You’re Spending a Lot of Time Indoors Now. Is Your Air Clean Enough?

Unclean air and pollutants in homes can affect immunity and respiratory health, causing greater concerns and diseases

You’re Spending a Lot of Time Indoors Now. Is Your Air Clean Enough?
A worker sits at her dining room table whilst working from home in Stow Maries, U.K. (Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Like many interior designers, Brigette Romanek loves a high-gloss paint—a lacquer finish so shiny you can see your reflection in it. But the Los Angeles decorator had to rethink her methods after she gave her usual treatment to the interior walls of a home in Hancock Park and her clients almost fell ill from the smell.

She’d expected the fumes to dissipate by the time they returned from vacation more than a week later, but she quickly realized one’s sense of smell isn’t always the best judge of air quality. “Right then and there, something clicked,” says Romanek, who’s worked with the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and Beyoncé and Jay-Z. “My clients had fresh noses, but I had gotten used to it—that was the danger.”

Romanek has since joined a growing number of designers, manufacturers, and real estate developers who’ve been paying closer attention to air quality inside the home long before the novel coronavirus made 6 feet of fresh air de rigueur.

Much of the effort so far is to counteract the insidious consequences of “off-gassing.” Many common consumer products emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—potentially harmful gases such as benzene and formaldehyde that are mostly undetectable to the senses—into the air at home. The process can last years.

You’re Spending a Lot of Time Indoors Now. Is Your Air Clean Enough?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says these pollutants can negatively affect immunity and respiratory and cardiovascular health, and some may even cause cancer. One EPA study found the levels of some VOCs were “two to five times higher inside homes than outside,” no matter if they were in rural or highly industrial areas. On average, the agency said, Americans spend 90% of their time indoors (in good times).

One big source of VOCs is home furnishings—upholstery, cushions, and rugs—as well as floors and paint. Interiors guru Thom Filicia, a board member of the Sustainable Furnishings Council, traces this partly to a 1975 California law that required all upholstered furniture to be flame-retardant. Since the state is such a big market, the law almost ensured that furniture chock-full of flame-retardant chemicals became the nationwide standard. “There are now more nontoxic alternatives, so ask your vendor what your home products are made of,” Filicia says. (California banned these problematic fire-retardant treatments in new furniture as of Jan. 1, 2020.)

“The topic of VOCs began coming up among trade professionals about five years ago,” says Jamie Hammel, founder of the Hudson Co., which primarily deals in reclaimed and sustainable wood floors out of its mill in Pine Plains, N.Y. “But very recently we’ve seen consumers with a heightened awareness. They want no VOCs in their finish or in any glues being used.”

In March, Hudson introduced a collaboration with Schotten & Hansen, a German sustainable flooring brand, that features glues and finishes using ingredients only found in nature—beeswax, linseed oil, copal resin.

Most people don’t want to give up their beloved pieces of furniture or rip up their floors. Fortunately for them, air purification has become remarkably advanced in combating VOCs using new technology to monitor air quality in addition to temperature and humidity; advanced filters can trap the tiniest airborne pollutants.

You’re Spending a Lot of Time Indoors Now. Is Your Air Clean Enough?

Whole-home air purifiers are also increasingly integrated into heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems. Last year, New York real estate company Delos Living LLC began its Darwin Home Wellness Intelligence platform, a system that, among other things, uses sensors to regularly monitor interior air for mold, allergens, and VOCs and to automatically remediate any issues through purification and ventilation. “We’re not telling people what couch they can have in their living room,” says Delos founder and Chief Executive Officer Paul Scialla. “You can appreciate and enjoy your aesthetics because you also have the Darwin system.”

Scialla, a former partner at Goldman Sachs, founded Delos in 2009 with the goal of offering commercial and residential real estate with a wellness focus. Bill Gates’s holding company Cascade Investment LLC is a financial backer, and Deepak Chopra and Leonardo DiCaprio are on its board.

In 2014, Delos introduced its WELL Certification, meant to complement the LEED green building standard—though, unlike LEED, it’s a for-profit initiative. (An evaluation for a 100,000-square-foot space runs an estimated $20,000.) Almost 4,000 WELL projects have been registered or certified for a total of almost 500 million square feet across 58 countries. “When you consider chronic health outcomes, only 5% of those are genetic, and about 20% is your lifestyle,” Scialla says, citing his company’s research. “The rest, up to 70%, is determined by your environmental conditions—where you’re spending your time.”

Some say that even central air has its faults. “It’s probably worth mentioning that forced-air HVAC systems can take whatever contaminants you have and spread them around,” says Steve Glenn, founder and CEO of Rialto, Calif.-based Plant Prefab Inc., which builds sustainable prefabricated homes.

You’re Spending a Lot of Time Indoors Now. Is Your Air Clean Enough?

Romanek, the designer, finds that a mix of air-purification techniques and new product choices is a happy compromise. “It used to be that you applied oil-based chemicals to paints for the look that you wanted,” she says. “But now we’ve discovered that those chemicals are toxic, and in certain states they aren’t even allowed anymore. You can literally smell the difference from just a few years ago.”

