Windows: To vent or not to vent?

I like an open window as much as the Pinterest-loving ammeter decorator-wannabe next door, but every time I do, I anxiously think – Mosquitos. A.C. Bugs. Road sounds. Privacy. Mosquitos. What can I say, it’s been another traumatizing Texas summer!

However, once in a while, I open a screened window and turn on a fan, and I know it’s the healthier thing to do.

Why in the world is opening up my house to the dirty world outside a benefit to me?

Why is this a benefit to you? to your kids?

Creating more opportunities in your home for better ventilation benefits your health through increasing your indoor air quality (IAQ). IAQ is one of the most far-reaching fields to study when researching the connections between residential design and human health. Factors include your air conditioner, heater, and vent system, all the way down to your type of furniture, your carpet, your cleaning products and your dusting habit, just to name a few. But we’ll talk more about that later. Baby steps.

(But if you want more, this eye-opening, easy-to-read slideshow lecture from UT is a great place to start).

So, let’s talk comparative pollution levels (woo!)


Question: Which is worse: indoors or out? 

Let’s answer this as fast as throughly possible. ASHRAE, (The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers… I prefer to mentally-mumble something like “Ash-rhay”) is a national society respected for collecting research and publishing fresh annual standards for their field.  They wrote this short, comprehensive article about some of the main facets of creating high indoor air quality and the importance of proper ventilation in the modernized home. This part if one of my favorite parts I think you need to read:

“In the past, residential ventilation was not a major concern because it was felt people were getting enough outdoor air by opening their windows and by air leaking through the building’s walls. As homes and duct systems were built tighter to save energy, trapping contaminants indoors, concern rose about indoor air quality, especially since people spend almost 90 percent of their day indoors — 65 percent of that in their homes. Also, residents are now less likely to open windows because of energy costs, security issues, drafts, noise and dirty air from outside.”

Trapped contaminants. Inside all day. Air-proof box houses. Got it?

If you don’t believe me, watch this engaging (7min) video by two goofy men and a beeping VOC (volatile organic chemical) meter who test VOC air pollution levels throughout urban L.A. I highly recommend using a tiny bit of time to watch it – I think you’ll be surprised! And maybe laughing. But if not, read on…

Thinking about indoor pollution levels:

They’re almost always (always) worse than the outdoors. That first ASHRAE article says, “Studies from the Environmental Protection Agency on human exposure to air pollutants show that indoor levels of pollutants may be two to five times, sometimes more than 100 times, higher than outdoor levels.” SAY WHAT.

Yet there are certain common activities that greatly increase the pollution levels inside your home that you need to be aware of to combat properly:

Most of these chemicals that are released are classified as VOCs, volatile organic chemicals, such as the aerosolized chemicals and solvents above, or products of incomplete combustion, meaning what’s released when you’re burning things.

VOCs are usually chemicals you can smell – I like this easy-to-read product-chemical list as well as this chemical-product list. Any commercial product that is letting off an odor is most likely not something you want to be inhaling – these chemicals could be taking an irreversible physical toll on your body. They can also increase your child’s chance for asthma & allergies, hormonal problems, and cancer, among many others.

The major pollutants released in combustion – carbon monoxidenitrogen dioxide, and particles, can cause neurological symptoms, irritation and lung damage, for a short list.


Thinking about outdoor pollution:

Almost never worse than indoor. The outdoors is a constantly circulating body of fresh air, and a reliable source for air exchange is almost all situations. But! Check out the stats about your city’s air pollution here, it’s super interesting! (ok, maybe just to me)


Housing near highways experience increased air pollution, which heightens chances of asthma, particularly in children. There are also negative health effects with increased proximity to areas of heavy industry, factories, coal fire power plants, and garbage burning facilities, which release tons of dangerous aerosolized chemicals and particles. One in particular is a class of chemicals called dioxins, which cause liver damage and potential immune system and neurodevelopmental damage, and stick around in our world for a very long time cycling through the food chain.

It’s also dangerous to health (particularly children’s’) to live or work close to farmland where pesticides, fertilizers, and other chemicals are often sprayed. These exposed children can be highly plauged by asthma, developmental problems, and cancer. A monumental study of young Yaqui Valley children show the effects of childhood exposure to farming chemicals through the differences in their neurodevelopment and motor skills compared to other children in the area. This is a great PBS video showing the striking effects, as this article. And unfortunately, spraying these things in your own front yard has these same effects.


In Conclusion:

It is recommended that you do not allow air exchange during period of high outdoor pollution, if that does happen around your residence or office (ex: construction, fertilizer or pesticide spraying, trash burning, etc.).

But, until then, swing your windows wide open! Particularly during those high-pollution indoor activities. Don’t be afraid of the great world around you!


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