How do I improve air quality in my home when the people around me don’t care?

We’ve heard it too many times: living in apartments or multi-family buildings causes your air quality to suffer.  The guy below/besides me smokes.  The lady next door boils Fabuloso on the stove to keep the fragrance going in her apartment, but it’s unbearable in mine!  My neighbor burns incense 24/7… what can I do?

We hear you, and it is not easy.  According to BlocPower, a Brooklyn-based climate technology company that helps building owners make their buildings more efficient and healthy, “In dense urban areas like New York City, Boston, or Chicago, most multifamily buildings were built before 1973, with no IAQ design in mind.”  Most of those buildings have no mechanical ventilation to provide fresh air, only natural ventilation like windows, or one dedicated exhaust duct that connects the bathroom and kitchen ventilations, and relies on the “leaks” in apartment walls and hallways to supply fresh air.  When there is a significant difference between colder outside and warmer inside temperature, the dominant airflow force in effect in multifamily buildings is the stack effect.  Since warmer air tends to rise, it will do so in every way possible: through holes for lighting fixtures, between floors, through wall openings, etc.  What does that mean for people living above the first floor?  You will be breathing in air from the floors below you.  People on the first floor will have cold and sometimes more polluted air leak in.  This natural way of building “breathing” can be very unhealthy when tenants constantly add more VOCs like smoke or cleaning products.  If you signed a lease that may not expire for 8 more months, what do you do in the meantime?  You shouldn’t need to spend more money just because your neighbors are polluting the air, but doing nothing is not an option. 

First, we advocate for peaceful neighbor relations.  You can mention that you can smell their smoke without even opening the window, or that working from home is hard when your nose is constantly running for all of the cleaning product vapors.  Here are some more tips to deal with problems peacefully:

  • Try to understand their situation. Maybe it’s an older person who needs help getting their garbage to the dumpster on a regular basis, or a single mom who works and lets her teenager prepare (read: burn!) meals when she’s not home.   

  • Try to discuss the problem in a calm way, and if necessary, bring someone who has a calming influence with you.  

  • Offer to help.  You never know if a better relationship awaits just by lending a helping hand.

If discussions are unfruitful, you can address the building supervisor about the problem… especially if it lies in common areas like hallways.  Someone who constantly leaves trash bags and empty takeout containers outside their apartment, is likely causing unhappiness for more than one other tenant (you).  Plus, the smell that is permeating their apartment is unlikely to be easily resolved if they move out.   Here are a couple ways to educate yourself and your landlord about healthy air quality and how to affordably achieve it: 

  • Surprisingly, the EPA endorses this step too: they actually have a guide for building owners on indoor air quality, which you can download and review.  At 228 pages, I don’t recommend printing it out and handing it to the landlord as it would likely land in the nearest trash can!  It’s not law, but it can give you an idea if the problem is caused by just the stinky neighbor, or the building, or both.    

  • BlocPower is one organization that works with local grants and funding to help building owners upgrade their heating and cooling systems at lower cost.  You can check out your building’s eligibility for their services  here.   Their goal of “greening” older buildings is to break the stack effect mainly by sealing leaks in every space, and installing dedicated HVAC systems (such as heat pumps) in each apartment that allow tenants to control their own space.  If their services are not available in your city, you can search for other companies and programs that are.

Third, do your best to mitigate the problem in your space!  Just as in our post on “Which Air Purifier Should I Choose? Part I”, dilution ventilation is the number one, and most important step.  It’s bringing outdoor air in, to dilute the unhealthy air you have.  If your outdoor pollution is low enough, open window(s) across your space, to get air moving horizontally, and turn on ceiling or portable fans to move it vertically as well.  There are several fans you can actually leave in your windows to use whenever you need to:

If the outside temperature, humidity and air quality allow you to bring the outside air in, then using a fan is doing one more good thing for you.  It creates a slight positive pressure in your space, so that air between apartments flows out of your space, not into it from the stinky places.  If you can’t open the window wide due to air pollution or uncomfortable outside climate, then just cracking it open may be better than leaving it closed. 

Now, obviously there are still VOCs and/or particulates flying around with fresh air, so you will need to clean the air as well.  Our top pick for smells that come through walls would have to be the Air Angel, because it has polar ionization, which takes care of mold spores, pet dander, allergens and fine particulates like those in smoke, as well as having an AHPCO cell to handle the toxic gases and smells that accompany them.  This unit can handle up to 300ft2, and can be moved from one area to another if necessary.  We would recommend to pair it with a good HEPA filter with charcoal layer, to further clean and freshen the air.  Here are some recommendations for HEPA filters:

  • The Blue Pure 311 Auto, $249.99, is an attractive filter for medium-size rooms (up to 388 ft2).  It has a pre-filter fabric cover that can be vacuumed or machine washed, and filter changes are reasonable at $34-40 (you can save $6 by getting on their subscription program) every six months when used 24 hours per day.

  • Lenoit has several models that fit comfortably into bedrooms and small to medium size living spaces. This one can purify spaces up to 129 ft2 in as little as 15 minutes.  

  • For DIY’ers / very low budget:  check out this DIY Box fan air cleaner which at the highest setting, can clean over 1600ft2 every 15 minutes (assuming you have 8 foot ceilings).  Since it only has HEPA, there is no carbon filtration of smells or VOCs, but 4 HEPA filters in one unit are certainly going to impact your life in terms of better air quality!

If your space has a dedicated air-conditioning unit, you could consider the Whole-Home Polar Ionizer, which you can run 24/7 to keep the air fresh and safe. 

PureRoom by Pure Wellness is the new standard for hypoallergenic hotel rooms (see our post “Hypoallergenic Hotel Suites?”) and they have a good philosophy for converting existing hotel rooms to hypoallergenic ones.  Their strategy is to take over a floor, or wing of the hotel, to make the whole zone hypoallergenic.  If you are passionate about non-toxic living, why not organize an interest meeting in your apartment building, so that similar minds can exchange ideas, or even plan to move next to one another?  With health-minded tenants speaking together, you may find your landlord will listen and make changes for the good of all.