NJ AIR QUALITY BLOG

Is Particulate Matter Air Pollution Invading Your Home?

ByMarc Silberberg

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“What are those tiny bubbles in the air?” I asked my husband sitting next to me on a long overseas flight recently. “I don’t see any bubbles”, He replied. It was dark in the airplane and as usual I was unable to sleep as many of the other passengers were. So, I turned on my personal light while all the other seats were darkened. What initially looked to me like microscopic bubbles were, as I soon realized, actually simple particles of dust. However, I must have been the only one who saw them because only my light was on and those dust particles seemed especially large, which surprised me. This revelation reminded me that as a child, I would be sitting a certain way indoors and the light from the sun would allow me to see millions of dust particles that normally would not be visible. I would sometimes stare at these dust particles marveling at how only I am seeing them and no one else.

Invisible Dust Particles

If we do not see these dust particles in our home does that mean they are not present? Unfortunately, the answer is no, and these generally invisible particles can cause havoc in our bodies especially if we have a tendency to allergies and respiratory issues. Sometimes I wonder how my vacuum cleaner picks up so much dust when I don’t see any on the floor. I can comprehend that the dust in carpets is not visible to the naked eye but on a floor it should be more visible. But as I have explained above, unless light is shining in a certain position we will not see what’s going on in our homes.

Experts call tiny pieces of dust and droplets of liquid particulate matter. Sometimes you can see it and sometimes you can’t, and these tiny invisible ones can only be seen under a microscope. There are different sizes of particulate matter and are separated into the following categories:

PM10 – Particles that can be inhaled that are smaller than 10 micrometers. To give you an idea how small that is it’s about the size of a single water droplet in the form of mist.

PM2.5 – These are particles that are even smaller that no one senses that they are being breathed in and are more dangerous since it can’t be seen, it goes unnoticed.

Can Odors and Smoke Seep Through Closed Windows and Doors?

What about odors from the outdoor seeping into our homes without any open windows and doors? How can a room become full of smoke to the point of causing stinging eyes when there is no noticeable access for these odors to penetrate a room?

This happened to me recently when I rented a luxury apartment in Israel for two weeks. The apartment was situated on the third floor. All of sudden at approximately 11PM, I smelled smoke and though my husband was already sleeping, I woke him up to tell him this distressing news. We immediately went into the kitchen to check if we had left anything on the stove or if there was any appliance that was not working properly and caught fire. Low and behold, after checking the kitchen we realized quickly that the smoke was only in the bedroom. We opened the door to the outside veranda and sure enough the smoke was coming from outside. What should we do? Call the fire department or the building manager? Wait, we soon detected that the smell was very familiar, so familiar that it started to smell tempting instead of threatening. “It’s steak”, I realized, grilling steak! At 11PM at night? How strange that someone was grilling at this time of night. Looking down below we saw that the smoke was coming from the veranda right below us and some folks were enjoying a grand barbeque.

Although my eyes were still stinging until 12PM I no longer felt the need to call the fire department or building manager, but we were curious as to why the people below were partying so late. The next night at 11AM the same thing happened, only this time the smell was not as strong, “Hot dogs” I surmised, and the smoke was much less and did cause us distress.

The next day my husband and I decided to go and investigate the mystery that was going on right down the floor below us. We were shocked to see the door ajar and a major organization to help displaced people from the war in Southern Israel was in action in that apartment. The head of the organization explained to us that he is treating the people working so hard for this organization to late suppers after they finish their work. Of course, we no longer were annoyed at the strong odors of the barbeques because it was for a noble cause. Once you know the reason for something and are no longer clueless you understand what’s going on.

In any event, what actually happens to the air quality of a home when smoke comes in from the outside? This apartment was pretty much hermetically sealed with no windows or doors open. How does so much smoke get in through closed doors and windows? Obviously, it could not have been that much, or the smoke alarm would have gone on, but the truth is the smoke did burn our eyes and we don’t have any respiratory issues.

