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Which is a healthier home habitat: the forest or the desert?

Which is a healthier home habitat: the forest or the desert?

Is it more healthy to live in or near a forest or a desert?  Spoiler alert: we’re not going to call that decision.  Each habitat has its advantages and disadvantages, so we’ll explore them to see which one is best for you.

You might think that these two climes are extremely opposite, but they do have (at least) one thing in common: trees!  Granted, there are many more trees in forests, but trees in the desert can accomplish many of the same purposes.  In a 2020 study, one particular type of tree found in Qatar (desert region), Acacia tortilis, was found to be the most efficient tree species for reducing air pollution, having good capacity to intercept storm water runoff, reducing energy consumption and reducing air pollution levels through dry deposition, avoiding further pollution formation and CO2 removal.  Mature trees (with diameter greater than 45 inches) were much more efficient at accomplishing these goals than younger trees (diameter 10 inches). 

According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), trees provide many benefits, including the ability to clean our atmospheric environment both directly underneath their canopies, and at a larger, regional scale. Because leaves transpire large amounts of moisture, trees have a cooling effect on the surrounding environment—like air conditioning. By cooling and cleansing the atmosphere, trees help to make air safer for breathing by plants, animals, and humans and have positive benefits on habitat. In fact, air quality underneath a closed tree canopy is often significantly better than above that tree canopy, especially for ozone—a common air pollutant that forms downwind of urban air pollution sources. On a regional scale, forests also scrub ozone and other nitrogen and sulfur-containing air pollutants out of the prevailing winds, protecting more sensitive areas.  Healthy forests with large, widely-spaced trees also protect from wildfire smoke because pines and other fire-adapted trees with their thick, fire retardant bark better resist fire in all but the most extremely hot, dry, and windy conditions.

Interestingly, some trees contribute to ozone production, while others reduce it.  This is because species like black locust, European oak and poplar intensively emit isoprene, which results in higher ozone and PM10 concentrations, while tree species emitting primarily monoterpenes such as beech, magnolia and wayfaring trees yield less of both.  (Impact of vegetative emissions on urban ozone and biogenic secondary organic aerosol: Box model study for Berlin, Germany)

Another common denominator between forests and deserts is animals–whether they are domesticated or wild, contact with animals is more frequent in remote areas than in urban areas.  There is also much research that shows how exposure to animals benefits us.  In one study, the researchers recruited 2 groups of young men:  20 young men who were raised for the first 15 years of life on farms with farm animals, and a second group of 20 young men who were raised for the first 15 years of life in a city of over 100,000 people, without daily exposure to pets. Both groups were then given Trier Social Stress Test (TSST), a model of acute psychosocial stress in humans. The results revealed that those who grew up in cities without daily exposure to pets, and thus lacked exposure to diverse microbial environments during childhood, responded to psychosocial stress with exaggerated inflammation markers,  (Less immune activation following social stress in rural vs. urban participants raised with regular or no animal contact, respectively)

Now, let’s talk about some specifics of each habitat.

Deserts

Although the stereotypical desert is hot, dry and sandy, only one of these words accurately describes every desert (dry).  Most experts agree that a desert is an area of land that receives no more than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of precipitation a year. The amount of evaporation in a desert often greatly exceeds the annual rainfall. Surprisingly, areas near water can actually be deserts, because humidity in the air doesn’t predict or cause rainfall.  The Atacama Desert, on the Pacific shores of Chile, is a coastal desert. Some areas of the Atacama are often covered by fog. But the region can go decades without rainfall. In fact, the Atacama Desert is the driest place on Earth, and some weather stations in the Atacama have never recorded a drop of rain.  (Desert)

Low humidity is obviously a benefit to keeping mold from growing on outdoor or indoor surfaces, if air conditioning is not needed.  Dryness would lead some to believe that mold could not be a problem in the desert.  However, mold spores are present everywhere, and lack of home maintenance can allow even a small amount of rainfall to turn into a mold disaster.  Mold can start growing undetected in attics, crawlspaces and walls during one of the infrequent rains, and can turn into a big problem whenever it is disturbed, such as during renovation or further deterioration.  If air conditioning is used, it can generate mold problems when moist air (like from cooking or showering) hits cold air, or around the surfaces where cold condensate is produced.   

Low humidity also means little to no mosquitoes and many other biting insects.  Low pollution (when the wind is not kicking up dust) and warm weather can also be a positive for those who suffer from breathing problems like asthma.  

One problem of low humidity is its effects on the human body (see our article).  Dehydration can become evident in dry skin, hair and nails, respiratory system and through your whole body, affecting every major system.  In addition, static electricity builds up in your clothing and furniture, which can hurt and damage electronics.  Finally, dry air allows pathogens to stay afloat in the air for longer periods of time.  

Most deserts have very little cloud cover and thus a lot of sunshine.  This, for sure has its benefits and drawbacks; it can be the cure for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) but also present higher risk for skin and eye damage and cancer.  Exposure to UV sunlight was associated with lower systolic blood pressure (the first number in a blood pressure reading) regardless of the temperature. (Could sunshine lower blood pressure? Study offers enlightenment)  In addition, sunlight assists your body in making vitamin D, which strengthens bones, and sunlight promotes collagen production in your connective tissue, which helps you move quickly. (7 Health Benefits of Living in the Desert)

The purifying power of sunlight should not be underestimated.  Those who live in or near the desert can use the UV rays of sunlight to purify water, their laundry, and anything else they can bring outside for a good “freshening”. 

One important disadvantage to desert life is dust.  In fact, you don’t have to live in the desert to suffer from the effect of desert dust, because dust from deserts can be transported on the wind and even injected into the troposphere, allowing it to travel great distances (such as across the Atlantic Ocean in the case of Saharan dust).  Dust clouds at surface levels bring particulate matter, coarse and fine, worsening air quality and posing respiratory or even cardiovascular risks.(What is desert dust and how does it change atmosphere and the air we breathe?)  The danger of dust presents in two different ways: size of the particles and content of the particles.  Particles that are approximately between 2.5 to 10 microns (PM10) are inhalable, but can be trapped and cleared from the upper respiratory tract.  Particles less than 2.5 microns (PM2.5) can lung alveoli, entering the blood stream where they cause systemic harm to other organs in the human body. (A Retrospective Cohort Study of Military Deployment and Postdeployment Medical Encounters for Respiratory Conditions)  Especially concerning is the class of particles less than 1.0microns (PM1.0), which are sure to enter directly into the bloodstream and may also cross the blood-brain barrier.  The toxic content of dust can be pathogens such as bacteria, including some that carry respiratory diseases (Characterization of Bacteria on Aerosols From Dust Events in Dakar, Senegal, West Africa), and most importantly, a fungus Coccidioides which causes Valley Fever.  It can also be bioreactive metals such as copper, chromium, nickel, lead and zinc, as well as pesticides, herbicides, radioactive particulates and aerosolized sewage (yuck!!). (Desert dust storms carry human-made toxic pollutants, and the health risk extends indoors)

Increased heat and low humidity also tends to decrease the number of negative ions in the air.  Elevated negative air ion levels are widely reported to have beneficial effects on humans including enhanced feeling of relaxation, and reduced tiredness, stress levels, irritability, depression, and tenseness. Depleted ion levels and enhanced positive ion levels are reported to have no effect, or deleterious effects. (Air Ion Effects

The study of how gasses in the earth’s atmosphere react with each other is very complex.  For example, it’s been shown that desert soil releases nitrogen species gasses into the air.  The release of NOx from desert soil and subsequent effective oxidation in the atmosphere indicates that the desert ecosystem is an important area for ozone production. This has been manifested by higher ozone in the desert air than the regional background from many observations (Güsten et al., 1996; Hoffer et al., 1982).  (Active Nitrogen Cycle Driven by Solar Radiation in Clean Desert Air)  Thus, higher levels of ozone in the desert could make it unhealthy for sensitive individuals.  These could become particularly high after rains, when microbes in the soil emit N2O (nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas).  (Following rain, desert microbes exhale potent greenhouse gas)  In addition, it’s been shown that “stratospheric intrusions” (ozone-rich air descending from the stratosphere during spring storms) can also capture ozone created by pollution from Asia as they descend and transport it to desert areas of the southwest.  Particularly in the area of Las Vegas, these can create short episodes of high ozone that exceed federal air quality standards without factoring in local pollution.  (Background ozone burdens Las Vegas’ air quality in spring)

The other side of the coin is that in some areas of the world (like Atacama and Sechura deserts in Chile and Peru), dust from deserts can contain significant iodine, which actually destroys ozone.  (Iodine in Desert Dust Destroys Ozone)  Therefore, the mineral makeup of the soil in deserts is very important in characterizing what’s in the air. 

