Monthly Archives: August 2022

A Clean-Air Kitchen Checklist

A Clean-Air Kitchen Checklist

It’s clear from the amount of money and size of kitchens nowadays that the kitchen is where people spend a lot of time.  Big islands, comfortable chairs and features like coffee bars and wine coolers make it easy to stay and chat while the host cooks up a delicious meal.  The problem is that some things get overlooked in kitchen design and maintenance, so that hidden appliances may be making your air dirtier than your guests would expect! 

Kitchen exhaust vent

We’ve previously posted about how cooking and baking can raise fine particulates and VOCs in your kitchen to levels of a polluted city.  The best defense against spreading them to the rest of the home and breathing them in is to use your kitchen exhaust vent.  The problem is that the exhaust vent filter is often overlooked, and a clogged filter strains the vent motor and can throw particles right back into your kitchen.  Here’s where it’s important to a) check whether your vent is recirculating or exhausting to the outside, and b) clean the filter!

When I first learned about combination microwave/vent hoods, I thought, these are space-saving genius.  Being a moderately tall person, I could easily lift items in and out of the microwave, the unit was not taking up any counter space, and it doubled as a stove vent hood.  However, the more I used the one in my current home, the more disappointed I was with it.  Here are the problems with most microwave/vent hood combos:

  • The ventilation can exhaust directly back into the kitchen.  That’s right, those little grilles above the microwave door are the exit point of the exhaust fumes, which don’t get a lot of filtering before they come straight back into the kitchen.  The other option is to exhaust outside, which is far better.
  • Microwave/vent hood combos typically do not provide the cubic feet per minute (cfm) ventilation that a standard size kitchen requires, and what little you get can be further reduced if there is more than one turn in the ductwork above the unit to the outdoors.  
  • Although it’s a common situation, placing the microwave on a countertop is not a great installation either, because cooking gasses generated in the microwave are vented directly into the kitchen with no filter. 

Here’s what we recommend to get the cleanest air while you cook:

  1. If you have a combination microwave/vent hood, check two things:
    1. Does the vent hood provide the correct cfm for your kitchen?  Here is an article to help you calculate whether it’s sufficient for your kitchen.  If you don’t know the cfm of your unit, type the model number into an internet search.  If your unit does not have the necessary throughput, consider placing the microwave elsewhere and getting a more powerful standalone vent hood.  In this case proceed to #2.
    2. If the cfm is sufficient, does the microwave/vent hood exhaust back into the kitchen?  Place a microwaveable container in the microwave with some water and start to heat it.  Place your hand over the grille above the door and see if you can feel a stream of air moving into the room.  
      1. If so, then the exhaust is probably set to exhaust into the kitchen.  If you own your home and you want to change it to exhaust outside, it’s possible to take the microwave down from the wall and change the exhaust configuration.  Here’s a short video on how to rotate the blower fan of the microwave, which will change the exhaust port configuration.  This change necessitates installing a duct above the microwave and vent port outside, however.  For the venting, check this video
      2. If you are renting or otherwise can’t change the configuration of your microwave/vent hood exhaust to outside, then do your best to clean the filter on a regular basis so that cooking particulates can be trapped before they’re blown back into the room.
  2. Congratulations if you are upgrading to a standalone vent hood (our choice for the best kitchen atmosphere)!  Here are some tips to split up the microwave and vent hood and make each perform well.
    1. If budget is not a constraint, vent hoods now come in a “balanced” option, which means they not only suck fumes from your kitchen, but these are replaced with fresh air from outside.  Check out this smoke test on such a unit. 
    2. For normal budgets, good kitchen vent hoods can be purchased between $200-500 (here is a great review on the newest models, but be sure to pick one that vents externally!)  In addition to capacity, it’s also wise to get the quietest fan you can afford so that you won’t be annoyed with the sound.
    3. Now, where shall we place the microwave?  Most kitchen design professionals are happy to place it anywhere in the kitchen except the countertop, but then venting it back into the room is still polluting your indoor air.  Besides the moisture emitted from cooking steamy foods like rice or potatoes, some foods emit a lot of ultra-fine particles (UFPs).  Popcorn is one of these; in this study it was discovered that UFPs and PM2.5 generated by microwaving popcorn were 150-560 and 350-800 times higher than the emissions from microwaving water, respectively. About 90% of the total particles emitted were in the ultrafine size range.  To avoid releasing these harmful particles into your kitchen, here are the best scenarios for venting the microwave.
      1. Install it in cabinetry with a dedicated vent to the outdoors.  No questions about getting the vapors out in this case!
      2. Install it in a lower cabinet space next to the stove.  That way, steam and UFPs exhausting from the top of the unit can be drawn up and out by the range hood. “Drawer” microwaves are becoming more popular now (see photo below). 
      3. (Least effective, but still possible) Set the microwave on the counter next to the range hood but 2 feet away from it, for heat safety concerns. 

