Rental apartment air quality can be lacking and is often not a primary concern for the landlord. However, it is a major contributor to your well-being and deserves close attention.
Unfortunately, when you are renting an apartment, you do not have the freedom to remodel your home. Therefore, it is a good idea to identify common indoor air pollutants and take preventive measures that do not require making radical changes to the apartment.
Common indoor air pollutants are CO, CO2, VOCs, radon, and fine dust. Potential health effects include irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, headaches, fatigue, and nausea. The best methods of prevention are continuous ventilation, good cleaning habits, and installing an air quality monitor.
At the end of this article, you can find my overview table of all the common pollutants, their health effects, and what you can do to prevent exposure.
Common indoor air pollutants
There are many compounds that reduce air quality and pose some kind of health risk. The health risk is dependent on the type of compound, the amount present in your indoor air, your exposure to them, and your overall well-being.
The most common air pollutants found indoors are:
- fine dust particles
- carbon monoxide (CO)
- CO2 (carbon dioxide)
- radon gas
- volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
Unfortunately, most air pollutants are not noticeable since they are odorless and colorless. Therefore, it is wise to get to know how these compounds enter your air, what their potential health effects are, and most importantly, how to take preventive measures.
Young children are most at risk
Children are more susceptible to air pollutants than adults because they inhale more air relative to their body weight. Therefore, they are exposed to more pollutants relative to their body weight than adults. On top of that, children’s airways are more narrow than adults. Therefore, irritation and swelling of the airways can more quickly lead to airway blockage.
Contact your landlord
Before you make changes to your apartment or decide to buy any appliances, I recommend contacting your landlord. They might be willing to participate and invest in improving indoor air quality. Also, make sure to discuss what you are allowed to do in your apartment to improve your air quality.
Good habits to avoid bad air quality
Before we go into the specifics of each common air pollutant, let’s discuss some simple habits that can help prevent poor air quality.
Proper ventilation is required to have healthy indoor air in every room of your apartment. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), indoor air quality is about two to five times worse than outdoor air. Therefore, ventilation should be a continuous process to provide fresh air and remove air pollutants.
Good ventilation means there is constant air exchange between the outside and your indoor air. This can be achieved by having your ventilation vents always open. Additionally, regularly opening a window to air out the house is highly recommended.
Ventilation and heating
Unfortunately, constant ventilation results in some heat loss (or gain, depending on your local climate). If you are interested in learning about heat-recovery ventilation systems, you can read my article: Heat-recovery ventilation in a well-insulated house.
In your apartment, you will likely not have the option to upgrade your ventilation system. You might want to contact your landlord on this issue and see if they’re willing to invest in a heat-recovery ventilation system.
Always turn on the extractor hood in the kitchen
Cooking is a source of air pollution. Therefore, make sure to always turn on the extractor hood. It is best to run it on the highest option. Additionally, whenever you are not using every stove burner at the same time, try using the ones that are best vented by the extractor hood. These are usually the ones at the back. Also, make sure the extractor hood is clean and regularly maintained.
By vacuuming regularly, you remove fine dust particles that otherwise become airborne. These small dust particles can easily enter the lungs and can cause long-term negative health effects.
Don’t skip a good cleaning session
It is easy to do a short cleaning session and skip the parts that take more time and effort. For example, the grout lines between your bathroom tiles. However, when skipping the grout lines, you allow mold growth to flourish. This makes them harder to remove the next time. I recommend wiping the grout lines with regularity to prevent mold growth.
Additionally, you should consider drying the shower walls and tiles after you’ve taken a shower, This also helps prevent mold growth.
On top of that, the showerhead and faucet heads require good cleaning as well.
Use natural cleaning agents
Surprisingly, cleaning agents are a source of air pollutants. Exposure to harmful compounds from cleaning agents depends on many factors, including their composition and reactivity with other compounds. It is most safe to use natural cleaning agents.
Fine dust constitutes very small dust particles. Inhaling them is more harmful than regular dust because they can more easily enter deeper into your lungs. Fine dust particles are found all over the house.