Living in/near the Forest

Forest bathing” is a Japanese term that emerged during the 1980’s as an antidote to tech burnout: it’s being calm and quiet amongst the trees, observing nature around you whilst breathing deeply can help both adults and children de-stress and boost health and wellbeing in a natural way. (How to start forest bathing)  If you regularly spend quiet time in the outdoors, perhaps you are already aware of its benefits: lower blood pressure, heart rate, and levels of harmful hormones like cortisol.  (Forest bathing: What it is and why you should try it)

What is in the air of forests?

Phytoncides are aromatic compounds from plants which can increase your number and activity of natural killer cells, a type of white blood cell that supports the immune system and is linked with a lower risk of cancer. These cells are also believed to be important in fighting infections and inflammation, a common marker of disease.  In one study, researchers found that people who took a long walk through a forest for two days in a row increased their natural killer cells by 50% and the activity of these cells by 56%. Those activity levels also remained 23% higher than usual for the month following those walks. (Why Spring Is the Perfect Time to Take Your Workout Outdoors)

Hinoki cypress, cedar, oak, pine and spruce are just some of the trees to release phytoncides (aromatic compounds), which include alpha-pinene and d-limonene.  Although these are actually VOCs, they are termed biogenic VOCs (BVOCs) because they are naturally made, unlike chemical VOCs that are manufactured.  Pinene and limonene are monoterpenes, which global annual emissions amount to 330–480 million tons. When visiting a forest, monoterpene VOCs such as limonene and pinene are mainly absorbed through inhalation, their blood levels rapidly rise after exposure, and they are mostly eliminated unchanged both in exhaled air and in the urine.  The tree composition can markedly influence the concentration of specific VOCs in the forest air.  Although essential oils do contain BVOCs, not all BVOCs are present in essential oils, and some molecules included in essential oils are not part of the BVOC molecular suite but are rather artifacts of distillation. (Forest Volatile Organic Compounds and Their Effects on Human Health: A State-of-the-Art Review)

Some other benefits of forest living are:

  • Humidity: in moderate amounts, humidity is good for the skin and respiratory system, 

  • Cooling effect: trees cool air through evapotranspiration. As trees transpire, they release water into the atmosphere through their leaves. As the water changes state from liquid to vapor, the surrounding air is cooled, similar to how we sweat.

  • Particulate matter capture: Forests can improve public health greatly by catching dust, ash, pollen and smoke on their leaves, keeping it out of our lungs.

  • Trees are sinks for other harmful pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides, ammonia and ozone, which can all cause respiratory problems from repeated exposure. (The Important Relationship between Forests and Air)

  • Healthy forest air includes bacteria, fungal spores, plant and animal particles and pollen, which may have good and bad effects.  Good effects of exposure to these include desensitization to allergies (exposure therapy), and certain bacteria, like Mycobacterium vaccae (a bacteria strain that lives in soil), which can stimulate serotonin production, and can make you feel relaxed and happier, as well as reduce inflammatory responses to stress. According to Dr. Christopher Lowry, “Surprisingly, when adults engage in soil-mixing activities for ten minutes with soil that is ‘spiked’ with M. vaccae ATCC 15483, there is a rapid alteration in brain activity within the occipital cortex and alteration in the plasma metabolome, relative to soil that is not spiked with M. vaccae ATCC 15483 [35]; this suggests that exposures to mycobacteria not only have long-term immunoregulatory effects but also alter physiology and neurophysiology within minutes. Perhaps we all really should spend more time playing in the dirt.” 

  • Ions: That “fresh air” feeling in the forest also comes from higher than normal presence of ions.  Negative air ions (NAIs) are an important indicator of air quality, and are significant for the evaluation of air conditions. In a 2020 study of a scenic area in China, negative air ions were present in forested areas  approximately 3.2-3.4 times over the numbers in open areas or the lake.  (For more information on the cleansing power of ions, read our post here!)

And the cons of forest living: 

  • Humidity: many forests are high in humidity, which can promote mold growth.  Without dehumidification in a home, it would be difficult to live in many forested areas because of mold growth. 

  • Radon: Trees are sources, sinks, and conduits for gas exchange between the atmosphere and soil, so radon, a product of uranium decay in the soil, is naturally expired by trees along with other gasses.  Although radon accumulation in homes through their foundation (the rocks and soil below the foundation) is most concerning, emission of radon by trees will cause a forest to have a higher level of radon than unforested areas, because radon is approximately 7.5 times heavier than air, so that living in or near the forest may increase the ambient level of radon outside the home depending on winds.  There are two units of measurement for radon, picocuries per liter, and becquerels per cubic meter.  According to a 2015 study in Brazil, radon concentrations as high as 40 kBq/m3 (40,000 Bq/m3) were found in a national forest.  The EPA recommends that homeowners take action to lower radon levels in their homes if there is a level above 2 pCi/L.  Since one pCi/L is equivalent to 37 Bq/m3, the measurement in the Brazilian forest showed 1,081 pCi/L, or 250 times the upper limit of radon recommended by the EPA!  Thus, the study rightly inferred that “the results indicated considerable radon hazard for human occupation in the neighborhood.”

Overall, the desert and the forest are two vastly different climates, yet each have potential for healthy lifestyles for those who can live further away from urban areas.   From forest bathing to hiking to biking, there are plenty of ways that each environment offers us to connect with nature and take in its natural health benefits. 

Better bedroom ventilation = better sleep quality

Better bedroom ventilation = better sleep quality

Have you ever wondered why you’re not sleeping well?  We have quite a few suggestions for better sleep, but there’s one more (invisible) thing that can negate the others: CO2.  Sleeping in a stuffy bedroom does not enable quality sleep!  It turns out that you need “fresh air” even when you’re not conscious of it.  A new study shows that CO2 concentrations in the bedroom above 750 ppm affect your sleep and as a consequence, your cognitive performance is lower the next day.

In the 18-month study, 36 healthy college-age men and women volunteered to sleep for a week each in furnished bedrooms where their sleep was analyzed.  The levels of CO2 varied during the week: the first night was not included in the study (for adaptation), but then two nights each of three ventilation conditions were used to approximate CO2 levels of 750 ppm, 1,000 ppm and 1,300 ppm.  Sleep quality was monitored with wristband sleep trackers.  Salivary cortisol concentrations were measured upon waking also, as elevated cortisol levels correspond with decreasing sleep quality.  Overall, the researchers found that compared with ventilation causing an average CO2 concentration of 750 ppm (fresh air scenario), sleep quality was significantly reduced at the ventilation rates causing CO2 concentrations of 1,000 ppm and 1,300 ppm.  Sleep efficiency was reduced by 1.3 % and 1.8 % and time awake increased by 5.0 min and 7.8 min, respectively. Deep sleep duration decreased at the ventilation rate causing CO2 concentration of 1,300 ppm as compared to 750 ppm along with a significant increase in salivary cortisol after waking, which suggests increased stress and sympathetic activity. 

The takeaway from this study is to try and ventilate your bedroom with fresh air at night to simulate outdoor CO2 levels (450-500 outdoors is normal, up to 750ppm).  Obviously the best way to get fresh air is to open one or more windows, and windows don’t actually need to be fully open to achieve it.  By using a CO2 monitor near your bed, you can experiment to see how wide open 2the windows need to be.  If you live in a quiet suburb or country setting, it’s not too hard to install insect screens and do this.  However, there are lots of areas and circumstances that aren’t so simple!  We want to suggest some products and ways to help.

What if it’s too hot or humid or rainy outside to open my windows?  