The last two options require manually turning on the range hood every time you use the microwave, but if you have a nice quiet vent hood, this shouldn’t be a problem.  

Microwave Drawer installed next to the oven/stove (source: Home Depot)

Refrigerator coils

It’s pretty obvious when the refrigerator needs cleaning: food spills inside and dirty fingerprints outside get the most attention.  However, the most important part (the working “guts” of the fridge) is easy to overlook, except for some dust gathering on the toe kick grill.  On most newer models, the cooling coils are hidden under the fridge, and all kinds of dust (especially if you have a shedding pet) will gather there and clog up the vital cooling parts. The coils should be cleaned every six months to one year to keep the fridge working properly, and keep the accumulated dust out of your air. Here’s how to clean it without a lot of hassle (realtor.com):

  • If the coils are not exposed at the back of the unit, then remove the toe kick panel in the bottom front to expose them.
  • Use a vacuum cleaner with HEPA filter (you don’t want to blow that dust back into the air) to vacuum off as much dust as you can reach.
  • Use a coil cleaning brush to get between the rows of coils, keeping your running vacuum nearby to suck up dislodged dust. 
  • Clean off the front grille with the vacuum and soap and water if necessary, and reinstall it.

The Dishwasher

Ahh, the dishwasher–what a super-convenient place to hide dirty dishes.  My cousin (an engineer) always joked that in his new house, he’s going to install 2-3 dishwashers and no cabinets.  Why?  Dishwashers are way cheaper than cabinets and no one likes to unload the dishwasher.  When you can have 1 “clean” and 1 “dirty” dishwasher at all times, you can take clean dishes from the clean one, use them and place them in the dirty one, and theoretically no cabinets are needed!  Somehow, I think his wife will have a problem with no cabinets…

Back on topic, dishwashers are appliances that use steaming hot water and caustic detergent, but are not vented to the outside.  Where does all that steam and vaporized detergent go?  Into your kitchen air, of course!  Hayward Score is a company which identifies the major issues in your home that can impact your health and gives you free personalized actionable recommendations to fix them.  They performed a study on how bad dishwashers are for your indoor air quality, and found out that it was really the “heat and dry” cycles, not the soap, that caused air quality problems.  They placed an air quality monitor in the room adjacent to the kitchen and ran the dishwasher three times:

  • Dishwasher run with standard soap, heat and dry cycle on = Air Quality: RED ZONE (bad)
  • Dishwasher run with no soap, heat and dry cycle on = Air Quality: RED ZONE (bad)
  • Dishwasher run with standard soap, heat and dry cycle off = Air Quality: BLUE ZONE (good)

Based on these results, the soap was not causing elevated levels of VOCs but high temperature combined with chlorinated water was.

When your home is supplied by city or community water, these systems typically use a lot of chlorine to keep bacteria out.  I mean, A LOT–often you can turn on the tap and it will smell like a swimming pool coming out of your faucet.  Heat and dry cycles can reach temperatures of 160 deg F or more, which when contacting chlorinated water, produces chloroform.  The chloroform can drift through your home farther than the steam does, hence the bad air quality readings taken in the next room. 

The solution to good air quality while running your dishwasher?  If your tap water is sufficiently hot to sterilize (above 120 deg F), then don’t use the heat and dry cycle settings.  Also, run your kitchen exhaust vent during and 30 minutes after the dishwasher cycle, to move steam and any other gasses outdoors.  If your tap water is below 120 deg F, then it’s a good idea to use the heat cycles to make sure everything is sanitized, but make sure to run the kitchen exhaust vent simultaneously.

Toasters, Crock Pots, Air-Fryers, Electric Skillets and all their cousins

We have a lot of miscellaneous appliances hidden in the cabinets or sitting on the countertops, which can put a lot of fine particulates and VOCs into the air when using them.  Toasters are one of the worst offenders, and start emitting toxic fumes from the moment you turn them on (University of Texas at Austin study), because they are heating up the leftover bits from previous foods, including oils.  Toasting two slices of bread caused twice as much air pollution as is seen in London for 15 to 20 minutes – meaning three times the World Health Organization’s safety limit. (dailymail.co.uk)  The solution?  Set them as close as possible to your range (2 feet away is safe if you are using the range also) and fire up that kitchen exhaust fan.  Heck, chopping your onions next to the kitchen exhaust fan can even whisk away the chemical irritant that they release to make you cry (syn-Propanethial-S-oxide).

With a good exhaust fan and little cleaning you can spend as much time as you like in your kitchen without worrying about what’s floating around in the air! 

Photo by Jimmy Dean on Unsplash

How to repurpose common appliances into air purifiers

How to repurpose common appliances into air purifiers

When you think of air purifiers, sometimes placement takes a role in the decision-making process.  Where do you place it? What if you could repurpose an existing appliance in your home and turn it into an air purifier, for double duty?

