Americans are spending more time at home and indoors than ever before due to the ongoing COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. When the pandemic hit, not only did the unemployment rate skyrocket to its worst level since the Great Depression, but those who were able to work remotely started doing so in record numbers. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a stunning 31% of workers switched to working from home by early April 2020. Schools and universities quickly shut down, sending millions of students home to take classes online. With businesses from hotels to restaurants to gyms shuttering seemingly overnight, even recreation was suddenly restricted to people’s own backyards.
As of August 2020, all states are in some phase of reopening, but life is not back to normal. With many businesses still closed and safety protocols such as mask-wearing and social distancing in place, those who are able to stay home are mostly still choosing to do so.
All this staying home means a lower risk for contracting COVID-19, but it also means more potential exposure to indoor air pollution. While outdoor air pollution levels are regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), indoor levels are not. So it’s up to you to make sure the air your family is breathing is as healthy as possible. Fortunately, this can be a win-win, as many of the measures that reduce indoor air pollution can also result in significant discounts on your homeowners insurance.
In this article:
What is Indoor Air Pollution?
Indoor air pollution refers to contaminants in the air you breathe inside a building — in this case, your home. Indoor air pollution can cause immediate health effects, such as irritation of the eyes and throat, fatigue, headaches, and dizziness. It can also worsen existing conditions such as asthma. In addition, some indoor pollutants can cause long-term health problems such as heart disease and even cancer. Here’s an overview of some common indoor pollutants.
|Air Pollutant||Description||Impact on Home|
|Mold||Mold is a naturally occurring organic substance that breaks down dead material such as fallen leaves. Indoors, though, it can pose health risks. There are many types of molds, some more dangerous than others, but all need moisture to survive.||Some molds cause irritation or allergic reactions, while others contain toxic compounds known as mycotoxins. Watch for symptoms such as runny nose, red or watery eyes, sneezing and skin rashes. Mold can also cause extensive damage to your home.|
|Carbon monoxide||Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless, tasteless gas. In the home, it generally comes from leaking or poorly maintained gas appliances, wood stoves or fireplaces.||Health impacts range from fatigue and chest pain at low concentrations to flu-like symptoms and brain fog at moderate concentrations to acute illness or even death at high concentrations.|
|Lead||Lead is a naturally occurring element that was once added to many household products, including paint, dishes and water pipes. Although it is no longer used, it may still be present in homes built before 1978.||Children and pregnant women are at highest risk from lead exposure. Premature birth, low birth weight, behavioral problems, hyperactivity and anemia are common. In adults, lead can cause reproductive problems, cardiovascular disease and reduced kidney function.|
|Nitrogen dioxide||Nitrogen dioxide is a toxic, corrosive gas that is typically associated with defective gas appliances such as stoves or heaters.||Nitrogen dioxide is a respiratory tract irritant. It can cause allergy-like symptoms, worsen asthma, contribute to the development of bronchitis and raise the risk of respiratory infections in children.|
|Stoves, heaters, fireplaces and chimneys||Stoves, heaters, fireplaces and chimneys can be vehicles for some of the pollutants mentioned above. To guard against exposure, make sure they are properly cleaned and maintained.||Impacts vary depending on which specific pollutants are involved.|
|Pet dander||Pet dander, or the skin cells that flake off pets with fur or feather, is a common irritant in many homes.||Pet dander is generally not a concern for those without pet allergies or asthma. In sensitive individuals, irritation of the eyes and nose, coughing, and wheezing are typical symptoms.|
|Tobacco smoke||Tobacco smoke contains hundreds of chemicals known to be hazardous. Indoor smoking does not allow these toxins to escape, creating a buildup in the air and on surfaces.||Tobacco smoke can cause respiratory tract irritation, including coughing and watery eyes. Over time, exposure is also linked to lung cancer, heart disease, and stroke.|
Preventing Coronavirus Cases With Better Air Quality
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in addition to the larger droplets expelled by coughing or sneezing, the coronavirus is easily spread through the aerosols generated by talking, singing, or even breathing. These aerosols disperse fairly quickly outdoors but can hang in the air for hours indoors.
“We really do think that being indoors is where most of the transmission is occurring,” Shelly Miller, professor of environmental engineering who studies indoor air quality at the University of Colorado at Boulder, told WBUR. “And it’s pretty rare now to see anything related to outbreaks from outdoor conditions.”
Asymptomatic people (those who are infected but have no symptoms) can easily transmit the virus indoors. Therefore, maintaining indoor air quality can help combat the spread.
How coronavirus could enter your home
Of course, COVID-19 can’t spread in your home unless it finds an entry point. There are several ways in which the virus could enter your home:
• External transmission — Family members who work or socialize outside the home may be exposed by co-workers, customers, friends, or even strangers. They could then unknowingly bring the virus home.
• Hosting get-togethers — Hosting gatherings at home, even when socially distanced, increases the risk of introducing the virus. Remember, you can’t guarantee that your friends or even your family members have been following all safety protocols.
