Home office indoor air quality guide (common pollutants, health effects, and prevention)

People are working from home much more often, especially during the covid-19 crisis. Although most people are aware of the importance of a good computer setup to avoid ergonomic issues, indoor air quality is easily overlooked.

Indoor air quality has a significant impact on your wellbeing and productivity. Lets take a look at the most common indoor air pollutants that can plague your home office, and see what you can do about them.

Poor air quality can cause several health effects including fatigue, irritation of eyes, nose, and throat, and headaches. Appliances and products of concern are the central heating system, ventilation, and cleaning products. Preventive measures include good cleaning habits, continuous ventilation, and installing an air quality monitor.

At the end of this article, you can find an overview table of all the common indoor air pollutants, their health effects, and what you can do about them.


Why is indoor air quality important?

Good air quality improves to your wellbeing, comfort, and productivity. However, when the air you breathe contains hazardous compounds, it can lead to negative health effects, both in the short and long term.


The health effects of low air quality

Usually, health effects due to poor air quality are relatively minor. Common symptoms include dry eyes, a little fatigue, or a cough. However, some compounds have more serious health effects than others.

Increased exposure, because of a longer exposure time or higher concentrations, increases the severity of the effects. Other important factors are your overall well-being, age, and sensitivity to the compound.

Home office with laptop, plant and a cup of coffee.
Photo by freestocks on Unsplash


The immediate effects of bad indoor air

Exposure to air pollutants can sometimes lead to direct negative health effects. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), these effects can be:

  • irritation of the eyes, nose, or throat;
  • headaches
  • fatigue
  • dizziness
  • increased symptoms of asthma or other illnesses


The long-term health effects

According to the EPA, long-term health effects of indoor air pollutants can show up years after exposure. Potential long-term health effects include:

  • respiratory disease
  • heart disease
  • cancer


Taking immediate action

Short-term health effects of poor air quality can easily be overlooked. Even if you identify that your cough or fatigue might be caused by air pollution, you usually don’t know the exact source.

What you can do immediately when you notice health effects is to open doors and windows. This airs out the room and allows fresh outdoor air to clean your air. If you have an idea what the source of the pollutant(s) can be, removing the source or removing yourself from the source should eliminate the problem.

It is of course best to prevent the health effects of poor air quality by taking preventive measures. So, when you suspect some health effects could be caused by long-term exposure, you should take serious preventive measures. This can be a habit change to ventilate more often, or purchasing an air quality monitor or air purifier.


Appliances and household products of concern

There are several common indoor air pollutant sources that are present in almost every home. Therefore, some of them are likely present in or near your home office. Appliances and products should be used with care and maintained properly. In this way, you can minimize their emission of air pollutants.

These products and appliances include:

  • poorly cleaned or poorly maintained ventilation
  • geysers, boilers, and central heating system
  • carpets
  • cleaning products


Poorly cleaned or maintained ventilation

Ventilation is the most important factor for indoor air quality. Proper ventilation makes sure stale and polluted indoor air is transported outside and fresh outdoor air enters the room.

Is it strongly recommended to make sure you ventilate constantly and sufficiently. Therefore, you need to make sure that your ventilation system is regularly maintained and cleaned.

A general rule for the ventilation system is to clean it every three months and replace the filters twice a year. This, of course, depends highly on for example if you have pets or allergies (in that case you should replace and clean more often).


Geysers, boilers, and central heating system

Household heating systems are a source of concern mostly due to their emission of carbon monoxide (CO). CO is emitted even from the most efficient appliances. Therefore, it is recommended to hang a few carbon monoxide detectors in your house.

You should consider installing one in your home office. Especially when your central heating system is continuously running or you suspect your ventilation system is not sufficient. Depending on where the water heating system is situated, another CO detector should be installed there.


Cleaning products

Surprisingly, cleaning agents are a source of air pollution. Exposure to compounds emitted from cleaning agents depends on many factors, including its composition and reactive chemistry. It is safest to use natural cleaning agents.


Carpets and rugs

The relationship between carpets and rugs and indoor air quality is an interesting one. Carpets and rugs trap dust particles that are kicked back into the air when you walk over them. Hereby, they contribute to a continuous increase of airborne dust.