Indoor fine dust comes from cooking, lighting candles, and outdoor air (from car exhausts). There are no safe levels of fine dust.
Health effects of fine dust
Inhaling fine dust can lead to health issues such as:
- irritation of the airways
- a decrease in lung function
- increased respiratory problems and asthma
- premature death in people with lung or heart disease
How to prevent fine dust
The presence of fine dust is not too hard to minimize. Regularly vacuuming the house and making sure your ventilation is working properly goes a long way. Also, make sure to continuously ventilate and clean or replace the ventilation vents regularly.
Is carpet good or bad for indoor dust?
There is an interesting relationship between carpets and indoor air quality. Carpets trap dust particles that are released back into the air when you walk on them. Because of this, dust becomes airborne over and over again. This leads to more frequent inhalation of these particles.
However, they can be a dust sink when vacuumed regularly. When you vacuum often enough to prevent these particles from being kicked back into your air, air quality can be improved by having a carpet.
However, carpets and rugs can be a source of dust and other hazardous compounds as well. They wear out over time and therefore release their fabric and other components as small particles.
Carbon monoxide (CO)
Carbon monoxide (CO) is a dangerous gas that is both colorless and odorless. It is formed by the (incomplete) burning of carbon-based fuels. Incomplete burning happens in all fires and appliances that burn fuels. Even very efficient appliances that burn carbon-based fuels produce some CO.
The most common sources of CO are the central heating system, kerosene and gas space heaters, and the geyser or boiler. Other sources of CO are gas stoves and fireplaces. Additionally, CO can enter the house via leaking chimneys and vents. Tobacco smoke is another common source of carbon monoxide.
The health effects of carbon monoxide
When inhaled, carbon monoxide quickly enters the bloodstream. There, it reduces your blood’s ability to transport oxygen. This can result in complete oxygen deprivation, which can be deadly. In lower quantities, it already causes all kinds of health effects. The following picture shows the health effects of CO exposure. (source: World Health Organisation)
Keep in mind that health effects depend on many factors such as the amount you are exposed to, the duration, and the health of the person.
How to prevent carbon monoxide exposure
Exposure to carbon monoxide can be reduced by doing the following:
- install a CO detector
- proper installation, maintenance, and use of appliances that burn fuel
- cleaning your fireplace and chimney at least once a year
- changing your gas stove to an electric stove
- ventilating continuously
- cleaning your ventilation vents regularly
Carbon monoxide detectors
To make sure you are safe from carbon monoxide, a CO detector is very important. In the Netherlands, CO monitors are not obligatory but highly recommend by the government. When renting an apartment, it is not uncommon to receive one.
Ideally, a CO monitor is placed near your boiler or geyser. Also, place one in the bedroom to make sure you can sleep safely.
A carbon monoxide detector is cheap and you can simply order them on amazon via the picture below.
Carbon dioxide (CO2)
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an odorless, colorless gas that can cause health issues in very high concentrations. Complaints from high CO2 levels include sleepiness and fatigue. You can read more about CO2 in my article: What are healthy indoor CO2 levels?
In the United States, radon gas is the second cause of lung cancer behind smoking. Radon is a natural gas released from the soil and is present in many parts of the world. You can read all about radon in my article: What is radon? (origin, health risk, and preventive measures).
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
Volatile organic compounds mostly come from human-made chemicals that are emitted as a gas from solids or liquids. There are many different VOCs, and their effects can be highly toxic, have no negative effects, or something in between.
The most common sources of VOCs are:
- cleaning products
- dry cleaning fluids
The health effects of VOC exposure
Acute health effects of VOC exposure are:
- headaches, dizziness, a loss of coordination, nausea, and visual disorder
- irritation of the eyes and respiratory system
- allergic reactions including such as asthma and rhinitis
Chronic exposure to VOCs can lead to the following effects:
- damage to the kidney, liver, blood system, and the central nervous system
- some VOCs such as formaldehyde may cause cancer
Keep in mind that the health effects depend on many factors such as the amount of VOC you are exposed to, the duration, and the overall health of the person.