Ceiling Fans

Purifan has been in business since 1998, and the purifier industry has obviously exploded since then because of the coronavirus pandemic.  This company has found a way to convert your ubiquitous, ordinary ceiling fans into air purifiers.  There are many different kits available, but the basic installation involves removing the paddle blades from the ceiling fan, bolting on the Purifan’s brackets, and then attaching the Purifan.  The Purifan cleans and circulates more than 2,000 cubic feet of air per minute, which means it cleans the air in a 20′ x 20′ x 8′ room every 90 seconds.

If you don’t go with a Purifan, you can still use your ceiling fan to filter the air.  BioStrike is the maker of these ceiling fan filters, which remove a surprising amount of dust from the air!

Kitchen Exhaust Fan

This one only works if your over-the stove exhaust is operating in recirculation mode, not venting mode. Microwave/vent hoods have the option to recirculate inside or vent outside. In order to know what yours is doing, turn on your kitchen exhaust fan and place your hand above the door to feel if it is blowing air back into the room.   Although recirculating inside is not an ideal setup (because gasses from cooking/baking are being filtered and thrown back into the room instead of vented outside), you can make your exhaust fan do double duty and use it not only as cooking exhaust, but when you are not cooking, use it as an air purifier.  Charcoal replacement filters are available for many vent fans; here is how to replace them: 

  • Check to see if your vent hood exhausts back into the room.  If not, don’t proceed with these steps as you will be only purifying air to send it outside!
  • Remove the filter at the inlet to the exhaust vent hood (on the underside). 
  • Measure and order new filters with charcoal in them.  Amazon has many of them, and you can search with your vent’s make and model number.
  • Clean the filter thoroughly (here’s a video that gives 3 non-toxic ways to do it)
  • While the cleaning agent is working on the filter, clean the surrounding  intake area of the exhaust fan. 
  • Replace the filter until your new charcoal ones arrive. 

To make the vent act as an air purifier, run the exhaust fan several hours a day while you are not cooking in order to purify air in your kitchen.

Make a reminder on your calendar to change this filter at the recommended interval (or more often if you don’t cook a lot)!  Most charcoal filters are not reusable.  If you want to upgrade and change the configuration of your venting to outside, check out our post here.

Registers/Vents

Although using the vents as air purifiers requires the air handler fan to be set to always “ON”, this is a good move because it improves air circulation in the home, reducing stagnant air and the relative humidity of soft furniture (aka mold “food”).  Adding filter media to the registers can be very simple:

We all seem to be juggling several jobs at once, so why shouldn’t your home appliances do the same? 

A Clean-Air Kitchen Checklist Copy

A Clean-Air Kitchen Checklist

It’s clear from the amount of money and size of kitchens nowadays that the kitchen is where people spend a lot of time.  Big islands, comfortable chairs and features like coffee bars and wine coolers make it easy to stay and chat while the host cooks up a delicious meal.  The problem is that some things get overlooked in kitchen design and maintenance, so that hidden appliances may be making your air dirtier than your guests would expect! 

Kitchen exhaust vent

We’ve previously posted about how cooking and baking can raise fine particulates and VOCs in your kitchen to levels of a polluted city.  The best defense against spreading them to the rest of the home and breathing them in is to use your kitchen exhaust vent.  The problem is that the exhaust vent filter is often overlooked, and a clogged filter strains the vent motor and can throw particles right back into your kitchen.  Here’s where it’s important to a) check whether your vent is recirculating or exhausting to the outside, and b) clean the filter!

When I first learned about combination microwave/vent hoods, I thought, these are space-saving genius.  Being a moderately tall person, I could easily lift items in and out of the microwave, the unit was not taking up any counter space, and it doubled as a stove vent hood.  However, the more I used the one in my current home, the more disappointed I was with it.  Here are the problems with most microwave/vent hood combos:

  • The ventilation can exhaust directly back into the kitchen.  That’s right, those little grilles above the microwave door are the exit point of the exhaust fumes, which don’t get a lot of filtering before they come straight back into the kitchen.  The other option is to exhaust outside, which is far better.
  • Microwave/vent hood combos typically do not provide the cubic feet per minute (cfm) ventilation that a standard size kitchen requires, and what little you get can be further reduced if there is more than one turn in the ductwork above the unit to the outdoors.  
  • Although it’s a common situation, placing the microwave on a countertop is not a great installation either, because cooking gasses generated in the microwave are vented directly into the kitchen with no filter. 

