How to improve indoor air quality in natural ways?

Improve air quality naturally

If you live in the countryside, you'll already know the benefits of lungfuls of clean, crisp air. But here's a dilemma: You work in the centre of a busy city and you want some fresh air. Which is the better air to breathe - indoors or outdoors?

The relationship between fresh air and health has long been understood. We know that certain medical conditions - especially respiratory illnesses such as asthma and pneumonia - are made worse by poor air quality, but there are other issues that have also been linked to breathing in pollutants. From cardiovascular disease to fatigue, foetal development to the onset of type 2 diabetes, it seems an increasing number of illnesses are being attributed to toxic air.

We know we need fresh air, but it's not as simple as just flinging open the windows. In some areas, especially traffic-choked city centres, it is a toss-up between letting in polluted outside air or breathing in stale, equally toxic air from inside a building. Studies have shown time and again that indoor air quality is often worse than outdoor pollution levels, mainly due to our love affair with products and materials that give off toxic fumes, including paints, cleaners, tobacco, air fresheners and adhesives. The Royal College of Physicians, for example, suggests that pollutants can be up to one hundred times higher indoors than outdoors. 

You will find the following information in this article:

  1. The relationship of air quality and wellbeing
    1. The importance of air quality in corporate buildings
  2. How to improve air quality in natural ways
    1. Reduce and remove
    2. Ventilate
    3. Clean
  3. Indoor plants as air filters
    1. Top 10 indoor plant air cleaners
  4. How does nature improve air quality?

1. The relationship between air quality and wellbeing

The improvement of air quality has always posed as a great challenge for engineers. They are always thinking about how to improve the air quality inside the buildings they are creating as they not only care for the integrity of the building but also the well-being of the occupants. With this, modern technology offers solutions in creating a better air quality system for the indoors.

Through the constant studies made concerning air quality, it has been found out that there are more air pollutants indoor than outdoor. Outdoor pollutants brought in by the occupants through continuous ingress while indoor pollutants emerge from the materials that make up the building and the furniture in it. Although, there have been many attempts in improving indoor air quality like better air filters and airtight building envelopes, indoor air quality still has high air pollutants than of the outdoors.

Improve air quality naturally

The effects of air quality to our health may not be a big thing in mainstream health news but the studies conducted by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) show that poor indoor air quality is among the top five environmental dangers to public health. We do not make a big deal out of air qualities as we do not perceive it with out naked eyes, but it should be something to be alarmed about. Symptoms of being enclosed in areas with poor air quality are headaches, fatigue, trouble concentrating, and irritation of the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs. Symptoms of being exposed to poor air quality through a long period of time may also appear such as impaired memory, degraded cognitive performance, disrupted sleep, increased rates of asthma, heart disease and certain cancers.

With this, it is important that we pay attention to the air quality of our homes and prevent the deterioration of our wellbeing. 

The importance of air quality in corporate buildings

man in blue dress shirt sitting on rolling chair inside room with monitors

It is a known fact the employees is one of the major investments a company invests on. Companies spends more money on the salaries of employees than electric bills and whatnot. Therefore, the wellbeing of employees is topmost priorities of companies as they are the ones who provide labor. With this, well-taken care of employees has boosted productivity and powerful cognitive states than those who are not. Aside from mental factors, the environmental factors also impact the performance of employees. A study from top universities showed that there was a significant correlation between cognitive performance of employees and indoor air quality. The study shows that employees who are surrounded by good air quality have a 101% cognitive performance rate.

However, a problem encountered by these businesses is the conflict between improving the quality of air indoors and the reduction of energy cost. Most probably, it costs more to have the latest and expensive air filters to improve your employee’s productivity than a mid-ranged priced one that somehow does its job. That is why, many have considered adapting the way nature filters the air.

2. How to improve indoor air quality in natural ways

Bearing in mind that we spend around 90 per cent of our day indoors, it's important to get the air quality in our homes and work spaces right. So how do we create cleaner air indoors?

Reduce and remove

You can have a direct effect on how clean the air is in your indoor spaces. Minimize your use of anything that releases chemical vapours, such as hairsprays, non-eco cleaning products, chemical air fresheners and pesticides, high VOC (volatile organic compound) paints, varnishes and lacquers, adhesives and building 'materials that contain formaldehyde, such as MDF and plywood. Anything that combusts in the home — such as gas, coal and paraffin — can also produce toxic fumes if they're not installed properly or regularly maintained; these should be properly vented and serviced and you should use as up-to-date technology as possible.

Furthermore, one of the factors contributing to poor air quality can be plastic furniture. Toxins emitted by this furniture, particularly during high temperatures, can contribute to air pollution in our interiors.

brown wooden dining table with two gray seats near opened window

Ventilate

Get more fresh air into your living space. There are three ways air can get into your house or work space; the first is through natural ventilation (opening windows, skylights and doors); the second is through mechanical means (such as in-built ventilation systems); and the third is through the natural infiltration that happens in most buildings (the gaps, cracks, chimney flues, floor joints — anywhere air can creep in and out of a space).