She switched to such brands as England’s Farrow & Ball, which offers full gloss for all 148 colors of its water-based wall paints, saying they’re (almost) indiscernible from the oil-based options she’s always loved. Ressource, a French company that opened a showroom in the U.S. in 2018, is another high-end option for rich, water-based paints with very low VOCs.

Rugs, in particular, can be overloaded with toxins. “I think about babies crawling on them and putting their mouths on them,” Romanek says. For nurseries, she opts for new carpets with natural materials like the Earth Weave collection from the Green Design Center. The Spanish rug company Nanimarquina also uses natural materials in its designs and eliminates toxic chemicals from the dyeing and manufacturing processes.

Filicia, meanwhile, suggests Feizy, which offers a wide variety of rugs made from natural fiber, and Kravet for its range of textiles including natural fibers of almost every type. His studio has a line of furniture with Vanguard, a Hickory, N.C., manufacturer known for its natural fiber also free of fire retardants.

Inside her 1925 Mediterranean-style home in Laurel Canyon, Romanek couldn’t give up the original maple floors. Instead, she stripped and refinished them, using a more natural stain from AFM Safecoat, this time in a much lighter tone. She finds the floors create a brighter, airier room that also feels bigger. “You can’t always replicate things 100%,” she says. “If I expect the exact same thing, I’m going to be disappointed, so I often do something wild, crazy, and different and embrace that.”

Decorator Jillian Pritchard Cooke also encourages a more DIY approach by finding ways to improve natural ventilation throughout the home—in essence, bring in fresh air. The Atlanta-based designer founded Wellness Within Your Walls in 2006 to provide healthy remedies for everyday households.

Her clients will often ask about hospital-standard HEPA filters, especially after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. But those are designed to trap very fine particles, not gases and odor molecules. She suggests looking for filters with a MERV rating, or Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value. Ultimately, it’s best to look at a range of options. “The wrong thing to do is come up with one element that is being pushed out into the marketplace,” she says. “There’s no one solution to bring about a healthy home environment. It’s a holistic approach.”

Five Air Purifiers to Know

You’re Spending a Lot of Time Indoors Now. Is Your Air Clean Enough?

Aprilaire has been making humidifiers since 1954 and now makes home systems and standalone purifiers. It’s teamed up on awareness programs with the American Lung Association and Wellness Within Your Walls. Its Allergy + Pet HEPA Air Purifier ($599) has a carbon filter that combats odors and VOCs as well as a proprietary trap that captures pet hair and dander.

After raising $58 million in venture capital this year, San Francisco’s Molekule Inc. is a tech darling. LEED-accredited designer Jennifer Jones lauds its air purifiers’ PECO nanotechnology, said to break down the molecular structure of pollutants instead of trapping them the way standard HEPA filters do. The Air Mini ($399) purifies as much as 250 square feet for smaller rooms.

Dyson recently updated its air purifiers with its Cryptomic line. In addition to HEPA filtration, the new line comes with a coated panel that uses oxidation to destroy formaldehyde—a common contaminant that’s much smaller than other VOCs—upon contact. The Pure Hot + Cool ($750) also features a space heater and fan.

The Alen BreatheSmart 75i (from $749) cleans as much as 1,300 square feet of air in 30 minutes, making it ideal for spacious common areas. The interchangeable panels are offered in 21 colors—including blue, marble, and rosewood (shown)—to give it a design-forward sheen. Its quiet WhisperMax technology allows for seamless integration into any type of space.

The AirVisual Pro ($269) uses laser sensors to gauge levels of indoor and outdoor air quality, temperature, and humidity. It also includes a seven-day weather forecast that reports on projected air indexes. And you can check the air quality of places around the globe. The purifier gained attention when it was used in Hong Kong hospitals during the SARS outbreak.

Keep Clothes Chemical-Free, Too

You’re Spending a Lot of Time Indoors Now. Is Your Air Clean Enough?

Toxins can linger in the fabrics you wear as well as in the air you breathe. Formaldehyde—a mild carcinogen known to irritate the eyes, nose, throat, or skin—is often used as a wrinkle reducer in permanent press fabrics. And sure, you won’t be getting your clothes dry-cleaned much during isolation, but even new clothes that are warehoused along their trade routes require pesticides and chemical treatments to combat mildew. Fear not—simply laundering your clothes, especially before first use, is highly effective in reducing exposure to these toxins.

For the more delicate garments you love, the LG Styler (from $1,200), a new 6-foot-tall standalone system, can steam clean and gently sanitize as many as 15 different fabrics—including denim, wool, and sequins—in as little as 20 minutes. It’s certified by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America for its ability to remove allergens and more than 99% of bacteria. Bonus features include a smart-home app, a pants creaser on the door’s interior, and a gentle-dry setting, which circulates low-temperature pristine air.

Pristine air not only keeps clothes clean and smelling fresh, but it also preserves the fabrics, so of course Italy’s top furniture manufacturers are integrating purifiers into closets for their clientele. In 2018, Molteni&C introduced its patented Aircub ventilation—which also perfumes the clothes—into its Gliss Master collection of modular wardrobes. At the same time, Lema debuted an air-cleaning system that uses nanotechnology and a special UV lamp to naturally destroy bacteria, odors, and mold. This year, Poliform will follow suit with a similar purification system for its Senzafine walk-in closet.

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