Dust Coming From Nearby Construction

We had the opportunity to stay in this same apartment when it was brand new. Every day I would have to sweep the marble floors and get rid of the residue of construction dust, and this took a few years to dissipate. This type of dust does not cause actual coughing like smoke, nevertheless it is not healthy to inhale. Even if you are not living in new construction but your neighbor is having their home renovated you will be affected by the dust the same way that the smoke got into the apartment, however, you may not realize that you are inhaling polluted air.

You might not have any signs in your home like dusty floors or furniture but that is no indication of the purity of your air. When construction is near your home be sure to check the air quality of your residence.

If you change your HVAC filters regularly you will see all the accumulated dust and fluff that is usual for your filters. However, if you notice that your filters need to be changed more often than in the past, this is an indication of additional pollution coming into your home unintentionally.

Folks are at their wits end because they cannot figure out why a person or persons in their home are having new allergies that they have never encountered previously. It’s very difficult to determine the exact causes of indoor air pollution without calling in an air quality expert. It may take months and even years till you even figure out that your home’s air quality is not satisfactory because filters generally accumulate dust. Only a specialist will be able to tell if your home is polluted.

How quickly your body reacts to indoor air pollutants depends on many different reasons such as age, other medical conditions and the strength of the pollutant itself. You might mistake the symptoms such as fatigue, nose, eye and throat irritations and headaches as the prerequisites to a cold or flu. In order to find out if the cause is viral, you must diligently notice when the symptoms occur. For example, if you leave your home and your symptoms dissipate, that is a red alert that the trouble is in your home. If your symptoms do not go away after a week or so, there is a good chance you have an allergy, and it may very well be to your own home.

Depending on whether the air pollutants are in your home short or long term will explain how serious the effects will become. For example, in the scenario above when we were exposed to the barbeque smoke it was a short-term fallout since by the third day the smoke was no longer an issue. When you know that the problem is coming from the outside it’s good news and bad news. Good news because it’s not coming from something internally wrong in your house. Bad news since you cannot open your window to clear the air because that will only exacerbate the problem.

How Does Outdoor Air Invade a Home or Building?

There are several ways that outdoor air can exit or enter a residence such as through the HVAC system, or invasion through cracks in the floors, ceilings, and walls. Windows too can be the culprits of outdoor air pollution coming into your home if they are not sealed properly or when there is a substantial difference between the temperature inside and outside the home, especially if the day is a windy one. Some homes are equipped with mechanical ventilation systems such as outdoor-vented fans that will periodically remove the air from one room, specifically a kitchen or bathroom. The air exchange rate determines how often outdoor air replaces indoor air so when there is only a little permeation there will be a low exchange rate and depending if the outdoor air is clean or not will determine the pollution levels.

This leads to issues with central air and heating both in the summer and winter because if the immediate air quality of your outdoor air is poor you may smell and inhale the pollutants. Whether they are smoke, construction dust or regular dust will determine how your family will be affected.

Final Words

When we are able to smell or feel eye and nose irritation it makes it simpler to determine if our indoor air quality is being affected by outdoor stimulants. However, sometimes, indoor air pollution can go hidden and harmful and poisonous gases such as carbon monoxide and radon can be hidden dangers. The best idea is to have your indoor air quality monitored on a regular basis by calling in a professional air quality specialist. Sometimes your HVAC serviceman can check your air quality by checking your vents and ducts for any undesirables such as dust mites and rodents. Most homeowners cannot do this by themselves because you can damage the air ducts and once there is a hole your whole HVAC system will not work properly. Better to pay the money upfront to a professional than wait until you have a damaged system and remember as we are always reminding you if the price is too low, beware of a scam.

The next time you feel or smell something foreign in your home, don’t ignore it. You should be relieved that you are able to tell that something risky could be invading your home and that you caught it quickly. Unless you know that the smell or stinging in your eyes is caused by something temporary such as barbeque smoke it is prudent to do something about it immediately.

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