How Does Winter Affect Indoor Air Quality?

ByMarc Silberberg


Persistent hacking cough, space heaters, winter allergies, depression, poor ventilation, plastic window protectors, door draft stoppers, and other fire hazards are some of the causes of dangerous levels in the air quality of our dwellings during the cold winter months. Senior citizens and young children are especially vulnerable to the threats of poor ventilation in the winter.

Persistent Hacking Cough

Why is it that certain people are susceptible to nighttime coughing in the winter months? Morton, a senior holocaust survivor in his nineties repeatedly calls his doctor to complain about night coughing. The first thing the doctor asks him is how high the heating temperature is in his bedroom. Seniors and children are more sensitive to the cold and less open to practical solutions such as lowering the heat at night. We will discuss the sometimes-dangerous solution for seniors and children called space heaters in later paragraphs in this article.

All of us but especially senior citizens are susceptible to the negative effects of overheating the home. Morton’s daughter walked into his home one night and remarked on the warmth in the home. “Just sitting here with you is making me drowsy. Your room temperature is much too high”, she remarked. The initial comfort of a heavily heated house feels good, but we don’t realize that it is not healthy for our overall well-being.

Morton must try other ways of keeping his persistent cough at bay as all of us dwellers in cold climates. It goes against our nature to feel cold when the remedy is either near our beds such as a heater or the gadget on the wall called the thermostat. If one must keep the thermostat high during the day a timer or clock should be adjusted so that the temperature is lowered while occupants are sleeping.

Space Heaters

Space heaters are an economical way to save money on heating. Sometimes in apartment houses the heat is not adequate for the family to live comfortably. A space heater can bolster the temperature of individual rooms such as bedrooms for those who are sensitive to cold such as seniors and children without overheating the total home.

Unfortunately, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission more than twenty-five thousand fires each year are connected to the use of space heaters causing more than three-hundred deaths. Burn injury victims from space heaters that require hospital emergency room care are estimated to be about six thousand.

A recent tragic fire in the Bronx, New York last week will add many more fatalities and victims to the above statistics. At least 17 people died from smoke inhalation in a nine-story apartment building. This tragedy has become New York City’s most deadly inferno in three decades. A space heater that was left running continuously along with other space heaters in an apartment burst into flames killing at least seventeen people and critically injuring fifteen others. Although many more people could have survived but did not because of faulty maintenance issues in this building constructed in 1972, the fault still lies with the space heater. Yes, if the self-closing door would not have remained open and there would have been a building-wide sprinkler system the injuries and damage would have been much less but ultimately the final blame lies with the heater.

Residents of the building admitted that such space heaters were usual during such abrupt drops in temperature as are presently occurring in New York. A survey recently conducted in New York City cited that the lower income housing developments have a higher percentage of the dwellers using extra heating equipment to -keep their apartments sufficiently warm.

There are ways to minimize the dangers of space heaters. Never place your space heater right near your face or elevated near your bed. The only place it should be is on the floor but not on a rug or carpet. In fact, putting it too near your fluffy feather quilts or flammable fabric sheets is quite risky even though it is tempting to put it right near your body so that you feel the heat directly. The “three-foot rule” states that no heater should be within three feet of anything flammable. Besides fabrics this also includes matches and paints that can ignite. If kids or pets live in the home, they could knock over the heater easily igniting a fire. So, the “three-foot rule” includes keeping pets and children far away from the space heater. Even keeping the heater unplugged when not in use could be a safety risk since this appliance draws enough electric current that a smart kid can easily plug in and turn the switch on. Professionals advise against plugging in the space heaters into surge protectors since this increases the risk of heat buildup. Certain brands of space heaters have timers that can be set to go off at the time the occupant is falling asleep. Each brand has unique features, and the owner should check out the safety features before using.

Poor Indoor Air Quality & Ventilation

It is relatively simple to check out your home for ventilation issues. Some indications of poor air quality are the feeling of stuffiness with breathing, moldy areas in the home, heating systems that are dirty and water condensation on windows and walls. This condensing is most notable upon entering the home on a cold day. When people try too hard to keep out the cold, they end up keeping out the fresh air as well. We would think that it would be beneficial and practical to close all draft areas such as windows and doors by using heavy plastic sheeting to protect windows and door draft stoppers at the bottom of doors connected to the outside. However, by conserving the heat in the home you are unfortunately keeping out the little bit of fresh air that sneaks into the home from these tiny openings which does help keep the air quality satisfactory in the home during the winter.

Another indication of poor air quality due to lack of adequate ventilation are smelling distinct odors when entering the home from the outdoors. The fact that your home smells good from freshly baked sourdough or artisan bread might seem like a great lore for guests. However, if the odor does not go away after a day you can assume that your home ventilation is poor. Even more disturbing is when the smell is not a good one such as the smell of fish the day after it was broiled.

Disturbing Emotional & Physical Symptoms Due to Poor Air Quality

There are some people who develop winter blues from the lack of sunlight and fresh air. This could turn into depression especially in older people who rarely leave their home in cold weather. The flow of heat in the house can be comforting on the one hand since the cold does increase aches and pains, however, at the same time too much heat can fog the brain and bring down a person’s mood. It is imperative to let in the sunshine and fresh air by opening shades and curtains each morning and taking a short stroll every day to catch the fresh air. If the person is incapable of going out, the windows should be opened to air out the home at least in one room per day.

According to nurse Ashley Wood of Atlanta, Georgia, the winter air outside and the air inside your home both have low humidity. This is a recipe for the sinuses to become dried out and irritated. The combination of indoor and outdoor air dryness causes chronic runny nose, nose bleeds, dryness of the mouth/throat and asthma flare-ups. One way to get relief is to purchase a home humidifier.

When shopping for a humidifier there are several details to take into consideration. There are two types of humidifiers, warm-mist and cool-mist. If there are no young children in your home a warm-mist humidifier is a solid choice. Clean water is placed inside this machine which is brought to a boil emitting steam which adds needed moisture to the dry air.

Pediatricians warn of the danger of warm-mist humidifiers around young children so their parents would choose the cool-mist version. To determine which humidifier is right for you several factors must be considered. You want to get just the right humidity level in the room which according to the Environmental Protection Agency is between thirty and fifty percent. Too much moisture can promote the growth of mold, dust mites and bacteria while too little humidity can cause the symptoms described above.

Final Words

Practical but dangerous solutions to the depressing cold of the winter months are causing allergies, coughing and dangerous fatalities such as fire and carbon monoxide inhalation. Remedies such as sealing windows with plastic and wind protectors at the bottom of doors facing the outside of the house are temporary solutions that cause unhealthy indoor air quality. Space heaters feel good near the bed but are perilous to occupants of any home and specifically apartment houses. Staying cooped up in a warm house may seem cozy but people who are locked into their homes by choice or seniors who are afraid to venture out because of viruses, flu or even icy conditions outside can suffer indoors. Such isolation is the perfect storm for depression.

Increasing the level of good air quality in the home by opening windows to let in fresh air, checking the air quality levels in the home professionally, and avoiding the use of space heaters while sleeping are some ways to reduce depression, allergy, and most of all deadly home fires. Let’s get through this winter safely and welcome spring with renewed optimism.

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