How to prevent VOC exposure
Exposure to VOCs can be minimized by the following:
- don’t mix cleaning agents
- make sure to introduce plenty of fresh air when using cleaning agents
- use natural, no-VOC cleaning products
- use low- or no-VOC paints in your house
Formaldehyde is a commonly occurring VOC. However, I want to mention it separately because the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says it can cause cancer. Formaldehyde is a colorless, pungent-smelling gas that can be released from insulation materials and other building materials like composite wood. Other formaldehyde sources include:
- cleaning products, conditioners, and fabric softeners
- carpets and rugs
- glues and resins
- tobacco smoke
- an insulation material called urea-formaldehyde insulating foam (UFFI)
How to prevent formaldehyde exposure
You can minimize your exposure to formaldehyde byy:
- using formaldehyde-free cleaning agents
- using natural insulation and building materials
- installing natural no-VOC carpeting and rugs
On top of that, the rate at which formaldehyde is released increases with temperature and possibly humidity, according to the EPA. Therefore, maintaining normal levels of humidity and temperature could reduce your exposure. The EPA recommends dehumidifiers for controlling indoor humidity. (source) You can read more about dehumidifiers and air quality monitors below.
A dehumidifier is an electrical appliance that removes humidity from the air. They can often be set to run for a certain time or to run until the desired humidity is reached.
I studied some of the available dehumidifiers and for a medium-sized apartment, I think a regular small-sized dehumidifier is perfect. I recommend looking at amazon for a dehumidifier such as this one.
Mold spores are always present in the air in very small amounts. In these quantities, they do not pose any health hazard unless you are extremely susceptible to them. However, when mold spores land somewhere humid and warm, they can grow and start to produce a lot of spores. This can lead to negative health effects and damage to wood and fixtures.
The bathroom is the most common area in which molds tend to grow as molds prefer high temperatures and high relative humidity.
The negative health effects of mold spores
Mold growth can cause several health problems, mainly due to the inhalation of large amounts of spores. Health effects include (source):
- irritation of the eyes, nose, skin, lungs, and throat
- allergic reactions
- asthmatic issues
- respiratory problems
Preventing mold growth and exposure
There are several ways to prevent mold growth and your exposure to spores.
- regularly and thoroughly cleaning
- using a dehumidifier
- continuous ventilation
- wearing gloves, goggles, and a mask when cleaning mold
Air quality monitors
If you always want to be aware of VOCs, and other harmful substances in your apartment, an air quality monitor is a good option. It can measure airborne chemicals, and the temperature and humidity, depending on the specifications of the device.
If you want to buy an air quality monitor, I recommend purchasing a model that can measure a wide range of pollutants. Otherwise, you might worry if you are missing just that one compound that is causing problems.
I found a Norwegian company called Airthings, that produces excellent air quality monitors. They are easy to operate and can send data to an app on your phone.
I recommend the Airthings View Plus as it measures a very wide range of compounds and conditions of your air.
Discount on Airthings air quality monitor
You can purchase the VIew Plus or any other Airthings device with a 10% discount when using my coupon code. Go to the discount store via this link: discount.airthings.com. There, you will get access and a 10% discount when entering my coupon code: 665381-10OFF.
Do plants improve indoor air quality?
Houseplants can help improve indoor air quality. However, you will need hundreds of them in your apartment. There seem to be many blogs on the internet claiming that NASA published a list of houseplants that purify your air. However, the truth is that good continuous ventilation is by far the most important for good indoor air quality.
Plants can never be a substitute for good ventilation and regular cleaning. I wrote an in-depth article on the topic of houseplants that you can read here.
Table 1. Overview of common pollutants, their health effects, and preventive measures.
|Hazardous compounds||Sources||Health effects||Preventive measures|
|Fine dust particles||– fuel-burning such as car exhaust and fire|
– lighting candles
– 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
– 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|
– dry cleaning fluids
|– 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|
– 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