Every morning in winter, I get up an hour before everyone else and build a fire.
I throw sweatpants and a wool sweater on over my pajamas. It’s cold inside. Sometimes down to 40 degrees.
The house is old, but it belonged to my grandparents and the original homesteaders before that. It needs insulation and double-glazing. The walls are wood panels laid by my grandfather’s hand. The carpet lays on top of linoleum and is the color of wee.
This is not an article about my house.
This is an article about how I learned that the air inside my house was affecting my health and the health of my child.
Why Should We Care about Air?
Air is just air, right?
Surely we should be more concerned about the chemicals in food and personal care products.
But in a report by Brian Vaszily on the top 25 products in your home that cause early aging and disease, Vaszily claims that indoor air is the #1 source of pollution in our home. And we don’t even realize it, because we’re too busy buying organic and filtering tap water.
The EPA agrees that we need to pay more attention to what we’re breathing. We spend 90% of our time indoors. That air isn’t the cleanest. The air indoors is often more polluted than the air outdoors, even if you live in a city.
The sources of indoor air pollution are legion. They range from cleaning products to candles, countertops, couches, and carpets. Not to mention the paint on your walls, the insulation in your loft, and the pressed wood of your cabinetry.
And, in my case, wood smoke from the fire.
The Dangers of Wood Smoke
I air out my house when the weather is warm. I’ve always left windows open. I feel cooped up without fresh air.
The EPA would applaud my efforts. Homes and offices need a ventilation system that brings in air from the outside, especially if they’re energy-efficient. (Trapping heat inside means trapping polluted air inside.) For a small home like mine, opening a few windows to get a cross-breeze can do that.
But I don’t open those windows in winter. I’d freeze! Instead, I build a fire and keep it going all day long, with a fan to spread heat to the rest of the house.
I first noticed a problem last winter, when my daughter got a particularly nasty case of the flu that kept her home from school. Every time she snuggled up on the sofa in the front room by the fire, her coughing got worse.
I put her in the bedroom with the door shut and a column heater, and her cough got better.
I began to wonder if the wood heat was affecting me as well. I often coughed at night, unable to settle the tickle in the back of my throat. I didn’t think the issue was dry air, as the house got quite damp at night. Was my cough due to particles of smoke in the air?
I began do the research…
And what I found shocked me.
Houses with a wood stove have 26% higher fine particle levels, 29% higher benzene levels, and around 400% higher PAH levels (cancer-causing chemicals produced when substances are burned) than houses with electric heat.
Not only do wood fires pollute indoor air, but they pollute outdoor air, too.
I once lived in a city where everybody had a wood stove. As I walked through my neighborhood, my nose would start to sting and my eyes water. The smoke from all the wood fires hung in the air, unable to disperse.
But when wood is the only source of heat you’ve got, you don’t have much choice.
Do Air Filters Really Work?
The EPA recommends tackling indoor air pollution at the source.
Old carpet, old paint, old insulation, and even old furniture (such as couches with flame retardant chemicals or certain pressed wood products) can all be a source of pollution.
You also want to be careful about the pollutants you bring into your home, like tobacco smoke and household chemicals. Air fresheners and scented candles may release a pleasing odor, but they’re also emitting volatile organic compounds. Choose unscented products where possible, or create your own natural and safe cleaning products with vinegar, baking soda and essential oils.
But if you’re stuck in a rental property that hasn’t been updated since the 1960s, you can’t replace the carpet or the insulation. You really only have one option:
A portable air filtration system.
Air filters are a booming business. Cynthia Cohen of Strategic Mindshare, a retail consulting firm, tells the Washington Post:
Fifteen years ago, people thought it was crazy to buy bottled water. There is now consciousness-raising about poor air quality. We’ve built too many buildings where we cannot open windows.”
Air filters are not cheap.
A “budget” buy will put you back about $100. For that price, you can expect it to clean the air in one room. An air filter that can tackle a larger space will run you anywhere from $250 to $600 (and maybe even more).
Is it worth it?
I was tired of getting sick. I was tired of both of us coughing. So I decided to give an air filter a try. I bought the cheapest one recommended by Wirecutter, a New York Times review site, and set it up in my living room.
This particular air filter was the Blue Pure 411. I checked its Amazon reviews and found that many people said it stopped working after a certain amount of time. So I made sure to fill out the product registration form, which entitled me to a longer warranty period.
I was surprised to find out that all I had to do to get my air filter working was plug it in. Pretty easy!
Most air filters require regular filter replacement, and sometimes those replacement filters can be costly. The reason I picked this particular filter was its cheap running costs (estimated at $6/year in electricity) and cheap replacement filters ($40/year).
Now for the test…
Would it work?
The Sweet Smell of Filtered Air
My house is built on an open plan.
The living room runs into the dining room, which runs into the kitchen.
So my living space is much more than the 200 square feet the Blue Air 411 is designed to purify.
And I could tell. Even though I kept the air filter running on high, it only did a marginal job at removing the smell of smoke and cooking from the air.
So I moved it to the bedroom instead, and that’s where the air filter truly shined.
We spend a third of our life in bed, sometimes more if we enjoy reading or watching television in the bedroom. So, if you can ensure you only breathe the purest air while you sleep, surely you’d see some difference.
I turned the air filter on high an hour before bed (keeping the bedroom door shut, of course) to see what it would do.
The instant I walked into the bedroom, I could smell the difference. The air smelled like the fresh outdoors, that clean scent of air after a good rain.
The high setting was too loud to sleep with, though. I turned the filter down to its medium setting for the rest of the night. The white noise was strangely soothing.
Two months into my air filter experiment, I can definitely say I made the right decision. I’ve come to enjoy the sweet smell of purified air. No coughing yet, either.
Once warmer weather comes, I expect I’ll turn the air filter off and enjoy having my windows open again. But for now, when it’s cold outside, this little air filter will do nice.
Pundits predict that at some point, all new homes will be built with an air filtration system. Until then, portable air filters like mine can fill the gap.
Have you tried an air filter? How has it worked for you? Let us know which brand you recommend (or don’t) in the comments.