  • In this case, the best solution is to install a window air conditioning unit that has a fresh air intake (not all of them do).  If you’re buying a new air conditioner, you may also want to look for one with inverter technology (it dehumidifies the air better and operates more efficiently) and upgraded air filter.  
  • If you have an existing window unit with no fresh air intake, you modify the weatherization around the unit (on the sides or bottom) to allow fresh air to “leak” into the room.  
  • If you have central air conditioning already, you should only need to open the windows about 1” to get enough fresh air to lower CO2 levels below 1000 ppm.
  • If you live in a quiet but rainy area, using a product like the Invisible Awning Rain Guard, $35-40, allows you to open your windows and ventilate, even during a storm.
  • If rain is the problem, here are two window fans that will help:

What if I live in an area with a lot of air pollution, like in a city or near busy roads?

While CO2 is not good for sleep, other types of air pollution like NOx (nitrous oxides) and particulates may be just as bad or worse, so we understand the need for outside air to be filtered.  Depending on the severity of your area, we have two products that can help:

  • The Window Ventilation Filter, $40-50, has an 11” height and reduces dust, dirt and was tested to remove 94% of ragweed pollen.  It also keeps out rain, snow and mild wind.
  • Nanofiber PureAir Window Screens, $40, cover approximately 3-4 average window screen panels.  They are transparent (so your view is not blocked) and use electrostatic adsorption to block particulates.
  • Medify has a great selection of HEPA air purifiers which can be sized according to your room.  All units are equipped with a pre-filter, True HEPA H13 or H14, and active carbon filter.  The active carbon filter is what will remove the VOCs in traffic and industrial pollution.

What if I live in an area where it’s not safe to keep the windows open? 

Security, of course, trumps fresh air…but you can have both if you secure a small window opening with a latch or lock.  It can also prevent children from opening the window too far and falling out.  One thing you’ll need to keep in mind, however, is fire safety; if the window is your safety exit in the case of a fire, you’ll need to make sure the key remains nearby if you lock it.

  • MiniLatches, $69, are pricey but well-made.  They are sized to allow fresh air in but prevent any indoor cats from going out.
  • Stainless Steel Window Chain Locks, $19, are very sturdy
  • Window Security Bars, $50 for a pack of 4, are easily adjustable and installed, and can be used on vertical or horizontal sliding windows and doors.

What if I don’t have a window in my bedroom?

“Fresh air” doesn’t always have to come from windows.  If your bedroom is an interior room, you’ll need to either use the central air conditioning system or create ventilation pathways to bring in fresh air from the rest of the house.

  • If your house is tightly built, it’s a great idea to add a fresh air intake.  Heat recovery ventilators (HRVs) and energy recovery ventilators (ERVs) minimize the heat and humidity losses of bringing in fresh air and exhausting stale air (ERV’s are recommended for more humid climates).  That way, fresh air comes into all parts of the home and having a window to open is not necessary.  For more on HRVs and ERVs, check out our article here.
  • If your room doesn’t have central air conditioning, you can have privacy and better ventilation by adding grilles in the wall or door.  We discuss four options to do it in this article.
  • If you can’t modify the walls or door, you can still have some security by using a Door Chain Lock ($7 for 2-pack) that will allow your door to open slightly and let more air flow in.  

Here’s a pictorial summary of the ventilation recommendations:

Source: Ventilation causing an average CO2 concentration of 1000 ppm negatively affects sleep: a field-lab study on healthy young people

The bottom line is…a lot of our comfort and well-being depends on how well we sleep.  Measure your bedroom CO2 in the morning before exiting (with the door closed) and if it’s above 1000 ppm, research your options for better ventilation.  Ventilate your bedroom tonight for a better day tomorrow!

Photo by Storiès on Unsplash

Better bedroom ventilation = better sleep quality Copy

Better bedroom ventilation = better sleep quality

Have you ever wondered why you’re not sleeping well?  We have quite a few suggestions for better sleep, but there’s one more (invisible) thing that can negate the others: CO2.  Sleeping in a stuffy bedroom does not enable quality sleep!  It turns out that you need “fresh air” even when you’re not conscious of it.  A new study shows that CO2 concentrations in the bedroom above 750 ppm affect your sleep and as a consequence, your cognitive performance is lower the next day.

In the 18-month study, 36 healthy college-age men and women volunteered to sleep for a week each in furnished bedrooms where their sleep was analyzed.  The levels of CO2 varied during the week: the first night was not included in the study (for adaptation), but then two nights each of three ventilation conditions were used to approximate CO2 levels of 750 ppm, 1,000 ppm and 1,300 ppm.  Sleep quality was monitored with wristband sleep trackers.  Salivary cortisol concentrations were measured upon waking also, as elevated cortisol levels correspond with decreasing sleep quality.  Overall, the researchers found that compared with ventilation causing an average CO2 concentration of 750 ppm (fresh air scenario), sleep quality was significantly reduced at the ventilation rates causing CO2 concentrations of 1,000 ppm and 1,300 ppm.  Sleep efficiency was reduced by 1.3 % and 1.8 % and time awake increased by 5.0 min and 7.8 min, respectively. Deep sleep duration decreased at the ventilation rate causing CO2 concentration of 1,300 ppm as compared to 750 ppm along with a significant increase in salivary cortisol after waking, which suggests increased stress and sympathetic activity. 

The takeaway from this study is to try and ventilate your bedroom with fresh air at night to simulate outdoor CO2 levels (450-500 outdoors is normal, up to 750ppm).  Obviously the best way to get fresh air is to open one or more windows, and windows don’t actually need to be fully open to achieve it.  By using a CO2 monitor near your bed, you can experiment to see how wide open 2the windows need to be.  If you live in a quiet suburb or country setting, it’s not too hard to install insect screens and do this.  However, there are lots of areas and circumstances that aren’t so simple!  We want to suggest some products and ways to help.

What if it’s too hot or humid or rainy outside to open my windows?  

  • In this case, the best solution is to install a window air conditioning unit that has a fresh air intake (not all of them do).  If you’re buying a new air conditioner, you may also want to look for one with inverter technology (it dehumidifies the air better and operates more efficiently) and upgraded air filter.  
  • If you have an existing window unit with no fresh air intake, you modify the weatherization around the unit (on the sides or bottom) to allow fresh air to “leak” into the room.  
  • If you have central air conditioning already, you should only need to open the windows about 1” to get enough fresh air to lower CO2 levels below 1000 ppm.
  • If you live in a quiet but rainy area, using a product like the Invisible Awning Rain Guard, $35-40, allows you to open your windows and ventilate, even during a storm.
  • If rain is the problem, here are two window fans that will help:

What if I live in an area with a lot of air pollution, like in a city or near busy roads?

While CO2 is not good for sleep, other types of air pollution like NOx (nitrous oxides) and particulates may be just as bad or worse, so we understand the need for outside air to be filtered.  Depending on the severity of your area, we have two products that can help:

  • The Window Ventilation Filter, $40-50, has an 11” height and reduces dust, dirt and was tested to remove 94% of ragweed pollen.  It also keeps out rain, snow and mild wind.
  • Nanofiber PureAir Window Screens, $40, cover approximately 3-4 average window screen panels.  They are transparent (so your view is not blocked) and use electrostatic adsorption to block particulates.
  • Medify has a great selection of HEPA air purifiers which can be sized according to your room.  All units are equipped with a pre-filter, True HEPA H13 or H14, and active carbon filter.  The active carbon filter is what will remove the VOCs in traffic and industrial pollution.

What if I live in an area where it’s not safe to keep the windows open? 

Security, of course, trumps fresh air…but you can have both if you secure a small window opening with a latch or lock.  It can also prevent children from opening the window too far and falling out.  One thing you’ll need to keep in mind, however, is fire safety; if the window is your safety exit in the case of a fire, you’ll need to make sure the key remains nearby if you lock it.

  • MiniLatches, $69, are pricey but well-made.  They are sized to allow fresh air in but prevent any indoor cats from going out.
  • Stainless Steel Window Chain Locks, $19, are very sturdy
  • Window Security Bars, $50 for a pack of 4, are easily adjustable and installed, and can be used on vertical or horizontal sliding windows and doors.

What if I don’t have a window in my bedroom?

“Fresh air” doesn’t always have to come from windows.  If your bedroom is an interior room, you’ll need to either use the central air conditioning system or create ventilation pathways to bring in fresh air from the rest of the house.