Here’s what we recommend to get the cleanest air while you cook:

  1. If you have a combination microwave/vent hood, check two things:
    1. Does the vent hood provide the correct cfm for your kitchen?  Here is an article to help you calculate whether it’s sufficient for your kitchen.  If you don’t know the cfm of your unit, type the model number into an internet search.  If your unit does not have the necessary throughput, consider placing the microwave elsewhere and getting a more powerful standalone vent hood.  In this case proceed to #2.
    2. If the cfm is sufficient, does the microwave/vent hood exhaust back into the kitchen?  Place a microwaveable container in the microwave with some water and start to heat it.  Place your hand over the grille above the door and see if you can feel a stream of air moving into the room.  
      1. If so, then the exhaust is probably set to exhaust into the kitchen.  If you own your home and you want to change it to exhaust outside, it’s possible to take the microwave down from the wall and change the exhaust configuration.  Here’s a short video on how to rotate the blower fan of the microwave, which will change the exhaust port configuration.  This change necessitates installing a duct above the microwave and vent port outside, however.  For the venting, check this video
      2. If you are renting or otherwise can’t change the configuration of your microwave/vent hood exhaust to outside, then do your best to clean the filter on a regular basis so that cooking particulates can be trapped before they’re blown back into the room.
  2. Congratulations if you are upgrading to a standalone vent hood (our choice for the best kitchen atmosphere)!  Here are some tips to split up the microwave and vent hood and make each perform well.
    1. If budget is not a constraint, vent hoods now come in a “balanced” option, which means they not only suck fumes from your kitchen, but these are replaced with fresh air from outside.  Check out this smoke test on such a unit. 
    2. For normal budgets, good kitchen vent hoods can be purchased between $200-500 (here is a great review on the newest models, but be sure to pick one that vents externally!)  In addition to capacity, it’s also wise to get the quietest fan you can afford so that you won’t be annoyed with the sound.
    3. Now, where shall we place the microwave?  Most kitchen design professionals are happy to place it anywhere in the kitchen except the countertop, but then venting it back into the room is still polluting your indoor air.  Besides the moisture emitted from cooking steamy foods like rice or potatoes, some foods emit a lot of ultra-fine particles (UFPs).  Popcorn is one of these; in this study it was discovered that UFPs and PM2.5 generated by microwaving popcorn were 150-560 and 350-800 times higher than the emissions from microwaving water, respectively. About 90% of the total particles emitted were in the ultrafine size range.  To avoid releasing these harmful particles into your kitchen, here are the best scenarios for venting the microwave.
      1. Install it in cabinetry with a dedicated vent to the outdoors.  No questions about getting the vapors out in this case!
      2. Install it in a lower cabinet space next to the stove.  That way, steam and UFPs exhausting from the top of the unit can be drawn up and out by the range hood. “Drawer” microwaves are becoming more popular now (see photo below). 
      3. (Least effective, but still possible) Set the microwave on the counter next to the range hood but 2 feet away from it, for heat safety concerns. 

The last two options require manually turning on the range hood every time you use the microwave, but if you have a nice quiet vent hood, this shouldn’t be a problem.  

Microwave Drawer installed next to the oven/stove (source: Home Depot)

Refrigerator coils

It’s pretty obvious when the refrigerator needs cleaning: food spills inside and dirty fingerprints outside get the most attention.  However, the most important part (the working “guts” of the fridge) is easy to overlook, except for some dust gathering on the toe kick grill.  On most newer models, the cooling coils are hidden under the fridge, and all kinds of dust (especially if you have a shedding pet) will gather there and clog up the vital cooling parts. The coils should be cleaned every six months to one year to keep the fridge working properly, and keep the accumulated dust out of your air. Here’s how to clean it without a lot of hassle (realtor.com):

  • If the coils are not exposed at the back of the unit, then remove the toe kick panel in the bottom front to expose them.
  • Use a vacuum cleaner with HEPA filter (you don’t want to blow that dust back into the air) to vacuum off as much dust as you can reach.
  • Use a coil cleaning brush to get between the rows of coils, keeping your running vacuum nearby to suck up dislodged dust. 
  • Clean off the front grille with the vacuum and soap and water if necessary, and reinstall it.

The Dishwasher

Ahh, the dishwasher–what a super-convenient place to hide dirty dishes.  My cousin (an engineer) always joked that in his new house, he’s going to install 2-3 dishwashers and no cabinets.  Why?  Dishwashers are way cheaper than cabinets and no one likes to unload the dishwasher.  When you can have 1 “clean” and 1 “dirty” dishwasher at all times, you can take clean dishes from the clean one, use them and place them in the dirty one, and theoretically no cabinets are needed!  Somehow, I think his wife will have a problem with no cabinets…

Back on topic, dishwashers are appliances that use steaming hot water and caustic detergent, but are not vented to the outside.  Where does all that steam and vaporized detergent go?  Into your kitchen air, of course!  Hayward Score is a company which identifies the major issues in your home that can impact your health and gives you free personalized actionable recommendations to fix them.  They performed a study on how bad dishwashers are for your indoor air quality, and found out that it was really the “heat and dry” cycles, not the soap, that caused air quality problems.  They placed an air quality monitor in the room adjacent to the kitchen and ran the dishwasher three times:

  • Dishwasher run with standard soap, heat and dry cycle on = Air Quality: RED ZONE (bad)
  • Dishwasher run with no soap, heat and dry cycle on = Air Quality: RED ZONE (bad)
  • Dishwasher run with standard soap, heat and dry cycle off = Air Quality: BLUE ZONE (good)

Based on these results, the soap was not causing elevated levels of VOCs but high temperature combined with chlorinated water was.