• Face coverings and other surfaces — Though they are even more effective at stopping you from infecting others, new research shows that wearing a face-covering or mask can cut your risk of contracting the coronavirus by up to 65%. However, the virus can live on face coverings, like all surfaces. Therefore, it’s important to carefully handle your mask when you remove it, and then dispose of it or wash it immediately. It’s also a good idea to wipe down groceries and packages when you bring them inside and leave your shoes at the door. Also, wash your hands after touching anything potentially contaminated.
What if someone tests positive?
If someone in your home does contract the coronavirus despite your best efforts, indoor air quality measures can help reduce (though not eliminate) the risk of in-home transmission. Note that boosting air quality alone can’t get rid of the virus, but it can be an effective part of a cohesive overall risk reduction plan. Here are some things you can do:
• Boost natural ventilation — Open windows and doors on opposite sides and floors of your home. Use fans to move the air, taking care not to point them in such a way as to blow air directly from one person to another.
• Upgrade your HVAC filters — Better filtration may increase the amount of virus that is removed from the air. Consider upgrading to high-efficiency filters, but check your owner’s manual to determine the maximum filtration your HVAC system can tolerate.
• Use a portable air purifier — In tandem with other precautions, a portable air purifier can help to remove more coronavirus from the indoor air. Consider placing a portable purifier in the room where you spend the most time, taking care not to blow the air directly from one person to another.
Other steps to take include isolating the ill person in one room with a separate bathroom, wearing masks and maintaining social distancing inside your home, and not sharing food or utensils. Be sure to frequently disinfect all commonly touched surfaces, such as light switches and doorknobs.
Tips for Improving Your Indoor Air While Saving on Your Home Insurance
There are a few things you can do to improve your indoor air quality that may also help you save money on your homeowners insurance. Every insurance company and policy is different, so check with your insurer for details. In general, though, these tips may bring you a discount:
• Install protective devices for your indoor air like gas leak detectors, carbon monoxide detectors, and smoke detectors. These devices can also save lives, since a gas leak or a fire could quickly turn deadly.
• Update your wood or gas stove to an electric stove. Chefs may prefer gas stoves, but both wood and gas can emit harmful chemicals if not carefully maintained. By switching to an electric stove, you can save on homeowners insurance.
• Stop smoking or vaping, at least indoors. It’s best, of course, to kick the habit. But if you’re not ready to quit, consider setting up a smoking area in your backyard. This will allow smoke, and the hazardous chemicals it contains, to dissipate rather than building up.
• See if your roof needs replacing. An updated roof can prevent excess moisture from collecting in your attic, which is a common cause of mold buildup.
• Consider investing in a dehumidifier. Toxic black mold is common in humid climates, and insurance carriers may not pay to have it removed if you don’t try to mitigate the situation.
• Replace lead pipes and repaint walls that may have lead paint. Lead is most dangerous when it starts peeling or chalking, but it can still cause problems even in relatively good condition. A good coat of modern latex paint will seal the lead paint underneath.
• It’s true that so-called “aggressive” dog breeds are unfairly maligned, but if you’re looking for a new dog, your insurance company may prefer that you choose a “non-aggressive” breed. Regardless, a short-haired, low dander breed is a better choice for indoor air quality.
What Can I Do Right Now?
Some improvements, such as upgrading your roof, take time. But there are some easy things you can do right now to boost your home’s indoor air quality. Here are a few tips:
• Open windows to promote natural airflow and boost ventilation. If possible, choose windows at opposite ends of the house and use fans to push air back and forth.
• Use a doormat to prevent additional biological contaminants from being tracked inside. In addition, there is some evidence that the coronavirus can live on the soles of shoes, so you may want to get in the habit of removing your shoes at the door.
• Dust and vacuum your house. Dust is a prevalent allergen, and dusting and vacuuming will also eliminate pet dander and other common irritants.
• Pick up new filters at your local hardware store — but not just the obvious ones! In addition to upgraded HVAC filters, also grab new filters for your vacuum cleaner and kitchen vent. Thoroughly clean your clothes dryer’s lint filter. Also, make sure you have enough face masks — and filters, if your masks have a filter pocket.
Some bad news for plant lovers: Despite popular wisdom, it turns out that house plants won’t do much to clean your indoor air. Research shows that the number of plants you would need to cleanse the air in an average drafty, cluttered home would be virtually impossible to achieve. There are certainly benefits to fresh plants, but you’ll need to choose other methods to boost your air quality.
Putting It All Together
Indoor air quality is always important, but never more so than when people spend an extended amount of time inside. With the COVID-19 pandemic keeping people home from work, school, and recreation, combined with the fact that it spreads most easily indoors, now is the time to do what you can to boost the quality of your indoor air. Fortunately, some of the same techniques that can help reduce the risk of spreading the virus through the air in your home will also lower the levels of common pollutants in your home. You may even become eligible for homeowners insurance discounts along the way.
Your goals should be to improve ventilation, boost filtration, and lower the number of contaminants in your home. From opening windows to upgrading your HVAC filters to regular vacuuming, these easy-to-follow strategies won’t guarantee that your family won’t get sick, but they can form an important part of your overall risk management plan.