  • If your house is tightly built, it’s a great idea to add a fresh air intake.  Heat recovery ventilators (HRVs) and energy recovery ventilators (ERVs) minimize the heat and humidity losses of bringing in fresh air and exhausting stale air (ERV’s are recommended for more humid climates).  That way, fresh air comes into all parts of the home and having a window to open is not necessary.  For more on HRVs and ERVs, check out our article here.
  • If your room doesn’t have central air conditioning, you can have privacy and better ventilation by adding grilles in the wall or door.  We discuss four options to do it in this article.
  • If you can’t modify the walls or door, you can still have some security by using a Door Chain Lock ($7 for 2-pack) that will allow your door to open slightly and let more air flow in.  

Here’s a pictorial summary of the ventilation recommendations:

Source: Ventilation causing an average CO2 concentration of 1000 ppm negatively affects sleep: a field-lab study on healthy young people

The bottom line is…a lot of our comfort and well-being depends on how well we sleep.  Measure your bedroom CO2 in the morning before exiting (with the door closed) and if it’s above 1000 ppm, research your options for better ventilation.  Ventilate your bedroom tonight for a better day tomorrow!

Photo by Storiès on Unsplash

Keeping Your Vacation Home Fresh

Keeping Your Vacation Home Fresh

It doesn’t matter whether your “vacation home” is a pull-behind trailer, or a luxurious condo, or a humble cabin in the mountains:  when you “get away” to a relaxing place, you don’t want to spend your precious vacation time trying to figure out how to get musty smells out or remove mold from the linens because the climate inside suffered while you were away.  Here are our tips to make it welcoming and low-maintenance!

First of all, humidity is the most important factor you’ll want to control in order to keep out mold, and you’ll want to keep the humidity under 60% all the time.  If the outside climate humidity rises over 60%, that climate will come inside and settle into soft surfaces, making them a perfect habitat for mold growth. You can only control humidity inside effectively by having a tight envelope, which means sealing up passages where outside air can penetrate in.  If no one will be living there while you’re away, you won’t need fresh-air ventilation, so make your get-away home as tight as possible by sealing windows, doors, attic doors, and other penetrations.  

Also, remember that relative humidity and temperature are closely linked.  For example, if you leave an air conditioner set on 82 degrees and the humidity rises to 80%, you may be at risk of mold forming in less than 2 weeks!  (If you’re wondering how that calculation came to be, check out this fun dew point calculator.)  In addition, relative humidity in a space will increase as temperature is lowered.   Air conditioning will naturally take some of the humidity out of the air, but there are a number of factors that can allow humidity to remain high even when your air conditioner is on. 

Here are some options to keep the humidity under control while you’re not there:

  • If you have wi-fi available in your vacation home, now’s the time to take advantage of technology that can pair with existing units like mini-splits, window or portable air conditioners to enable you to monitor climate and control them remotely.  Cielo is a company that has a number of products that can help you maintain the right humidity and temperature remotely. 

  • Alternatively, if you do not have wifi or app-enabled monitoring, you’ll need to choose a temperature for setting your air conditioner.  Although it’s tempting to set the temperature just under the temperature of melting plastic (haha) to conserve energy, don’t do it!  Setting the thermostat as high as 85 degrees can cause short run times and not allow the air conditioner to remove enough humidity from the air, creating an atmosphere for mold growth.  (No, You Shouldn’t Set Your Thermostat to 85F.  Here’s Why.)  For that reason, it’s ok to set it 7-10 degrees above the temperature you normally keep it while you’re staying there IF you also take into account the outdoor temperature and humidity.  There’s no magic formula for determining this ideal energy-saving-yet-mold-preventing temperature setting, but think about it: if your vacation space is in a hot, humid climate like the southeast US, you’ll want to set the maximum indoor temperature lower than the average outdoor temperature to make the air conditioning come on often enough to remove humidity.  

  • Thirdly, if you don’t have a humidity control setting on your air conditioner, or even an air conditioner at all, it’s best to purchase a dehumidifier with a humidistat and set it to 60% maximum humidity.  This will ensure that humidity is being controlled, no matter what temperature the interior rises to!  Think of this dehumidifier as insurance against mold: if your air conditioner was to stop working, the dehumidifier can still keep your space mold-free if it’s suitably sized for your space.  Check out our article on different types and sizes of dehumidifiers, and be sure to set up a portable dehumidifier with a drain into a lower tub or sink that condensate can safely drain all the time.

  • Leave doors to rooms and closets open for best air circulation.  Just like air purifiers, portable dehumidifiers cannot reach behind closed doors.  

  • Use ceiling fans in rooms and portable fans elsewhere to keep air circulating while you’re away, which will reduce the water content in all your furnishings by evaporation.  ““Evaporation increases the humidity of the atmosphere that immediately surrounds the liquid. This humid air takes some time to dissipate into the rest of the atmosphere. The presence of a breeze, a powerful wind, or some other form of air circulation can speed up this process and make the environment of the liquid less humid. Therefore, by decreasing the humidity of the liquid’s surrounding, a powerful breeze or wind can increase the rate at which the liquid evaporates.” (Factors Affecting the Rate of Evaporation)  This is why disaster restoration companies use powerful fans to move air over wet surfaces, increasing evaporation and removal of water.  With less water in your furnishings, the chance of mold growth is reduced.   You can even add air circulation to any space that has a light socket, such as closets and pantries, by removing the light bulb and screwing in a light socket fan (which come in different designs with exposed or enclosed blades).

  • Make sure your air conditioning and dehumidifier drains are clear and a clean air filter is in place before you leave!  Many homeowners have come on vacation to find their air conditioner or dehumidifier drain pan overflowing and dripping onto ceilings, floors, and other inconvenient places–what a mess that can also turn into hazardous mold!  As a homeowner, make sure to check these drains and change the filter several times during the air conditioning season, or arrange for someone to do the same while you’re away. 

  • Window air conditioners need deep-cleaning sometimes.  If a musty smell is coming from the air conditioner when the fan cycles on, then you’ll know that dust has infiltrated the cooling coils, absorbed moisture, and is nourishing mold growth.  Check our article on how to deep clean it and restore the fresh smell.

  • If you can, shut off water at the main valve to avoid any possible leaks, and switch off the breaker to the hot water heater if it’s electric (turn off gas if it’s gas).  This will avoid water leaks under sinks, which can make a nasty moldy mess!  If you don’t do this, at the very least shut off water to the washing machine, because burst water hoses at the washer are the single largest cause of home flooding.  (Leaving the House for 3 Days or 3 Months? 5 Must-Dos Before Your Trip)

  • Bipolar ionization units like our Germ Defenders, Mobile Air Angels and Whole Home Ionizers are a great way to keep mold away too.  At the very least, plugging a Germ Defender into the bathroom will send out ions to kill mold spores in this small space where air circulation can be a challenge.

  • Leaving a portable HEPA filter with activated carbon running is not a bad idea, either.  Activated carbon will help avoid that “musty” smell.  According to firesafeliving.com,  “plug-in” scent devices are not a fire hazard if you leave them plugged in while you’re away, but we at HypoAir don’t recommend them because a) many plug-ins use toxic chemicals like phthalates and formaldehyde, and b) the freshener will dry out before you return anyway, leaving an appliance running on your wall.  What’s better: make your own reed diffusers with your favorite essential oil (or combination of oils) and place them throughout your space for a safe, no-mess fresh scent!

These extra steps may seem to take more time on those days you’re packing up to leave your vacation home, but when you come back to a home that is ready for relaxing as soon as you open the doors and windows, it will be worth it!

Photo by Lavi Perchik on Unsplash

Our Top Articles for Reference by Topic

Our Top Articles for Reference by Topic

We have published a lot of information for you on our website, so we understand it can be a lot to digest!  Here’s a shortlist of our top articles 

Mold and Mycotoxins

Mold Prevention

Mold Testing

Cleaning

Air Filtration

Humidity

New Home Search

Ventilation

Home Projects for Better Air Quality

HVAC

Disaster/Emergency Preparation

Mold in the Toilet

Mold in the Toilet

The bathroom is a room that’s very susceptible to mold growth, and once you understand what mold needs to grow, it’s easy to understand why. Basically, it just needs moisture (shower=check, sink=check, toilet=check), and food (dust=check, organic matter=check), so the bathroom sometimes becomes a petri dish that’s hard to keep up with.  Fortunately for you, we’re tackling this problem by appliance, so check out our other articles here:

Now, back to mold in the toilet.  Mold can be mistaken for those stubborn mineral toilet rings, until it starts to turn weird colors, like black, brown or pink. 