When your home is supplied by city or community water, these systems typically use a lot of chlorine to keep bacteria out.  I mean, A LOT–often you can turn on the tap and it will smell like a swimming pool coming out of your faucet.  Heat and dry cycles can reach temperatures of 160 deg F or more, which when contacting chlorinated water, produces chloroform.  The chloroform can drift through your home farther than the steam does, hence the bad air quality readings taken in the next room. 

The solution to good air quality while running your dishwasher?  If your tap water is sufficiently hot to sterilize (above 120 deg F), then don’t use the heat and dry cycle settings.  Also, run your kitchen exhaust vent during and 30 minutes after the dishwasher cycle, to move steam and any other gasses outdoors.  If your tap water is below 120 deg F, then it’s a good idea to use the heat cycles to make sure everything is sanitized, but make sure to run the kitchen exhaust vent simultaneously.

Toasters, Crock Pots, Air-Fryers, Electric Skillets and all their cousins

We have a lot of miscellaneous appliances hidden in the cabinets or sitting on the countertops, which can put a lot of fine particulates and VOCs into the air when using them.  Toasters are one of the worst offenders, and start emitting toxic fumes from the moment you turn them on (University of Texas at Austin study), because they are heating up the leftover bits from previous foods, including oils.  Toasting two slices of bread caused twice as much air pollution as is seen in London for 15 to 20 minutes – meaning three times the World Health Organization’s safety limit. (dailymail.co.uk)  The solution?  Set them as close as possible to your range (2 feet away is safe if you are using the range also) and fire up that kitchen exhaust fan.  Heck, chopping your onions next to the kitchen exhaust fan can even whisk away the chemical irritant that they release to make you cry (syn-Propanethial-S-oxide).

With a good exhaust fan and little cleaning you can spend as much time as you like in your kitchen without worrying about what’s floating around in the air! 

Photo by Jimmy Dean on Unsplash

What is Third-Hand Smoke? Is it Dangerous?

What is Third-Hand Smoke?  Is it Dangerous?

Smoke smells take a long time to dissipate.  I have bought wooden furniture, clothing, an SUV, and a couch from smokers (with months to years between these purchases) and I remember thinking at the time, this is not too bad.  This thought probably occurred after my sense of smell had already been deadened in the smoker’s home.  Then, I put the item in my car (or drove the SUV home) and thought, Ok, I just need to air it out well. Then, I got to my unscented home and realized WOW!  It was bad.  What do I need to do now?  Throw it out?  I had to give the couch away, but other things were salvageable.

For someone who is conditioned to recycle and reuse, throwing an item away may seem like an extreme measure, but you should consider what is making the smell.  It’s called third-hand smoke.  Smoke released in a room or car contains nicotine toxic chemicals like nicotine that clings to walls, clothing, upholstery and other surfaces (mayoclinic.org). Results of a study published in 2010 found that when this nicotine reacts with nitrous acid in the air, it forms carcinogens, which are compounds that can cause cancer. (health.clevelandclinic.org)  It’s not clear how much damage third-hand smoke does to our bodies, but it can cause DNA breaks and is thought to be more dangerous to children.  Clearing third-hand smoke is not as easy as wiping down and airing out the item, because the “off-gassing” may occur over years. 

Here are some examples of how to clean smoke-contaminated items:

Ozone generators: ozone is a proven way to remove smoke from surfaces.  For years, hotels and auto detailers have relied on ozone generators to remove smoke from hotel rooms and cars quickly (in a matter of hours).  Because there are three oxygen atoms in an ozone molecule, it is unstable, and the extra oxygen molecule will break away and bind to other molecules, converting them to safer, less odorous molecules.  In the high concentrations that are needed to remove smells, the EPA warns that ozone can cause damage to our health, plants, rubber, electrical wire coatings, fabrics, and the dyes and pigments in some artwork.  Therefore, it’s not safe to breathe and should only be used for 2-4 hours and then the space sealed off for some time before ventilation (up to several days for maximum effect).  (washingtonpost.com)

To get the most effectiveness out of the ozone treatment, all surfaces in the room or car should be thoroughly cleaned first, then you can use an ozone generator like this one to finish the smoke removal in small spaces.  The end of this video describes the safe use of the ozone generator in a car.

Vehicles:  Like couches and furniture, seat cushions don’t give up the smell very easily.  Here is an excellent video that recommends Citrol 266 used in a specific way to remove smoke permanently from fabric (NOT for use on plastics).  

It’s important to realize that when the car ventilation is running, smoke can pollute the cabin air filter.  It’s best to replace the filter with a new one.

If the item is small and relatively inexpensive, you could consider tossing it and accepting the loss.  However, whole homes can be contaminated with third-hand smoke, and although costly, rehabilitation is quite possible.  

