Dear EarthTalk: My family has bad allergies and I’d like to improve our indoor air quality. What are some steps I should take? – Marcia Lane, Scranton, PA
Even for those of us without allergies, poor indoor air quality is an often overlooked health issue. Recent research has shown that the air inside some buildings can be more polluted than the outdoor air in the most industrialized of cities. And since many of us spend some 90 percent of our time indoors, cleaning the air where we live and work might be one of the most important things we can do for our health.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lists three basic strategies for improving indoor air: source control, improved ventilation and air cleaners. Source control, whereby emissions from individual sources of pollution are eliminated or reduced—for instance finding somewhere outside the home to store old paint and construction supplies—is typically the most effective strategy.
If the sources of pollution are beyond your control, bringing in more air from outside through better ventilation is the best bet. “Most home heating and cooling systems, including forced air heating systems, do not mechanically bring fresh air into the house,” the EPA warns. “Opening windows and doors, operating window or attic fans when the weather permits, or running a window air conditioner with the vent control open, increases the outdoor ventilation rate.” The agency adds that local bathroom or kitchen fans that exhaust outdoors also remove contaminants while increasing the outdoor air ventilation rate.
Air cleaners (either mechanical filters or electronic cleaners) can also help reduce or remove some forms of indoor air pollution. “Some air cleaners are highly effective at particle removal, while others, including most table-top models, are much less so,” reports the EPA. “People with sensitivity to particular sources may find that air cleaners are helpful only in conjunction with concerted efforts to remove the source.” The agency’s free online “Guide to Air Cleaners in the Home” compares the general types of residential air cleaners and their effectiveness in reducing pollutants including particles and gaseous contaminants.
Some of us swear by our houseplants for keeping our indoor air free of pollutants. Mother Nature Network reports that certain plants are known to filter out specific contaminants: Aloe removes airborne formaldehyde and benzene; spider plants scrub carbon monoxide and xylene; and gerbera daisies take the trichloroethylene left over from dry cleaned items out of your air. The EPA, however, does not consider houseplants to be especially effective at air filtration, and even warns that overwatered indoor houseplants can in and of themselves present a health hazard because damp soil may promote the growth of allergens.
Good housekeeping also can go a long way toward improving indoor air. WebMD reports that regular mopping and vacuuming (with a HEPA-filter-equipped vacuum cleaner), keeping interior moisture levels low, maintaining a smoke-free environment, and ditching chemical air fresheners are all key to maintaining good breathing space inside. WebMD also suggests testing your home for radon, a radioactive gas found in soils that can penetrate cracks in a building’s foundation and has been linked to lung cancer.
CONTACTS: EPA Indoor Air Quality, www.epa.gov/iaq/; WebMD’s “Breathe Easy: 5 Ways to Improve Indoor Air Quality,” www.webmd.com/lung/features/12-ways-to-improve-indoor-air-quality.
Dear EarthTalk: What is the purpose of National Wildlife Week, which I understand will take place in March 2013? – Melissa P., Burlington, NJ
National Wildlife Week is a program of the non-profit National Wildlife Federation (NWF) that is designed around teaching and connecting kids to the wonders of wildlife. Each year, the group picks a theme and provides fun and informative educational materials, curriculum and activities for educators and caregivers to use with their kids.
This coming March 18-24 (2013), the theme of National Wildlife Week is “Branching Out for Wildlife” with a focus on trees. Participating kids will learn about the parts of a tree, the role of trees and how wildlife depend on trees for survival. They can also participate in environmental service projects addressing climate change, healthy habitats, reforestation and connecting with the environment.
Teachers, instructors, coaches and parents can sign up with NWF and get a wide range of free resources—lesson plans, posters, trading cards, etc.—to help spread the educational messages of National Wildlife Week into school curricula, after-school and even at-home activities.
2013 marks the 75th year NWF has run National Wildlife Week, making it the group’s longest running educational program. To mark the milestone anniversary, NWF has adopted the goal of planting 75,000 trees across the country. School and youth groups can apply to host a tree planting event with NWF, which will provide native trees adapted to the local climate, as well as tree guards, shovels, mulch, watering supplies and gloves.
Beyond National Wildlife Week, all year long NWF will feature detailed information on their website about different types of wildlife that live in or are dependent upon trees across the country. Young people are encouraged to stay on the lookout for wildlife near them throughout National Wildlife Week and log their sightings accordingly—and can share them online via NWF’s interactive Wildlife Watch Map.
The Branching Out for Wildlife Mega-Poster is comprised of smaller sections that each graphically display the different parts of a tree—roots and soil, forest floor, trunk, branches and leaves/fruit/flowers—and the wildlife that frequent them. At five and a half feet tall, the complete mega-poster is a real attention grabber in any room. Anyone can print out the sections for free as they are all available via the NWF website as PDF downloads.
Wildlife Week is not the only way NWF educates kids and inspires a lifelong love of nature. The group has worked with teachers for decades to get kids learning outdoors. Recently NWF launched a campaign to get 10 million more American children out of their indoor habitats and into the great outdoors over the next three years. And its Eco-Schools USA and Schoolyard Habitats programs harness the power of teachers and students to green thousands of K-12 schools across the country. And the group’s Earth Tomorrow campaign is a multi-cultural youth environmental program that creates opportunities for underserved youth to learn about their world and contribute to the ecological health of their communities.
CONTACT: NWF National Wildlife Week, www.nwf.org/national-wildlife-week.aspx
Pic courtesy: iStockPhoto
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