However, since carpets and rugs trap dust particles, they can be a dust sink when vacuumed regularly. Hereby, they can potentially contribute to the removal of airborne dust.

Additionally, carpets and rugs can themselves be a source of dust and hazardous compounds since they wear out every time you walk on them.

If you are considering purchasing a rug, or already have a carpet or rug and want to replace it, I recommend considering buying a natural rug that does not contain hazardous substances.


Natural rugs

I found a company called Natural Area Rugs that sells rugs made from all-natural materials such as jute, sisal, and even seagrass. These rugs really look amazing and do not emit any VOCs. You can find these wonderful rugs on naturalarearugs.com.

Photo by Sven Brandsma on Unsplash


Do plants improve indoor air quality?

In short, yes, indoor plants can help improve indoor air quality. However, there seem to be many blogs on the internet claiming that NASA published a list of houseplants that completely purify your indoor air of all pollutants.

The truth is that good andcontinuous ventilation is by far the most important factor for good indoor air quality. Plants can never be a substitute for good habits such as ventilating often and cleaning regularly. I wrote an in-depth article on the topic of houseplants and air quality. You can find it here.

Houseplants in your home office are, however, a very good idea for other reasons than air quality. They can contribute to your overall well-being by adding color to your office space, bringing some nature inside, and they have been found to make people happier.


Good habits to prevent (exposure to) indoor air pollutants

There are several habits that you can adopt to make sure your exposure to air pollutants is as small as possible.


Continuously ventilate

Good ventilation is very important for good air quality in your home office. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that indoor air quality is usually five times worse than outdoor air quality. Therefore, allowing fresh outdoor air inside through ventilation should be happening constantly.

Good ventilation makes sure there is a constant exchange of air between the outside and your indoor air. This can be achieved by always having your ventilation vents open. Additionally, regularly opening a window to air out the house is a healthy practise.


Regularly vacuuming

By vacuuming more often, you will remove small dust particles from surfaces before they become airborne. These particles easily enter the lungs and can cause long-term health effects.

Clean your desk and work equipment often

Your desk and your work equipment get dirty quite quickly. They quickly gather dust or food scraps or get coffee stains. This makes for an easy breeding ground for bacteria and molds. First of all, you should consider not eating and drinking behind your computer. Additionally, a regular cleaning of your equipment and desk is recommended.

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash


Common air pollutants, health effects, and prevention methods

There are many compounds that can pollute that air and pose a health risk. Health risk depends on several factors. These factors include: type of compound, amount present in your air, exposure, and your overall health.

The most common indoor air pollutants are:

  • fine dust particles
  • CO2 (carbon dioxide)
  • carbon monoxide (CO)
  • volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
  • formaldehyde
  • radon gas
  • mold

UnMost air pollutants aren’t noticeable because they are odorless and colorless. Therefore, it is good to learn how these compounds enter your air, what their potential health effects are, and how to take preventive measures.


Fine dust

Fine dust particles are very small dust particles. They are especially harmful because they can more deeply enter your lungs compared to larger dust particles. Fine dust is found everywhere indoors.

Indoor fine dust has many causes. These include cooking, candles, and outdoor air (coming from cars and other fuel burning). There are no safe levels of fine dust. Any amount if more harmful than zero fine dust inhallation.


Health effects of fine dust

Breathing in fine dust particles can lead to health complaints such as:

  • irritation of airways
  • an increase in respiratory problems and asthma
  • decreased lung function
  • premature death in people with lung or heart disease


How to prevent fine dust?

Fine dust can best be prevented by vacuuming the house often and making sure your ventilation is sufficient. Make sure to continuously ventilate and clean and/or replace the ventilation vents with regularity. Also, do not forget to change your vacuum cleaner bag on a regular basis.


Carbon monoxide (CO)

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless odorless gas formed by the incomplete burning of carbon-based fuels. Incomplete burning happens in all fires, including very efficient ones.

The most common sources of carbon monoxide are: the central heating systems, and kerosene and gas space heaters such as boilers and geysers, gas stoves, and the fireplace. Additionally, carbon monoxide can enter the house via leaking chimneys and vents. Tobacco smoke is also a source of CO.