  • Carpeting and drapery is sometimes successfully cleaned with Citrol 266 at a 10:1 dilution (see video for application tips–don’t use on wood or plastics), or by using an ozone generator.  If not, these soft items should be removed and discarded because the chemicals from the smoke have penetrated to the padding, which is not accessible.
  • If removing and replacing the drywall is not an option, walls can be painted to seal in the odor by carefully cleaning and priming them before painting.  This article gives advice from a professional painter and while the cleaning solutions and primer he uses are not non-toxic, the cleaning solution is washed away and the primer (BIN) solvent completely evaporates and can be covered by any low-VOC paint.
  • Ventilation ducts may have to be replaced if they are internally insulated.  
  • If you can clean the flooring with water and cleaner, it may take several rinses to get all of the nicotine and residual chemicals from the surface.  Vinegar can be helpful in this process.  If the flooring cannot be cleaned by water, such as hardwoods, you can seal it with a number of safer products (see this article).  Professional remediation is possible but may require chemical stripping or sanding, which can release a lot of PM and VOCs.  As a last resort, you may need to budget flooring replacement! 

Photo by Daniele Fotia on Unsplash

Monitoring air quality for the sake of the youngest

Monitoring air quality for the sake of the youngest

There are so many things to avoid when you’re pregnant.  Alcohol and smoke are some of the top offenders, causing birth defects, neurodevelopmental disorders, pre-term birth and low birth weight.  Did you know that air pollution is also dangerous to expecting mothers and their infants?   

Of course, air pollution includes tobacco smoke, but it’s more than that.  Here are some of the other types of air pollution that pregnant women and newborns may be exposed to (marchofdimes.org):

  • Asbestos, carbon monoxide, ozone and radon
  • Chemicals (including cleaning product fumes) and smoke from factories
  • Dust, mold and pollen
  • Fumes from paint and strong chemicals

These pollutants can impact the lung development of a fetus, making them more susceptible to diseases and conditions like asthma and obesity later in life.  Here are some specific ways babies are impacted:

  • Both babies whose mothers smoke while pregnant and babies who are exposed to secondhand smoke after birth are more likely to die from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) than babies who are not exposed to cigarette smoke. (cdc.gov)
  • Pollution from vehicle traffic has many different toxins in it.  In particular, sulfur dioxide (SO2) is a big contributor to infant death according to a 2019 study in the UK and Wales.  The risk of infant death was 19% higher with increaseing SO2, compared with 7% higher with increased exposure to nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and 4% higher with increased exposure to PM10.   

There are several ways to protect yourself while pregnant, and your infant after they are born (UT Southwestern Medical Center).

  • Check outdoor air quality at airnow.gov and avoid being outside when the air quality is low.
  • Add an air purifier with HEPA filter to your home and/or office, because although inside is safer than outdoors on a low air quality day, pollution like PM2.5 infiltrates buildings that are not highly sealed.
  • Stay away from smoke, including second-hand, third-hand and wildfire smoke.  

Knowing what we do about indoor air pollution, here are some surprising sources of indoor air pollution:

  • Cooking: Fine particulates can cause your kitchen to have worse air quality than many cities when you are using the stove, oven and/or toaster!  Make sure to use a kitchen exhaust vent that exhausts outside while cooking, baking and for 30 minutes afterward while the stove cools down.
  • Cleaning: switch over to non-toxic products so that you’re not putting harmful VOCs and chemicals into the air and onto surfaces.  TotalClean is a multi-purpose wonder cleaner for non-toxic cleaning, odor and stain removal!
  • Candles:  Still incredibly popular, conventional candles can release a number of toxins including phthalates used in fragrance (an endocrine disruptor) and formaldehyde (a known carcinogen). (madesafe.org)  Try switching over to essential oil sprays and simmer pots to get the scent without the toxins (see our post).

Little lungs take time and clean air to develop properly, so it’s important to give them the best chance!

Some small plants can make a big difference!

Some small plants can make a big difference!

I have to admit that this post was inspired by an episode of Alone.  One of the participants boiled “Reindeer Moss” to eat.  That made me wonder, is moss good for anything else?

You will never see some of the best plants at filtering air pollution when strolling through the aisles at the local garden center or nursery.  Why?  Well, they just aren’t…popular.  If we only knew what they could do, maybe they would take front and center stage!

Moss: Ok, you may see moss at the garden center but it’s typically only used as a decoration to cover bare soil.  A couple of German entrepreneurs think it has a lot more to offer than decoration.  They have launched their business to bring moss walls to cities across Europe and around the world.  Moss walls are available in three configurations for installation in temporary or permanent displays.  Why moss?  

  • The moss walls filter up to 82% of fine dust from the air flowing through them.
  • Water vapor evaporates from the leaf surface of the moss, creating a cooling effect of up to 4 degrees C (about 7 deg F)
  • The moss wall also removes up to 355 kg of CO2 every year.