What type of mold is the black mold in the toilet?

Although you may know that Stachybotrys chartarum is the most commonly termed “black” mold, another mold that appears black is Aspergillus Niger, as shown in Figure 2 of this 2017 study from India.  Aspergillus Niger can be a cause of some forms of pneumonia, so it’s definitely not something you want in your bathroom!  The study identified five types of mold in public toilets, resulting from airborne spread of spores and improper or infrequent cleaning procedures.

Alternaria and Cladosporium are two other types of mold that can produce black growths. (10 Types of Mold Colors Commonly Found in the House)  The most important thing to know is that these molds can produce mycotoxins and mVOCs every time they are disturbed!  Stachybotrys has been demonstrated to produce a number of Macrocyclic Trichothecene mycotoxins.  (Black Mold and Stachybotrys Exposure Guide)  Aspergillus niger can produce Ochratoxin A, Cladosporium produces mVOCs which can be irritating, and Alternaria species produce more than 70 mycotoxins! (Alternaria host-specific (HSTs) toxins: An overview of chemical characterization, target sites, regulation and their toxic effects)

Brown stains in the toilet are another problem–they could be caused by a number of molds, such as Pithomyces chartarum, Aureobasidium pullulans, Stemonitis, Taeoniella, Cladosporium or Mucor.  Arguably the most harmful mold of these is Mucor, which can cause a life-threatening blood infection called mucormycosis. However, it’s not always brownt any point during its life cycle it can be brown, yellow, black, white, or gray.  (10 Types of Mold Colors Commonly Found in the House)

Pink slime in the toilet is actually not mold.  As we mentioned in our article about the shower, that pink slime that can also form around drains and at the bottom of the shower curtain is caused by the bacteria Serratia marcescens, and can cause urinary and respiratory tract infections, which are especially problematic for people with immune problems. 

If you decide to try to find out what type of mold is growing, you can test it with a lab, but in any case it’s wise to treat it as a dangerous air pollutant.  Don’t disturb it unless you spray a cleaner on it first (to immobilize the spores), or are using a mask!

What is the cause of mold in the toilet bowl?

There are several possible causes for mold in the toilet bowl, some of which can be easily resolved and some need more effort!  

  • One of the easiest methods is just flushing the toilet more often. Toilets that are not used every day can allow mold and bacteria to attach to the bowl.  After cleaning the toilet, try to remind yourself to swing by and flush the toilet at least every other day so that these microbes don’t have a chance to proliferate.
  • Next, if the toilet does get used or flushed often, more frequent cleaning is often needed.  However, you need to skip traditional bleach based toilet cleaners, as they are toxic for you!  The following are some non-toxic cleaners that are very effective for bacteria and germs, however note that citric acid is not always effective on mold (read below on citric acid** and get a few more recommendations from Zero-Waste Memoirs):
    • Force of Nature is hypochlorous acid, a safe alternative to bleach that is a hospital-grade, EPA-registered disinfectant that kills 99.9% of germs including Staph, MRSA, Norovirus, Influenza A, Salmonella, and Listeria when used as directed.  You can spray Force of Nature in the toilet as a final disinfectant, but it should not be mixed with essential oils or cleaners that contain essential oils, as this can reduce its disinfecting power. 
    • Fragrance-free powder: Seventh Generation Zero Plastic Toilet Bowl Cleaner ($22) has citric acid as its main cleaning agent.  This non-toxic ingredient is registered with the FDA in products certified to kill feline calicivirus (a testing substitute for norovirus), so we know that it works.  If you or anyone in your household is exhibiting symptoms of this illness or a similar one, we would suggest cleaning toilets full-strength and often with a product like this!   If you like a little lemony fragrance, try the Probiotic Toilet Bowl Cleaner by Etee ($45), which also uses citric acid.  It may seem expensive, but it’s not bad on a per-use basis ($1.50), and some customers find that using less than the prescribed amount (1 TBSP) works just fine.  Added probiotics help to keep your septic system functioning optimally.
    • Dissolving strips:  Nature Clean Natural Toilet Bowl Cleaners Strips ($17) are highly rated too.  They use sodium coco sulfate as the main ingredient, which is a blend of the fatty acids in coconut oil. (Sodium Coco Sulfate: Is It Natural?)  It is a synthetic detergent with one of its ingredients being sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), however it is less irritating should you immerse your skin in the soapy water (highly unlikely for a toilet bowl cleaner!) Lastly, the essential oils including Australian tea tree oil, provide a pleasant scent and antiseptic properties.
    • Liquid: Mrs. Meyer’s Liquid Toilet Bowl Cleaner, $6, uses citric acid and essential oils like lemon verbena to get a fresh-smelling clean, all in a bottle made from at least 30% post-consumer plastic (recycled).  

Safe descaling of your toilet bowl:  mineral stains and some molds may be removed by simply using the concentrated citric acid** (as you’ve read, a non-toxic ingredient in many toilet bowl cleaners), which comes in a granule or powder form.  Granules are safer to use because they are mostly dust-free (they’ve been formed into little clumps that don’t kick up dust when you handle them).  

The following is adapted from a post on Moral Fibres.  Their method did not work without scrubbing but I learned a few things working on my own toilets:

  • Gather your supplies: a large pitcher for clean water, ½ cup of citric acid powder or granules, latex or plastic gloves, an abrasive scrub sponge that’s safe for porcelain, Bar-Keeper’s Friend Cleanser (optional), several paper towels, small disposable cup, tape for closing the lid (optional), about ¼ cup baking soda. 

  • Turn off/close the water valve on the wall completely.

  • Flush the toilet.  The tank and the bowl won’t refill this time. 

  • Fill a large pitcher full of hot water from your sink and pour it into the toilet bowl. The water should not be boiling hot as it could crack your toilet.  Also, make sure to add it slowly so that the water doesn’t drain completely from the bowl; you’ll want the water at or above the water ring stain.

  • Put on gloves and add about ½ cup of citric acid powder or granules to your toilet bowl. (use a mask if your citric acid comes in powder form)

  • Swish the water in the bowl gently with your toilet brush to dissolve it, but don’t swirl too vigorously because it will cause water to drain from the bowl.  After you add the citric acid to the bowl, don’t add more water, because this will dilute the acid. Add paper towels around the bowl to cover all the stained porcelain, and use the disposable cup to wet them with liquid from the bowl.  The bowl should be lined with paper towels stuck to the inside wherever there are stains.

  • Close the lid and put tape and a sign to prevent people from using it! 

  • Leave the citric acid in the toilet bowl, without flushing, for at least one hour, or preferably before going to bed, so it can soak the scale overnight.

  • After leaving the solution to soak, use the bowl brush or gloved hands to remove the paper towels, and try using your toilet brush to remove scale deposits. If it doesn’t move, use gloved hands, the scrub sponge, and Bar-Keeper’s Friend or another agent safe for porcelain.  Scrub away!

  • Finish by adding the baking soda to neutralize the acid, swish with the bowl brush, open the water valve, wait for the tank to fill, and flush!

  • If your toilet is particularly stained, then it may need a second application to remove stubborn deposits.

Citric acid**: The interesting thing about this chemical is that it is commercially produced by the mold Aspergillus Niger, which may be the same type of mold you’re trying to eliminate.  Manufactured Citric Acid (MCA) is one of the most common food additives in the world, and has received the status of “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) with the FDA.  However, there have been isolated cases of inflammation due to ingestion of foods with MCA, due to its great tolerance to heat and large potential that byproducts of A. niger remain in the final MCA product. (Potential role of the common food additive manufactured citric acid in eliciting significant inflammatory reactions contributing to serious disease states: A series of four case reports)  Unfortunately, we weren’t able to determine whether MCA actually kills Aspergillus Niger growing in your toilet, but it does a great job with all the other molds 

The atmosphere of the bathroom is also very important in preventing mold.  Here are two ways to keep the air in the bathroom less hospitable to mold: 

  • Bathroom exhaust fans are a must for any bathroom with an actual shower or bath.  If you have a fan but not sure if it’s large enough, check the cubic feet of air per minute rating (cfm) on the fan (you may have to remove the cover) and this article to see if it’s large enough for your bathroom.  In addition, go outside and see if you can see the little flapper lifting to show that air is indeed being exhausted.  If you can't find the exhaust of this fan, it's possible that the moisture is being exhausted in the attic, which needs to be fixed.  If your kids or guests are not switching on the exhaust fan during their showers, get an electrician to tie the fan and light switch together so that the fan MUST come on when the light is on.  Finally, if you don't have an exhaust fan, get a window fan like this one and make sure the kids use it!
  • Bipolar ionization units like our Germ Defenders, Mobile Air Angels and Whole Home Ionizers are a great way to keep mold away too.  At the very least, plugging a Germ Defender into the bathroom will send out ions to kill mold spores in this small space where air circulation can be a challenge.

