How to Test Air Quality

Think closing the windows is enough to keep harmful airborne pollutants out of your house? Think again. We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again; the air inside your home can actually be more polluted than the air outside.

With many people working at home and spending up to 90% of their time indoors, we can’t afford to ignore the quality of the air in our homes, offices, and other indoor spaces. But how do you know if you’ve got an air quality problem in your living space?

Causes of Bad Air Quality

In today’s world, there are myriad causes of bad air quality. These can depend on where you live, seasonal and weather conditions, and many other factors. Today, the most common causes of indoor air pollution worldwide are household combustion devices (such as lamps, stoves, and heaters that burn dangerous pollutants like coal, biomass, and kerosene), emissions from motor vehicles, and pollution from climate change-related catastrophes such as wildfires.

In the U.S, some of the most widespread indoor pollutants are VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds), which include chemicals released from paint, lacquer, cleaning supplies, pesticides, air fresheners, dry cleaning products, and a slew of other sources. Second-hand smoke, mold, radon gas, and combustion pollutants are also significant sources of bad indoor air quality.

In fact, the World Health Organization estimates that a whopping 3.8 million people per year die prematurely from illnesses directly caused by indoor air pollution. Even a moderate level of household air pollution can be harmful, particularly for children, the elderly, and people with certain pre-existing health problems.

Signs and Symptoms

What are some signs that you might have poor air quality in your house?

Symptoms of indoor air pollution can include:

  • Sinus symptoms such as congestion, nasal pressure, and sneezing
  • Wheezing and coughing
  • Development or worsening of allergies and/or asthma
  • Irritation of the skin, eyes, and other mucous membranes
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chronic headaches or nausea
  • Neurological symptoms, such as depression and memory loss
  • In more extreme cases, cardiac symptoms such as pulmonary heart disease

While any of these symptoms could indicate an air quality problem, it’s also entirely possible for poor air quality to go undetected for years. Rather than waiting for a problem to develop, it’s best to be safe and proactive by testing the air quality in your living spaces. Let’s look at a few different ways to do this.

Ways to Test Air Quality

There are several different options for testing and monitoring your air quality. Unfortunately, there’s no’ one-test-fits-all’ option because each indoor space has its own specificities and quirks. If you want to be truly thorough, it’s necessary to test for different potential sources of pollution individually.

Indoor Air Quality Monitor

Purchasing an indoor air quality monitor is one of the easiest and most comprehensive ways to test your air quality. You’ll want to look for an air quality monitor that can detect a room’s humidity and temperature levels, the level of particulate matter (PM 2.5), and the air quality index (AQI) measurement. This is a standardized measurement used by the EPA to determine the health risks associated with certain levels of air pollution.

Some indoor air quality monitors also measure carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, or even outdoor levels of air pollution. The cheapest indoor air quality monitors retail at around $50, and the most expensive are $300 or above, but the average price is about $200. This may seem steep, but it’s a good investment in your health and happiness – and a cheaper option than hiring a professional.

Carbon Monoxide Alarm

Carbon monoxide is known as ‘the silent killer,’ and with good reason: around 50,000 people in the U.S are hospitalized every year from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning. An average of 430 die from it. It’s a byproduct released by fuel combustion, so devices like gas-burning furnaces are a particular risk. Because it’s colorless and odorless, carbon monoxide is nearly impossible to detect without an alarm.

Fortunately, carbon monoxide alarms are inexpensive and easy to purchase online. If the carbon monoxide levels in your house or office rise above a certain level, the alarm will alert you before it becomes dangerous to your health. Just like a smoke alarm, a carbon monoxide alarm needs regular battery changes and should be tested frequently. There are also electric models that can be easily plugged into a wall socket.

Home Mold Test

It’s an inescapable reality: almost every indoor space has mold spores in the air. Just as breathing is a fact of life, so is mold. A small amount of mold in the air is harmless, but large amounts can cause severe respiratory and other health issues.

Unfortunately, your indoor air quality monitor won’t tell you about the amount of mold spores floating around in your house. For that, you’ll need a mold test. These are essentially Petri dishes that you leave open to the air in your home for a specified amount of time (with most tests, it’s about 1 hour). Then you cover the test and wait 2-3 days. The idea is that if there are abundant mold spores in the air, these spores will settle into the test dish and grow mold.

Home mold tests are inexpensive and available at most hardware stores, but there are serious questions about their accuracy. As we mentioned before, essentially every indoor space has some degree of mold, and the test can’t differentiate between dangerous and standard levels. Similarly, there is the potential for cross-contamination: if anything else gets into the petri dish, your test results would be meaningless. You can buy one if it sets your mind at ease, but if you genuinely think you might have a mold problem, you’ll need to consult a professional.

Unfortunately, since the EPA has not set specific standards or thresholds for what counts as normal vs. dangerous levels of mold spores in the air, this can be sort of a guessing game. As such, if there is visible mold damage in a house or other structure, it’s generally unnecessary to take samples or measurements. If you can see the problem, it’s time to call a professional.

Radon Test

Radon is another ‘silent killer’ but could perhaps better be referred to as the ‘slow killer.’ Like carbon monoxide, it’s a colorless, odorless gas and is the second-largest cause of lung cancer in the United States. It forms from the breakdown of natural uranium deposits in the soil and can be seeping through the walls and foundation of your house for years without being detected.

Short-term radon tests can be purchased cheaply online and offer results within a month, but there are questions about their efficacy as well. Long-term radon tests provide much more accurate results but take between three and twelve months to complete. Once you’ve established that you have a radon leak, it’s time to call a professional.

Common Sense

The good thing about many of the most common sources of indoor air pollution is that they’re pretty obvious – sometimes even visible, in the case of pet dander or mold on the walls. If you’re noticing symptoms, it’s worth paying attention and doing a bit of sleuthing.

For example, suppose you find yourself inexplicably coughing more often and also happen to notice that the annoying leak from last winter’s storm caused a suspicious-looking patch of mold to grow on the wall. In that case, you can safely assume that your air quality isn’t great.

Similarly, if there’s cat hair on every visible surface of your living space, you can be sure it’s getting into your lungs, too. Being mindful of your symptoms and taking a careful look around your indoor spaces is a good way to determine if further steps are necessary.

Get a Professional Involved

If you think your problem may extend beyond the DIY solutions mentioned above, it’s best to consult a professional. Sorting through all the options may seem daunting, but the American Industrial Hygiene Association and the American Board of Industrial Hygiene have online resources to help you find a certified, reputable professional.

The Overview

With many of us spending the vast majority of our lives inside, the air quality of our homes, offices, schools, and other indoor spaces has never been so important. If you’re noticing respiratory symptoms such as coughing or wheezing, or other symptoms such as itchy skin, eyes, or throat, you might have an air quality problem.

The simplest way to determine this is with an indoor air quality monitor, which will measure the levels of some of the most common causes of poor indoor air quality. However, further testing is necessary if you want to cover all your bases.

A carbon monoxide alarm is an essential device for any living space and can potentially save lives. Radon tests and DIY mold tests have mixed reviews in terms of efficacy but are nevertheless an option. And, as always, if you confirm or suspect a serious problem, it’s time to get a professional involved.

Additionally, an air purifier can make a massive difference in the air quality in your home or workspaces and is a worthwhile investment in your health and happiness.