Health effects of carbon monoxide

When inhaled, CO quickly enters the bloodstream and reduces its ability to transport oxygen. This results in a loss of oxygen, which can be deadly in high doses. In lower doses it can cause all kinds of health effects. The following figure shows the health effects of CO exposure. (source: World Health Organisation)

Keep in mind that health effects depend on many factors such duration and the overall health of the person.


Diagram showing the health effects related to carbon monoxide exposure relative to the amount of exposure.
Figure 1. CO exposure and health effects


How to prevent CO exposure

Exposure to CO can be minimized by doing the following:

  • proper installation, maintenance, and use of combustion appliances
  • clean your fireplace and chimney once every year
  • ventilate constantly
  • clean ventilation vents often
  • install a carbon monoxide detector


Carbon monoxide detectors

Normally, at least two CO detectors are installed in a house. One near the most likely source of CO, your geyser or boiler, and one in your bedroom.

For more information about this, I recommend this article on safety.com. It shows the laws of every state in the US regarding CO detectors.

A CO detector is quite cheap and you can easily find them on amazon by clicking the picture below.


CO2 (carbon dioxide)

CO2 (Carbon dioxide) is a colorless and odorless gas that only causes health problems in high concentrations. The consequences, however, can be fatal. You can more about CO2 in my article: What are healthy indoor CO2 levels?

Radon gas

In the United States, radon gas is one of the most common causes of lung cancer. Radon gas is common in many parts of the world. You can read more about radon gas in my article: What is radon? (origin, health risk, and preventive measures).


Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)

For the most part, volatile organic compounds are human-made chemicals, emitted as a gas from solids or liquids. There are many different VOCs, and their effect ranges from harmless to highly toxic. (source)

The most common sources of VOCs are:

  • paint
  • deodorizers
  • cleaning products
  • dry cleaning fluids


The health effects of VOC exposure


Acute health effects of VOC exposure include:

  • headache, dizziness, nausea, visual disorder, and loss of coordination
  • allergic reactions such as asthma and rhinitis
  • irritation of the eyes, lungs, or throat


Chronic exposure to VOCs can lead to the following effects:

  • damage to the kidneys, liver, blood system, or nervous system
  • some VOCs can cause cancer, such as formaldehyde


How to prevent VOC exposure

To minimize your exposure to volatile organic compounds, take care of the following:

  • never mix cleaning agents
  • provide fresh air when you’re cleaning with cleaning agents
  • use natural no-VOC cleaning agents
  • use low- or no-VOC paints


Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde is a common VOC. However, I mention it separately because the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says it can potentially cause cancer. Formaldehyde is a colorless, pungent-smelling gas. It can be released by many sources such as:

  • cleaning products, fabric softeners, and conditioners
  • glues and resins
  • carpeting
  • building materials such as composite wood
  • a type of insulation called urea-formaldehyde insulating foam (UFFI)
  • smoke from cigarettes (and cigars etc.)


How to prevent formaldehyde exposure

You can prevent exposure to formaldehyde by:

  • using formaldehyde-free and natural cleaning agents
  • applying natural insulation and other building materials
  • using natural no-VOC carpeting


Also, according to the EPA, the amount and speed at which formaldehyde is released from a product increases with temperature and possibly humidity. Therefore, maintaining optimal humidity and temperature can reduce your exposure. The EPA recommends dehumidifiers to control the indoor humidity. (source) You can read more about dehumidifiers and air quality monitors below.


Mold growth

Mold spores are always present in the air in very small amounts. They normally do not pose a health risk. However, when mold spores land in a place that is humid and warm, they can start to grow and produce very large amounts of spores. Inhaling large amounts of spores can lead to health problems and can damage wood and fixtures.


Negative health effects of mold

Inhalation of mold spores in large quantities can lead to health problems. These effects include: (source)

  • irritation of the eyes, nose, skin, lungs, and throat
  • asthmatic problems
  • allergic reactions
  • respiratory problems


Preventing mold growth and exposure

There are a few ways to prevent mold from growing in your house, and to prevent inhaling its spores. These include:

  • continuous ventilation
  • regular and thorough cleaning
  • wear gloves, goggles, and a mask when there is a lot of mold growth
  • installing an air dehumidifier


What you can do to clean your indoor air

Other than the abovementioned good habits and regular maintenance of your ventilation system, there are a few deices that can help improve the healthiness of your air.