If the mold keeps coming back despite flushing and cleaning, then there are several possible causes for this:

  • Older toilets commonly have pitting in the ceramic which can harbor mold. This video shows that no matter how hard a toilet is scrubbed with different products, pits in the ceramic are microscopic reservoirs that shelter bits of the mold, allowing it to come back again.  The safest solution in this case is to replace the old toilet with a new one.  The radical (but toxic) solution to keep your old toilet but lose the mold is to use diluted muriatic acid (also known as hydrochloric acid) to clean the pits.  However, the mold will eventually come back and inhabit those pits again unless you take another step to renew the enamel on your toilet bowl (a bit extreme to save an old toilet). 
  • Improper venting.  You may not know it, but all drains in your home require a vent to work properly.  We’re not talking about the air vents in ceilings and walls, but a gas vent for the drain line.  These are hidden in your walls.  According to the uniform plumbing code, vents must be located within six feet of the P-trap (that snake-like part under the sink and the S-curve under the back of the toilet); otherwise, the drain may not work properly and gasses can build up, supporting mold and microbe growth.  If this seems to be the case, it’s best to have a good plumber check out the location and condition of the toilet and sink vents and see if there are other drain problems.   
  • This next one is a difficult truth: there may be a cache of mold hidden in your home that is “seeding” spores into your air, causing mold to grow wherever there’s a water source (sinks, showers, and of course your toilet).  According to a respected mold inspection and remediation company, Mold hotspots include the basement, attic, windowsills and door frames, crawlspaces, appliances, and underneath the sinks. Do you feel worse in some rooms of your home and better after leaving them?  This gives a clue to where the mold contamination may be originating.  If you don’t see anything obvious, you could have a hidden leak somewhere, like in the walls or flooring, that’s allowing mold to grow. There are two things you can do in this case: 
    • Order some spore traps from GotMold or even just a set of EC3 test plates ($36 for 6-pack) by MicroBalance Health Products to check the relative mold level in rooms to narrow it down!
    • If you suspect a problem or are having chronic symptoms, it’s best to hire a qualified mold inspector.

There are many non-toxic ways to clean and keep clean nowadays, and with a little research and effort the toilet can be as clean and healthy as the rest of your bathroom and home!

Photo by Jas Min on Unsplash

The unintended consequences of turning down the thermostat this winter

The unintended consequences of turning down the thermostat this winter

According to the Energy Information Administration and their Winter Fuels Outlook report, it will cost 27 percent to 28 percent more than 2021/2022 to heat your home with oil or gas.  If you heat with electricity, prices may rise by as much as 10 percent, because much of our electricity is generated from oil and gas. (Newsweek.com)

When you have a fixed or unstable budget, the decision to lower or turn off heat during the winter is not easy.  The other components of our budgets–food, housing, transportation and medical care–aren’t as flexible as those extra blankets, mittens and hats, so down the thermostat goes.  This is where what you don’t know might hurt you.

It’s not only the air temperature that changes when the heat source turns off.  Air holds a certain amount of water vapor, also called humidity, and warmer air can hold more water vapor than cooler air.  When the air cools, water vapor in the air will tend to condense on any surface that is lower than the dewpoint temperature.  That’s why you see condensation on windows and around door frames in winter: these are the points that tend to conduct cold temperatures from the outside, and moisture from the air is condensing on them.  Persistent moisture is mold-feeding moisture, and before you know it, there is a mold problem.  Even worse is that mold could be forming in places you can’t readily see, like inside walls, attics and basements, because the air temperature has dropped and cooler air just can’t hold the moisture of warmer air.   Cooler air can easily reach humidity levels of 80% or more, giving that “damp” feeling and over time, exposing the home to mold growth.  

There is a myth that when a room is not being used, it’s best to turn off heat (close registers) and close it off from the rest of the house (close the door) to save money.  If this is done without any ventilation or air circulation, it’s also a recipe for mold, because without air circulation, water vapor in stagnant air will be absorbed by furnishings and allow mold to take root.  If you need to limit heating in your home, try to leave doors to unused rooms at least cracked and leave a fan running in the room, because dynamic airflow limits moisture ingress due to evaporation. For more on finding and fixing areas prone to mold in the winter, check out our article.

If high humidity is not a problem, low humidity might be.  Low humidity can damage all kinds of decor in your house by shrinking and drying, from wood flooring, wallpaper, and furniture to fine instruments like pianos and guitars and artwork.

Then, there’s your body.  Stress due to cold is a real problem for the elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions like asthma or heart disease.  It also makes people more likely to use alternate heating methods that could be unsafe.  Small room heaters are often known to tip over and cause fires, and electric blankets can actually cause burns.   Falling asleep on a bunched-up blanket is a common cause of burns, according to Bell, a plastic surgeon who treats many burn patients. He explains that when a hot blanket rests on the same body part for an extended period, the skin can burn. “These burn accidents usually happen because someone has fallen asleep on a bunched-up area of the blanket,” he says.  Unfortunately, people with diabetes are more vulnerable to burns from electric blankets because their condition makes them less sensitive to heat. “Electric blankets are also not recommended for infants, young children or anyone who is paralyzed or incapable of understanding how to safely operate them,” says Bell.  People with urinary incontinence also should not use electric blankets because wetness and electricity don't mix. (ul.com)  If you do use an electric blanket, follow all the safety guidelines of UL Solutions (previously Underwriters Laboratories) so that you don’t become one of these statistics!

When home heating costs rise, air quality can also worsen due to particulates in the air.  In Europe, the impacts of inflation and fuel scarcity due to the Russian-Ukrainian war is particularly hard on middle and lower income families, and they turn to alternative sources like burning wood, coal and even garbage in indoor stoves.  These stoves impact indoor and outdoor air quality.  Indoors, reloading a stove that is already burning fills the air with particulates, and combustion gasses can leak out of improperly-sealed doors and exhaust pipe fittings, exposing inhabitants to dangerous levels of carbon monoxide and particulates.   Outdoors, European cities that typically have poor air quality during the winter may have even worse this winter. A recent study from Greece showed that wood burning was responsible for almost half of the cancer-causing air pollution in Athens and a new study from New Zealand has showed an increase in serious respiratory infections when wood smoke built up in an area. (TheGuardian.com)  If you live in one of these areas, it doesn’t matter whether you are the one burning wood–you will still be breathing its effects. 

If you feel financial pressure to lower the thermostat this winter, here are some practical ways to keep the air warmer and less humid in your home (Prof Cath Noakes from the University of Leeds):

  • Move seating away from cold windows
  • Use thick curtains at night, but allow the sun to come in during the day
  • Ensure radiators or ventilation registers are not covered or blocked by furniture
  • Ventilate using high-level windows can reduce cold drafts
  • Ventilating after a shower or when cooking can prevent moisture buildup which can lead to damp and mold.

It’s sometimes harder to detect high humidity in the winter because of the lower temperatures, so don’t take a risk–keep one or more humidity sensors in your home for monitoring it.  Our bipolar ionizers like the Germ Defender, Air Angel or Whole Home Polar Ionizer actually deter mold even if humidity temporarily goes too high, making them great investments for all seasons. 

Finally, if you have a warm home, sharing it with your elderly, disabled or disadvantaged friends for a meal or a few hours could make a huge impact in their lives.  Helping them to purchase safe heating appliances and understand how to keep humidity at manageable levels also will help them to live healthier.  Warmth is not always about containment, but allowing it to radiate to others. 

