoor air quality problems. In the majority of cases, the indoor concentrations of various contaminants will reach relatively high levels, resulting in poor indoor air quality, harmful not only for the occupants, but for the building materials and furnishings as well." [11]

Some cities may be cleaner than others, but specific to Boston, an architecture firm that conducted work “greening” MIT’s campus in 2002 wrote,

"Boston is a Clean Air Act non-attainment area with health advisories during the summer.  Generally, days of poor air quality coincide with hot days during which natural ventilation may not meet the cooling and ventilation requirements of the building, as higher concentrations of air-borne pollutants are associated with stable, hot air bodies."[12]

In United States environmental law, a nonattainment area is an area considered to have air quality worse than the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) as defined in the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1970, and thus hazardous to health. As of 2012 Boston is no longer a nonattainment area.[13] Still some days, most often in the summer, are subject to reduced air quality. Checking the air quality report is easy and advisable on hot days before opening windows or exercising outdoors.

Based on all of the above information that (a) opening windows is a way to detoxify indoor air, (b) poor outdoor air quality in urban areas particularly during day time hours may negate this, and (c) that Boston is susceptible to outdoor air quality issues on hot days, it is my best educated guess that opening windows in the evening on days with good air quality provided that the windows opened are not allowing any smells, smoke or other obvious pollutants to enter the home is beneficial. Note that active children and adults are considered sensitive groups and thus windows should not be opened on days noted unhealthy for sensitive groups.[14] Further, windows should always be open if using any chemicals or while conducting any construction indoors.

Remove Pet Dander, not Pets

The furriest member of A Boston Family
As a final point, furry friends receive a bad rap when it comes to allergies and asthma. News outlets report research suggesting that both dog and cat fur may potentially be instrumental in preventing allergies and asthma in young children![15] Still anyone who does suffer from allergies or asthma benefits from a reduction in exposure to triggers like pet fur and dander.

There is no denying that buying no VOC products is complicated, and sometimes costly. But it is increasingly popular to buy healthy organic and locally-grown groceries. The air we consume 24 hours each day should be at least as much of a concern. Luckily companies like Skip Hop and IKEA are catering to the climbing cohort of consumers concerned with chemical consumption (say that three times fast). If anyone has anything to contribute, particularly any local resources I may have not noted, please feel free to comment below. 

[1] "EPA's Report on the Environment 2008," U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, May 2008.
[2] The Burden of Asthma in New England, Asthma Regional Council, 2006. Results presented in this report indicate that asthma rates in New England remain consistently higher for both adults and children than in the rest of the U.S.
[3] Owens, Heidi. “IKEA Case Study,” The Natural Step Network. For more information about IKEA’s sustainability efforts see the IKEA Group Sustainability Report 2012.
[4] “The Safety of Plastics, Beyond B.P.A.,” On Point with Tom Ashbrook, WBUR, March 6, 2014.
[5] Healthy Air at Home, In-Depth Resources: Carpets, American Lung Association, Accessed March 4, 2014.
[6] “Find Safe Foam Mats for Toddlers to Play On,”, March 27, 2013.
[7] The Inside Story: A Guide to Indoor Air Quality, U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission states that, "Over the past few years, there has been some publicity suggesting that houseplants have been shown to reduce levels of some chemicals in laboratory experiments. There is currently no evidence, however, that a reasonable number of houseplants remove significant quantities of pollutants in homes and offices."
[8] Wolverton, B. C., et al. Interior landscape plants for indoor air pollution abatement: final report. NASA. September, 1989. pp 11-12.
[9] “Guide to Air Cleaners in the Home,” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Air and Radiation Indoor Environments Division, May 2008.
[10] “Open a Window to Improve Indoor Air Quality,”, January 16, 2013.
[11] Ed. Allard, Francis, Natural Ventilation in Buildings: A Design Handbook, European Commission Directorate General for Energy Altener Program, James & James, 1998. See pg 179.
[12] “Ventilation,” MIT, Greening East Campus, Archinode Studio, 2002.
[13] “Air Quality Conformity Status,” massDOT, Accessed March 11, 2014.
[14] "Air Quality Index - A Guide to Air Quality and Your Health,", Accessed March 11, 2014.
[15] Kotz, Deborah. "Owning a Dog Could Prevent Asthma and Allergies in Kids," Daily Dose, December 30, 2013. See also, Hobson, Katherine, "Can Living with Dogs or Cats Prevent Asthma in Kids?" Health Blog,,  February 25, 2011.


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