It was early September and at 7 am the sky was a dark midnight red. I kept checking the clocks as if they were wrong. Just the day before I had to wear sunglasses to walk my dog at this time. Even my 8-month-old seemed to sense that something was amiss, regularly interrupting his crawling expeditions to stare out the window. There was ash lining our kitchen counter where the window was left open, but unlike the previous days of fires, the air outside smelled clean. Upon researching (aka hopping on social media), I learned that the smoke from the season’s fires had become trapped high in the atmosphere and mixed with our low-lying marine layer, San Francisco’s famous fog. This combination created an apocalyptic orange hue that lasted almost the entire day. In fact, at noon the skies seemed even darker. The sun finally made its appearance at the end of the day, just before it was meant to set.
We, Californians and those living in the Pacific Northwest, have become unwitting experts on air quality, due to our now yearly fire seasons. When the smoke is bad, it is not only a matter of avoiding going outside but making sure our homes are clean and clear, too.
But indoor air pollution is not just isolated to this side of the country. Recent studies have found that the air inside our homes is often of much worse quality than the air outside, regardless of what state we are in. This is an important issue as the EPA has estimated that Americans spend 90% of their time indoors, and that was even pre-pandemic. One can only imagine what that percentage is now.
Poor air quality in our homes is believed to be caused by a number of different things, from our cleaning products to residual particulates after cooking, to old paint or building products, like asbestos, to unseen mold. But even personal care products, like aerosol sunscreens and hairspray, can leave behind what are called VOCs, or volatile organic compounds. Some VOCs are even believed to be cancer-causing and unlike outdoor air pollution, which is measured regularly, we don’t usually test the toxin levels in our homes.
“Yoga girl” Rachel Brathen recently opened up to Women’s Health Magazine about her family’s battle with toxic mold. The Instagram influencer and celebrity yoga teacher had been feeling ill on and off again for years, but her blood work kept coming back as clean. She finally trusted her gut and had an inspection, revealing mold throughout her home, including her young daughter’s room.
As Brathen experienced firsthand, the cleanliness of the air we breathe is vital to our health. While mild pollutants may be only slightly irritating, leading to sneezing or coughing, repeated exposure to poor indoor air can have lasting effects on our health, including heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer. Just as we take our time researching clean beauty products, driving low-emission vehicles, and trying to eat organic and whole foods, it is time to start being more conscious about the air in which we live.
Real quick. Before you go running out and buying up your plant store’s inventory, we need to debunk a common myth. It turns out that plants do not make as big a dent in home air quality as previously thought. Instead, the best way to improve indoor air quality is get to the source.
Here are 5 simple things you can do to keep your home’s air clean and your family healthy:
- Let outdoor air in: This may seem a little counterintuitive to those living in busy cities or fire-laden states, but the Environmental Protection Agency’s top recommendation for improving indoor air is to introduce outdoor air. We experienced this firsthand during fire season when smoke seemed trapped in our apartment, even though the outside air had started to clear up. This is especially important in colder climates during winter, when we can go months without ever opening a window. Even if it’s just for a few minutes a day, let some outside air in and let the inside air out.
- Use an air purifier: Believe it or not, the highest measurement of pollutants in our home was not during fires. It was when we were cooking and specifically, bacon! Seeing those numbers makes you rethink how often you stand in the kitchen and breathe in the smells off the pan. Apparently, Thanksgiving can be especially dangerous, with one study measuring indoor pollutants as higher after cooking a full Thanksgiving meal than on a bad air day in New Delhi, India, which is notorious for pollution. We have a large filter in the living room and then smaller ones throughout the house, in each room. Pro tip: Remember to change the filters often.
- Use green cleaning and personal care products: It can be overwhelming knowing where to start when it comes to switching out products you have been using for generations for nontoxic ones. I continued to use my detergent for years even knowing how unhealthy it was, just because the smell reminded me of childhood. We recommend tackling one area at a time. For example, start with just your cleaning products. Shaklee makes the transition to green cleaning products especially easy with the Get Clean Starter Kit. This not only includes a wide variety of nonharmful products but bottles, sponges, and an organizing caddy.
- Rethink that winter fire: There is nothing cozier than sitting by the fireplace with a cup of cocoa on a cold December day, but it turns out that having woodburning fires can be one of the most dangerous things we can do for our lungs. Many people have invested in gas-burning fireplaces, assuming they are healthier. However, the challenge with those is that they often lack proper ventilation, so while we may not be breathing in smoke, we are ingesting gas. If you choose to run any fire, ensure that you have good ventilation. For a woodburning fireplace, this means making sure the flue is open. Have your chimney inspected regularly to ensure there are no impediments, and don’t be afraid to open the window while running a fire. The fire will keep you warm.
- Switch to nontoxic or electric candles: When it reeks of smoke outside, you want to do everything you can to make it smell good inside, but it turns out that certain candles and most incense are also big contributors to indoor air pollution—specifically, candles with metal wicks and those that are paraffin, which means petroleum-based. Soy-based wax and beeswax are healthier alternatives, but experts recommend reading the labels as some candles are blends. Another safe alternative is flameless wax candles or the smaller LED tea lights, which can look lovely when scattered about the room. If you are missing the smells that candles provide, try naturally occurring fragrances, like buying fresh flowers or opening the window just after the rain.
Sarah Ezrin is a freelance writer, world-renowned yoga educator, popular Instagram influencer, and mama based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her willingness to be unabashedly honest and vulnerable along with her innate wisdom make her writing, yoga classes, and social media great sources of healing and inner peace for many people. Sarah is changing the world, teaching self-love one person at a time. For more information please visit her website www.sarahezrinyoga.com.