Photo by Will on Unsplash

The Science of Dust

The Science of Dust

Dust.  It’s not just harmless dirt that builds up on fan blades until we can’t turn the fan on any more for fear of clumps flying everywhere.  It’s a combination of skin cells, pollen, dead bugs, bacteria, soil, dander and various fibers. (iaq.works)  Dust also carries SVOCs, or semivolatile organic compounds, that are emitted from materials and products like plasticizers from plastic products and flame retardants from upholstered furniture. "Unlike VOCs, that you can smell and that warn you of their presence, SVOCs are called stealth chemicals. They are odorless, ride on dust, and are insidious underminers of our health, "  says Marilee Nelson, co-founder of Branch Basics.  (wellandgood.com)  Then, there are the dust mites, which are microscopic organisms that feed on dust.  All in all, dust is even more disgusting than it looks!

My all-time least favorite chore as a kid was dusting.  It didn’t require a load of physical exertion, so it must have been the sheer tediousness of moving the same stuff to dust around it week after week.   We used lemon-scented Endust in the 70’s and 80’s, which actually should have made me a little giddy (it had odorless mineral spirits and 1,1,1-trichloroethane with a propellant blend of butane and isopropane, of which inhaled 1,1,1-trichloroethane acts as a central nervous system depressant and can cause effects similar to those of intoxication)...yikes!  (chemeurope.com)  Why haven’t we invented a way to keep the dust off permanently?    

I guessed the answer had something to do with static electricity.  Apparently, the “mechanism of particle adhesion” works against us in allowing dust to settle on furniture and objects in our homes.  According to Keyence.com, producer of static eliminators and ionizers, “When dust is carried on air currents generated by air conditioning and similar devices, the dust takes on a positive or negative static electric charge due to contact with various objects. Dust that has a positive electric charge will be attracted to objects that have a negative electric charge, and vice versa. The greater the amount of dust in the air, the larger the amount of dust that clings to objects within the room.

Also, if sources of dust (mainly people and clothing) are electrically charged, the dust that is generated from these sources is electrically charged as well. This attractive force generated by static electricity is known as “Coulomb force.” 

The solution to particle adhesion is to eliminate the static electricity from the object’s surface and from the air up to a few millimeters from the object’s surface.  This is easy to do using a static eliminator, which charges the air with ions.  This removes the static charge from the particles and prevents them from reattaching.  There are also lots of “anti-static” polishes on the market, however, their toxic ingredients may or may not be disclosed.

Also, the answer to dusting less also has to do with humidity.  Humidity does not reduce the literal amount of dust in your home; instead, humidity causes dust particles to adhere to one another, making them too heavy to travel through the air. Thus, dust particles are still present in your home, but the ideal humidity level makes dust particles quicker to settle and easier to clean.  

In addition, when the indoor humidity level is between 40 and 60%, dust mites are unable to thrive and spread. Dust mites prefer extremely humid atmospheres because they absorb moisture from the air in order to survive.

So, apparently there are two things that tend to keep dust (and dust mites) down to manageable levels: ionized air and the right humidity.  We fully endorse both!  Most of the HypoAir air purifying products include a bi-polar ionizer, which has the capability to kill germs at a distance by attacking them with the same ions that control the dust.  We also like to talk about keeping your home at the right humidity to fight mold growth and germ dispersion.  It’s a win-win!

With ionization and the right humidity in place, getting rid of the remaining dust should be manageable.  Cleaning experts give these tips to get the most out of your cleaning tools and time:

Get rid of feather dusters and dry cotton cloths, because they are simply flinging the dust into the air.  Also, don’t use damp cotton cloths, because they leave streaks of dust behind.  The best tool is a microfiber cloth (again, microfiber is better at holding a slight “charge” to attract dust) and your favorite all-purpose cleaner, like one of the following: 

  • HypoAir’s TotalClean, a non-toxic multi-purpose cleaner you can use throughout your home

  • Force of Nature, a non-toxic hypochlorous cleaner that can sanitize or disinfect surfaces depending on the concentration

  • Branch Basics, a non-toxic plant and mineral based cleaner

For wood surfaces, you can add some drops of a non-damaging essential oil to the spray bottle, so that wood surfaces don’t dry out and retain a nice shine. Orange oil is great for this purpose.  Since many ingredients are not disclosed on commercial dusting sprays, it may be tempting to make your own DIY dusting spray, and there are lots of recipes on the internet.  However, look at the ingredients closely, because vinegar is a key ingredient in many recipes, and it can damage many surfaces in your home.  

If an area has more dust than usual, or to avoid switching cleaning cloths too often, you can use your HEPA vacuum cleaner with a soft head attachment to “pre-dust”.  Of course, standalone HEPA filters running part-time or full-time will cut down on a lot of dust.  

Keeping the dust down in your home can lead to less allergies, sickness, and over time, better overall health because of the way ultra-fine particles can penetrate our lungs and migrate to different areas in the body.  With the right conditions (ionized air and the right humidity) and tools (microfiber cloths, non-toxic cleaners and a HEPA vacuum), regular dusting can be manageable, kind of like flossing your teeth.  Reveal the beautiful side of your home and get dusting!

Photo by Austin Ban on Unsplash

Getting rid of the ICK: Mold in the Shower

Getting rid of the ICK: Mold in the Shower

Mold growth in the shower seems to me like cockroaches in a house: even luxury homes sometimes have problems with each, and sometimes it takes a number of attempts to find a non-toxic solution for them!   The shower just happens to be the ideal place for mold to grow (moisture, food, air and heat are all applied daily!), so keeping the shower from looking like a petri dish can be challenging.  Let us help you with this problem!

Since we know, wittingly or unwittingly, how to grow mold, we can look at its life source requirements and see if we can eliminate one or more to get a mold-free shower.

Moisture:  You would think that taking the “wet” out of a shower is impossible.  Of course, the shower will often be wet, but the important bit is that it’s not continually wet or wet for long periods.  There are various ways to dry it out after showering; check to see if there are any that you haven’t tried! 

  • Make the surfaces hydrophobic:  Hydro-what?  Hydrophobic is the characteristic of products like Rain-X: they repel water instead of absorbing them, so that water drops roll right off.  The active ingredient in Rain-X is Polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS), which is rated a “1” on scale of 1-10 by the Environmental Working Group (meaning it’s of very low toxicity).  In fact, here’s a tip that has worked well for me: after thoroughly cleaning your shower as well as you can (see next section), give all the surfaces, glass and otherwise, with a coat or two of Rain-X to make the water slide right off.

  • Squeegee: This tool, normally in the hands of a window-washer, is also useful for removing water from flat surfaces in the shower.  It can work somewhat on tile if the tiles are large and flat, but it works on glass even better.

  • Drain: Obviously, the water has to have somewhere to go.  If your drain is not working well, you can enlist the help of a plumber.  While the plumber is involved, inquire whether the venting of the drain is adequate (if a vent is too distant or non-existent, the drain does not work well and can cause mold build-up).  If the slope of the shower pan leaves puddles in the floor, it might be prudent to think about replacing or remodeling the shower, because continually wet floors are not only unsanitary, they’re unsafe!

Food: Molds can dine on just about anything, and dead skin cells and even bodywash and hair shampoo are on the menu.  That’s why regular cleaning can break the mold chain even if the other “links” like moisture, air and heat are present.  Find a non-abrasive sponge or brush to avoid damage, and go to town with a non-toxic cleaner:

  • TotalClean is our odorless powerhouse cleaner that can be used on any surface

  • Earth Clean is especially good as a degreaser if you have buildup of waxy products (citrus scent)

  • Force of Nature is a method of making electrolyzed water, which is a completely safe and natural disinfectant that can be used for hand sanitizing and cleaning all areas in your home that can tolerate water!  They have a line of reusable bottles and travel-size sprays that are great for the environment.

  • Vinegar-based cleaners also work, however make sure that they are safe for your shower surface first (for example, they should never be used on travertine or marble, both of which are a type of limestone that can be damaged by acids). 

Air: Of course, you can’t eliminate air from your bathroom, and some molds are even anaerobic anyway (meaning they can survive on little to no air!).  What’s best is if you can change out the air as much as possible, sweeping away excess humidity and mold spores with it.  This is what a good bathroom exhaust fan is for: get the air moving!  Professional restoration companies do the same when they bring in big blowers: air movement speeds up the drying process because it promotes evaporation of water from all the surfaces.  Check out our article on how to check if the size and venting arrangement of your bathroom exhaust fan is optimal.  Getting members of your household to use it is another feat, however this can be automatic if you have an electrician wire the switches together so that the vent always comes on with the light.  Also, here’s another way to “condition” the air in your bathroom to avoid mold:  use a Germ Defender 24/7.   The ions created by the Germ Defender not only destroy mold and its spores in the air and on surfaces, it also sanitizes surfaces after they’ve been contaminated by the dreaded toilet plume.  