Dehumidifiers

A dehumidifier is an electrical appliance that removes moisture from the air. They are effective against mold growth and the release of VOCs. On top of that, they make the indoor air feel more comfortable by optimizing the humidity.

There are many different dehumidifiers for many different rooms such as the wardrobe, bedroom, or living room. I studied some of the available dehumidifiers, and for a single room, a regular small-sized dehumidifier should do great. There are excellent options such as this one on amazon.

If you want to know more about dehumidifiers, I recommend taking a look at the various articles I wrote about them. I recommend starting here: Dehumidifier pros and cons: everything you need to know.


Air quality monitors

An air quality monitor is a measuring device that helps to be aware of the levels of humidity, VOCs, and other harmful substances. It can measure chemicals, temperature, and humidity, depending on the device.

If you want to buy an air quality monitor, I recommend choosing a model that measures a wide range of air pollutants. In this way, you don’t need to worry if you are missing just that one compound that is causing problems.

For more information, I recommend reading my article: What to look for in an air quality monitor: essential measurements and features.

A Norwegian company called Airthings produces excellent air quality monitors. They are easy to operate and send their data to an app on your phone.

I recommend the Airthings Wave Plus as this monitor not only measures humidity levels and VOCs but also CO2 levels, temperature, radon gas, and air pressure.


Discount on Airthings air quality monitor

You can purchase the airthings wave pus or any other Airthings device with a 10% discount using my coupon code. You can reach the discount store via this link: discount.airthings.com. Here, you will get access and 10% off when entering this coupon code: 665381-10OFF.


Overview table

Table 1. Overview of common pollutants, their health effects, and preventive measures.

Hazardous compoundsSourcesHealth effectsPreventive measures
Fine dust particles– fuel-burning such as car exhaust and fire
– cooking
– lighting candles
– smoke
– natural causes
– irritation of airways
– decreased lung function
– an increase in respiratory problems and asthma
– premature death in people with lung or heart disease
– ventilate constantly
– improve ventilation system
– consider natural carpet and vacuum it often
– install an air quality monitor
Carbon monoxide (CO)– incomplete burning of fuel
– central heating system
– fire(place)
– leaky chimneys and vents
– depends on the amount of CO
– ranges from fatigue to confusion to potential death
– install a carbon monoxide detector
– clean your fireplace and chimney once a year
CO2 (carbon dioxide)– car exhausts and (human) exhalation
– improper ventilation
– depends on the amount of CO2
– bar air complaints, headache, sleepiness, loss of concentration
– ventilate constantly and properly
– air out the house regularly
– monitor air quality
Radon gas– soil and groundwater– causes lung cancer– increase ventilation underneath the floor
– install a radon sump system underneath the floor or in the basement
– seal floors and walls
– improve the ventilation of your house
– install a radon ventilation fan
VOCs– cleaning products
– deodorizers
– dry cleaning fluids
– paint
– headache, dizziness, loss of coordination, – nausea, visual disorder
– irritation of eyes and respiratory tract
– allergic reactions
– use cleaning agents according to instructions
– never mix cleaning agents
– provide fresh air when cleaning
– use natural no-VOC cleaning agents
– use low VOC paints
Formaldehyde– cleaning products, fabric softeners and conditioners
– carpets
– glues and resins
– tobacco smoke
– UFFI insulation
– headache, dizziness, loss of coordination, nausea, visual disorder
– irritation of eyes and respiratory tract
– allergic reactions
– Formaldehyde potentially causes cancer
– use formaldehyde-free or natural cleaning products
– apply natural insulation and building materials
– consider natural no-VOC rugs
Mold– spores in outdoor air– irritation of eyes, nose, skin, lungs, and throat
– allergic reaction
– asthmatic problems
– respiratory ailments
– regular and thorough cleaning
– continuous ventilation
– installing an air dehumidifier