To make the most out of this amazing plant, fans draw in air through the moss and sensors monitor the health of the plants, providing automatic watering.  Sounds like we could use moss walls in the US!

Plankton: Unless you are a fish enthusiast, plankton is not usually very convenient to keep in your home.  Enter the Bio Orb, a glass container of bioluminescent phytoplankton, plankton that can produce light at night and fresh oxygen during the daytime.  Pyro Farms, is the maker of the Bio Orb, a glass sphere with a flat bottom and a specially designed stopper to allow air exchange but prevents excessive evaporation.  The Bio-Orb provides the ideal environment for growing PyroDinos (the bioluminescent phytoplankton) at home, in the office or at school.  (pyrofarms.com)  Scientists estimate that all plant-plankton (phytoplankton) are responsible for more than 70% of the air we breathe, so keeping plankton in your home, school or office offsets your personal carbon output. (earthsky.org)

Source: (pyrofarms.com)

Lichen: I remember learning about this plant in biology and probably geography.  Pictures of reindeer munching on lichen in the tundra come to mind.  What I don’t remember learning is that it’s not actually just a plant, but a combination of two or three organisms: a fungus and green algae or cyanobacteria, often both.  The fungus provides the structure that determines the shape of the organism, while the algae and/or cyanobacteria  provide photosynthesis to feed both the fungus and the algae/bacteria.  There are three types of lichen growth, which have various abilities to absorb pollutants and concentrate heavy metals (hobbyfarms.com).  They are like natural sensors in the environment to tell us about the pollutants in the air. 

  • Crustose lichens are flat; since they have the least amount of surface area to absorb pollutants, they are the most abundant.

  • Foliose lichens have a leafy shape and tend to stand off the substrate (wood, rock, etc) a bit.  They have a little more surface area so are a little less tolerant to air pollution.

  • Fruticose lichens are like tender, miniature shrubs, having the most surface area.  These only thrive in pristine areas with minimal air pollution.  

Next time you are on a walk, look for moss and lichen.  They are small plants that can make big contributions to healthy air!

Two "Moss Trees", source greencitysolutions.de

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Going with your Gut

Going with your Gut

For several years now, I’ve been more aware of my health and doing my best to preserve it.  In the second half of 2020, I had a major health incident that “reset” my digestive system and life.  For reasons still unknown (mold? fiberglass?), I had lymph node swelling and pain in many places throughout my body, and I became very sensitive to gluten and lectins.  My energy plummeted and my active lifestyle generally slowed down to a crawl.  I’ve since regained some energy but my diet is still very limited.  A lot of HypoAir clients or their family members can relate to having these kinds of “limitations”.  How do we go forward?

I don’t want to make this article about all the symptoms, although many of my daily decisions are made to avoid symptoms.  I do want to talk about awareness and respect for the limitations of my body as I approach 50 years old.  Even if you are a super-healthy 30-something, it’s time to stop thinking that you are invincible!  The saying “the mind is willing but the body is weak” should be amended to “the mind is aware that the body is mortal”!

Yes, I used to be the one who rarely wore dust masks when sanding or spray-painting, pushed the envelope of squeezing working time into my week, and ate whatever I wanted to. Being thankful for all the knowledge I’ve acquired at HypoAir, it’s time to apply that knowledge to my own life.  Notwithstanding viruses, weather conditions and quantity of sleep, there is validity to the theory that if I feel “off”, it very well may be the air I’m breathing or the food I ate.  Here are some of the mental checks that can help to diagnose the source and correct the situation:

Your nose knows.  

  • If you’re smelling it, it’s already in your bloodstream.  For example, sometimes it’s easy to smell a gas leak, because the gas company adds a harmless odorant called “mercaptans” to help us know when it does leak.  That’s great, but what do we do after that first whiff?  We sniff around some more to try to find the source of the leak!  By the time you’ve determined where it is the strongest, you have probably already inhaled a good amount of the more harmful bulk of the gas, which may contain up to 21 toxins (wbur.org).  Similarly, the smells of car exhaust or gasoline mean that the harmful gasses have already entered our bloodstream by being absorbed through the lungs.  The takeaway?  Stop inhaling deeply and get out of the area as soon as possible.

  • Unless a product’s ingredients are listed and they are non-toxic, “good” smells can be deceiving.  Opt for the unscented, because you can usually add essential oils to make a wonderful scent of your own!  

  • “Stale” does mean too little ventilation.  Crack the window (if there is good quality air outside) and see what a difference it makes in the scent of the room, as well as your thinking ability (check out our post on CO2). 

  • “Musty” does mean mold.  According to the EPA, the musty smell is microbial volatile organic compounds (mVOCs), which means that mold is already growing in the building.  If you also check the humidity of the musty room and find that it’s high (above 65%), you can confirm your diagnosis with great accuracy even before finding the mold.