Heat:  Anyone who’s cleaned out a refrigerator knows that heat is not a pre-requisite for mold to grow!   However, it certainly makes a more hospitable environment for many molds to flourish.  Using your bathroom exhaust vent after showering  certainly helps reduce moist heat in the air.  

There are also many products worth mentioning that can keep your shower cleaner for longer.  

  • That pink slime that forms around your drains and shower corners can also populate the shower head, and it’s not good!  It’s actually caused by the bacteria Serratia marcescens, and can cause urinary and respiratory tract infections, which are especially problematic for people with immune problems. (Not So Pretty in Pink: What Is That Pink Slime in My Bathroom?)  There are other types of harmful bacteria in there as well, such as NTM (nontuberculosis mycobacteria).  Soaking your showerhead to clean it does not fully resolve the problem, because it does not dry out. If you can’t seem to get rid of it from the shower spray head, swap it out with one of these:

    • Shower Clear Shower Heads ($299-319) are made of brass (a naturally anti-microbial material) and are made to open fully to dry out between uses. 

    • This showerhead by Niagara ($28) features a removable faceplate that will also allow the showerhead to dry between uses.

    • AquaDance Antimicrobial has antimicrobial rubber tips that also prevent minerals from clogging the spray jets.  (It uses the material Microban, which does contain quaternary ammonium compounds or “quats”, however).  

  • Thankfully, there are several good changes happening in the shower curtain market.  For one, PVC shower curtains are being phased out and replaced with PEVA or EVA.  Polyvinyl chloride, or PVC for short, is that plastic with the strong smell that emits toxic VOCs which can disrupt hormones, liver and kidneys, and your nervous system.  EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate) is a safer alternative to PVC, but some EVA contains formamide.  Formamide is used to make the foam soft, but it’s considered to be carcinogenic and a developmental toxin that can be absorbed through the skin. If you’re considering purchasing one of these doors made from EVA, it’s best to contact the manufacturer to ask if their product contains formamide. (hellonaturalliving.com)  

    • Sustainable Jungle also gives many organic and sustainable options to plastic shower curtains!  

    • Check out how I used TotalClean, our non-toxic all purpose cleaner, to clean the pink stains off the hem of my shower curtain.

  • And finally, what about your washcloth?  Experts say it’s a good idea to use a new one everyday, or at least several times a week.  Since it’s usually hanging in the moist shower, washcloths and scrubbies take a long time to dry, allowing microbes to grow and establish in the fibers.   

Since bathrooms are among everyone’s least favorite rooms to clean, and showers and toilets certainly also near the bottom, I’m liking the concept of wetrooms more and more.  Wetrooms are waterproofed bathrooms (at least all of the floor and some distance up the walls) that can be wetted and cleaned all in one go.  If you can’t do that, at least make your cleaning tools easy to use and accessible:

  • This Turbo Handheld Sprayer by Clorox ($50) eliminates the tiring pump, pump, pump of handsprayers.  Used with non-toxic cleaners like we suggested above, this could be a game-changer!  We don’t recommend the Clorox Turbo (or Turbo Pro) however, because it uses alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chlorides, which can have asthma, respiratory, reproductive and developmental effects according to the Environmental Working Group.

  • E-Cloths Shower Cleaning Kit ($15) requires only water to have a sparkling shower.  Once you’ve cleaned it, use these two cloths on a regular basis (with no chemicals) to keep it clean.

  • The shower squeegee is a good way to remove water from the glass surfaces, but what about all the corners, curves and floor area?  If you thought about this before designing your bathroom, you might install an Airmada Air-Jet Shower Drying System.  It directs compressed air through special nozzles on the walls and ceiling of your shower, and can operate on a timer so that without your effort, water is removed from the equation and mold doesn’t have a chance to grow.  Another perk is that everyone can walk into a dry bathroom, no matter how many people have showered before you.  Now that is a great use of technology!

Photo by Curology on Unsplash

Q: Do Air Handlers Belong in the Attic?

Q: Do Air Handlers Belong in the Attic?

A: It depends!

(Don’t you love that answer?!)  Every one’s home is different, as well as where their home is built (climate), so there aren’t hard and fast rules, but we can surely show you the pros and cons of putting your air handler in the attic.

First of all, an air handler is part of a split system central AC unit.  In these systems, there are two distinct parts: one contains the condenser that changes the refrigerant from a gas to a liquid to release the heat from inside the house (the condenser is usually located outside), and a second part that contains the evaporator (which absorbs heat from the house air) and a blower to move air through ductwork to different rooms.  This second part is called the air handler and because it’s not super quiet and can take up a good amount of space, many people install their air handler in the attic.

The attic may or may not be a good location for your air handler.  Here’s how to know: is your attic conditioned, or unconditioned?  Conditioned attics are considered part of the building envelope and they are insulated.  Conditioned attics don’t have to be “finished” per se with drywall and nice flooring, but they do need to be air-sealed from the outdoors.  Air handlers CAN belong in conditioned attics. 

Unconditioned attics (also called vented attics) are exposed to exterior temperatures through ridge vents, gable vents, soffit vents or powered vents.  There is no “air conditioning” so humidity, dust, insects and extremely high or low temperatures are all present in an unconditioned attic.  Air handlers DO NOT belong in unconditioned attics.  Why?  

  • For one, the air handler is responsible for moving the air you breathe, and even a small leak in it or the ductwork will pull humid, dusty, unconditioned air from the attic into your home.  
  • Extreme temperatures cause your air handler to work less efficiently, which translates to higher heater and cooling costs.  
  • The air handler is an expensive piece of equipment that can cost thousands of dollars; to minimize breakdowns and maximize its life, it’s best to place it in a clean, moderated environment!
  • Accessing and crawling around a dirty, dusty attic makes routine maintenance or needed repair work more difficult.
  • If the condensate drain plugs up and overflows the pan under the unit, guess where that water will go?  Onto and through your ceiling!

“Conditioned space” in your home costs money, because it is part of the square footage that realtors count when valuing your home.  For this reason, homeowners and many builders prefer to stick the air handler “out of sight and out of mind” in the attic or worse, in an unconditioned crawl space.  Now that you know better, if you have the opportunity, give your air handler an “upgraded” installation spot in your home.  Here are some tips for finding that spot:

  • The air handler should be centrally located in the home in order to minimize ductwork run lengths to all rooms.
  • Closets are better than the attic, but without enough room to do maintenance on your unit, small closets are not ideal.  Without room to walk or reach around the unit, HVAC technicians will have a hard time making good sealed connections with ductwork, and if anything needs repair, it takes longer to do it, possibly requiring removal of the whole unit.

It’s tough to understand how this air handler and ductwork were installed in such a small space.  (Source: energyvanguard.com)

  • A large utility space is ideal.  You will not want carpet or hardwood below the unit, so that any water leaks can be cleaned up easily.  Good lighting also makes it easier for you to check on the unit from time to time, and to change any filters.  

When replacing your air conditioning unit, we hope you will give serious thought on where to locate the new air handler.  Giving it preferential space inside your home will give you quality air for years to come.  It’s important, however, to make sure that:

  • This room or large closet has its own air supply and return, because when air gets sealed behind closed doors (and you will want to close the door to isolate the unit acoustically), mold can develop.  This can be accomplished by placing a grille in the return of the air handler, and placing a supply grill in the wall or through the ceiling with a “jump duct”. This article from renowned building scientist Joe Lstiburek shows the flaws of different locations and how to overcome ventilation issues.
  • Locating an air handler next to a gas appliance such as a gas hot water heater can be problematic, unless it is a “sealed combustion” unit.  The air handler will cause the room to be under slight negative pressure while the fan is on, which can affect combustion and venting of the water heater.  
  • If your furnace is a gas furnace, you’ll need to make sure it also gets adequate combustion air.

If you can’t bring it inside your building envelope, you may consider a unit that doesn’t require big air handlers–namely, mini-split units.  One external compressor/condenser can supply several indoor units (evaporators), which are typically hung on the wall, with only small refrigerant and drain lines running between the inside and outside.  Where there’s a will, there’s usually a way!