In most homes, a combination of plenty of natural ventilation (open windows, trickle vents, etc.) combined with effective sources of fume removal (extractor fans in bathrooms and kitchens clean chimney flues, etc.) should keep fresh
air circulating.

Clean

If you live in a polluted area, and suspect that the air in your building is making you ill, or you're particularly prone to airborne allergies, there are measures you can take to improve indoor air quality.

1. Establish what's causing the problem

There are companies and air-quality testing kits that can identify if there's an issue.

2. Get a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter

These trap the very small particles that other vacuum cleaners simply blow back into the room.

3. Vacuum regularly or, better still, switch to wooden, lino or stone floors where possible

Carpets trap dust, spores and particles of pollution.

4. Grow some air-filtering foliage

Have a look at the next section - Indoor plants as air filters

5. Consider an air purifier or filter

These vary hugely in effectiveness. Look for four things: a good-quality HEPA filter, an activated carbon filter (which removes gases from traffic pollution), the room size it is recommended for and how many air exchanges it can do in an hour (the more the merrier).

3. Indoor plants as air filters

In the late 1980s, NASA had to address the viability of long-term space inhabitation but was unsure of how to tackle the issue of fresh air. How would people cope in a tightly sealed space capsule if it became rapidly polluted with chemicals released by the materials used in its construction?

As a result, an experiment was carried out to determine how effective plants were at removing toxins from the air. When harmful airborne chemicals (such as benzene) were introduced into a small chamber containing a plant, the plant was able to absorb the chemicals and significantly clean the air."

Indoor plants have remained popular among those seeking to purify the air in their homes and offices since then. However, a word of caution is necessary.

More tests, such as those conducted in open-plan offices, have yielded mixed results. Skeptics argue that the problem is one of scale: the number of plants required to clean the average living space may simply be too large to be practical — possibly hundreds to achieve the same results as the NASA study.

So, what is the solution? Bill Wolverton, the guy behind the original NASA study, claims that houseplants are most successful at eliminating pollution when utilized in sealed, non-ventilated rooms, which is common in modern, energy-efficient houses and offices. A new experiment in which a devil's ivy plant was genetically modified to absorb more chemicals from the up airborne poisons at a rate nearly five times that of a normal plant showed that the new plant was able to take air as an interesting postscript to Wolverton's initial work.

Top 10 indoor plant air cleaners

1. Areca palm (Dypsis lutescens)

2. Lady palm (Rhapis)

3. Bamboo palm (Chamaeciorea seifrizii)

4. Rubber plant (Ficus elastica)

5. Dracaena (Asparagaceae)

6. English ivy (Hedera helix)

7. Dwarf date palm (Phoenix roebelenii)

8. Fig trees (Ficus)

9. Boston fern (Nephrolepis exaltata)

10. Peace Iily (Spathiphyllum)

4. How does nature improve air quality?

foggy mountain summit

When talking about nature, we would usually imagine air to be the best quality because well – it is nature. Contrary to this belief, as nature is composed of plants, animals and its natural geology, the elements from these organisms also participate in the air pollution. They breed airborne particles, pollen, mold, bacteria, or noxious gases that endanger life when clumped into an abundant amount. However, aside from these that contribute to the pollution, there is one layer of Earth that has remained pure and intact despite its centuries of existence – this layer is called the Earth’s Troposphere. The bottom layer of our atmosphere – the Troposphere, has a mechanism that enables it to remain clean after millions of years have passed. Although its interaction with outside elements such as the plants, soil, ocean, and rainfall contribute to its cleaning mechanism, it is important to note that the cleaning process of the atmosphere does it itself.

The element that helps the Troposphere with its cleaning mechanism is the Tropospheric air ions. These are ions that self-regulate pollutants. There are three ways that the atmosphere cleans itself:

  1. Agglomeration – this process binds particles until they precipitate out of the air.
  2. Sterilization – this process acts on the surface of microorganisms to remove the hydrogen wall of the cells and prevent reproduction and contact with other atoms and avoid the spread.
  3. Oxidation – this process neutralizes pollutants and convert its property from gas to water soluble to be washed away with the rain.

With this, the ions are concentrated into the air and determines whether the air is polluted or not. Good quality air has an ion concentration of 300-1,000 . Consequently, there are also unique circumstances wherein environmental conditions near waterfalls and high mountains has as high as 5,000 . This is made possible by what is called as the Lenard Effect. The Lenard Effect happens when water droplets bump into each other and causes a spray that makes contact with air molecules that make a stabilized superoxides. These superoxides contribute to the high concentration of ions in the air.

The indoor air quality in metropolitan places is so low that a survey of the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) discovered that one of the airport's sectors had only 75. Bacteria and airborne particles may be able to live longer in this type of environment than in places with higher ion concentrations. Diseases and viruses are likely to spread among passengers as a result of the poor air quality. Fortunately, the officials of the mentioned airport were aware of the great risk this poses to passengers, and they responded by conducting air ionization treatment in the airport, which resulted in a rise in ion concentration to 824.

This event reminds us that, like cleaning our house and eating well, being conscious of the air quality in our houses is an important part of maintaining our health.


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