  • Listen to your body!  “Sick” buildings are not apparent to everyone, but your body will tell you when the building is not healthy for you.  For example, I worked once a week in a store where I had seen water coming through the ceiling after a hard rain.  Certain parts of the store smelled musty, and I tried to avoid staying too long in them.  Yet, fatigue was a routine part of my 4-hour shift.  When I started developing severe headaches after only several hours in the store, I knew I had to tender my resignation.  My health was not worth the small income that the job yielded. 

We really are what we eat (and what we eat it in).  

  • Is that dark stuff mold?  Yes, mold can hide in “fresh” food that you’ve just opened.  For example, nuts can be contaminated by mold and mycotoxins, which can get into the shell through the stem opening, or during storage after the nut is shelled.  Moldy nuts are particularly dangerous because they harbor a fungus called Aspergillus flavus, which, "produces one of the most deadly toxins known to humankind. The toxin accumulates in the liver and can cause liver cancer.” (Dr. Patrick Hickey, mold expert, bbc.com)  If the shells are intact and there’s no mold on the outside, you should be fine. 

    • Soaking the nuts in salt water removes mold and pesticides and makes them easier to digest.  Soak only the amount of nuts you will eat in a few days.

    • This article also recommends soaking nuts but then drying them to store them.

    • Here is a list of other foods that may be high in mold and what to do about them.

  • Not only does fast food contain ingredients that don’t play well with our bodies (like potassium bromate, propylene glycol, TBHQ, calcium sulfate, phosphate additives and BHT)(eatthis.com), even the wrappers have chemicals that do damage, like PFAS and phthalates. (cnn.com)

  • If it doesn’t look like the foods it came from, put it back!  Would you eat food that’s already been digested?  That sounds disgusting, but many foods on the supermarket aisles qualify to be in this new category: ultra-processed foods.  Ultra-processed foods are packaged foods that have been made by food companies using many manufactured ingredients, rather than actual foods. Those ingredients are combined in some way to make something that is edible, but it in no way maintains the integrity or nutritional content of the original foods. (mdanderson.org)  It’s best to limit these foods because they cause weight gain and have little nutritional value.  Examples are soft drinks, chips, chocolate, candy, ice-cream, sweetened breakfast cereals, packaged soups, chicken nuggets, hotdogs, fries and more. (heartandstroke.ca) Here is a chart that shows how these are made:

Source: mdanderson.org

  • Listen to your gut!  When I feel fatigued and my gut is irritated, I take a look back at what I ate the day before.  Sometimes foods do not outright make us sick, but they do not sit well and are not digested well.  When that happens, very little nutrients are absorbed and what comes out is not “normal”.  If this happens on a routine basis, start a food journal by writing down everything you eat and how you feel each day.  If you find a correlation between certain foods and your symptoms, take the (sometimes difficult) step to eliminate it from your diet and find a healthier substitute!  When you want to make a drastic improvement, Whole30 is a plan that is highly recommended by doctors and nutritionists to identify what is good for you to eat.

Does my lifestyle reflect the person I want to be?

  • Having a physically comfortable job is not always healthy.  I must admit, working from home has been good for my finances, and for the most part, my body.  Isolation protects us from viruses and bacteria to a large degree, and home can be extremely comfortable for casual dress and “office” surroundings. But, working at a computer for hours on end without significant movement is not good.  To avoid physical issues due to bad posture and poor circulation, It’s necessary to invest in a good chair and/or standing desk and set a timer to get up, stretch and move around once an hour.  
  • Adrenaline junkie + computer/phone job = poor health.  I liken this to the stock jockeys, the dispatchers, and yes, the customer service industry.  These are high-stress jobs, but without a physical outlet for the stress, the adrenaline produced continues to build up and cause inflammation and auto-immune problems.  Why?  Stress produces adrenaline in what is know as “fight or flight”. (see verywellmind.com)  Both of these actions traditionally are physical–you fight the intruder or you run away from the intruder.  But what if the stressful situation is the conversation with a customer on the other end of the phoneline, or a looming deadline and your computer is acting up?  All that stress and adrenaline are internalized (because you aren’t allowed to fight with your words!)  When this happens and you develop deteriorating physical symptoms, it’s time to talk with your employer about job modification, or look for a new job.  I know; I was a dispatcher for 2 years and a customer service representative for about 8 years.  Value your health and fight for it!
  • Does my schedule reflect my priorities?  Yes, it’s necessary to get that paycheck in order to pay the mortgage/rent/car note etc.  But along with valuing your health, value the priorities that cause you to prosper as a person.  Are you learning new skills and do you have the opportunity to use your natural abilities and passions in your job?  It may sound like a luxury, but a lower-paying job may be worth more in the long run when it is a job you really love and enjoy!  Consultants like marketingpartnershipprogram.com can help you discover these priorities and make them a reality, even increasing your reach and impact in your community and industry. 

These are just some of the ways you can “go with your gut” in order to make wiser, healthier decisions that keep you moving onward and upward and not bogged down by ill health and ill emotions.  Ideally it shouldn’t take decades to start on this path, but it’s never too late to start! 

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