The average American spends 90% of their time indoors, which is why the condition of indoor living environments has such a lasting impact on our well-being and quality of life. As experts in creating healthy living environments, JS2 Partners Healthy Home Builders offers six easy steps to cultivating a beneficial and more productive living environment.
Maintenance. Keep an eye on the outside of your home and fix issues before they become expensive problems. This includes checking your roof for missing shingles and tiles. Inspect outside walls for cracks in mortar and stucco, which can develop as temperatures fluctuate overtime. Make sure the land surrounding the exterior of your home is sloped to properly drain rainwater away from the foundation.
Thermal health. Pulling in filtered fresh air from the outside is essential to proper indoor HVAC ventilation. Keep your home’s thermostat at a comfortable level throughout the day in order to promote continuous circulation of clean air. It’s also a good idea to open a window when running interior exhaust vents to avoid pulling unwanted air into your home from an attic or crawl space.
Indoor air quality. A recent Harvard University study found over 82,000 chemicals present indoors. Everything from the glues used to adhere typical construction products to the chemicals found in many leather treatments, wood lacquers, paints and home finishes create quite the toxic concoction of indoor air pollutants. Filters with integrated charcoal can help trap indoor pollution and allergens. Use HVAC air filters rated MERV-13 or greater. Replace carpet with tile or low VOC hardwood floors to cut back on airborne dust. Periodically flush drain lines with a bleach solution to mitigate mildew and grime odors in wet locations.
Moisture. An estimated 85% of U.S. buildings have water damage and/or leaks present. Moisture inside a home spells trouble very quickly with the hazards of mold growth and weakened structural integrity. Managing your home’s humidity levels is easy with a separately controlled dehumidifier unit that integrates with the HVAC system. A level between 35% – 55% relative humidity is ideal. Periodically check plumbing and drainpipes for leaks and maintain proper flashing around windows and awnings to avoid leaks from heavy rains.
Water quality. Despite sanitation efforts, city and underground water sources are often contaminated with unsafe heavy metals, pathogens and chemical particulates. Our skin and lungs act as sponges, making quality drinking water equally as important as the safety of the water used to bathe. A whole house water purifier is well worth the investment to eliminate up to 99% of harmful water contaminates and chlorine.
Organization. A clean and organized living environment is essential to maintaining focus and mental clarity. Clear out that clutter in closets, the home office, pantry and garage. Keep countertops clean and home decor simple and elegant. Remember that quality time is time well spent!
Learn more about incorporating healthy building principles and designs into your home by visiting www.JS2partners.com.
About JS2 Partners JS2 Partners Healthy Home Builders is dedicated to crafting homes that offer healthy and productive living environments. JS2 Partners utilizes low/no VOC construction materials, hypoallergenic finishes and integrated building science designs that are optimal for function, beauty and well-being. JS2 Partners offers design + build services and consulting across the U.S. and is proud to pioneer home building best practices with a mission to build healthier and live better.
Most Americans are still grilling and using propane to do so — at a cost of $35 for a 20-pound canister. But urban Africans rely mostly on charcoal and kerosene, which leads to indoor air pollution and deforestation.
While it is not yet practical for Africans to switch to propane, they are benefitting from bio-ethanol, which is becoming a cleaner and cheaper cooking fuel than the alternatives. In fact, bio-ethanol ventures are now in Kenya, Mozambique, Madagascar, Ethiopia and Nigeria. And if those companies can succeed, the switch from charcoal to bio-ethanol (or propane) will save a lot of trees and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.
“Ethanol cooking has become a baby industry. Customers can access this clean fuel at a price that is 40% cheaper than charcoal,” says Greg Murray, chief executive of KOKO Networks, which enables the last-mile distribution of bio-ethanol fuel starting with the Kenyan market, in an interview with this writer. “It is also replacing charcoal that hurts the agricultural sector and that creates black carbon. This solution can help governments achieve their Paris commitments.”
In Sub-Saharan African and in the urban areas, the estimated annual spend on cooking fuel is expected to be $47 billion in 2020, says the World Bank. The top 10% to 15% of the cooking fuel market is done with liquefied petroleum gas, which includes propane. The vast majority, however, is done with charcoal. That charcoal is produced by chopping down 5 million acres of trees a year and then baking the wood, which carbonizes it. Kerosene is at the bottom of the rung and it is done mostly in the slums.
Roughly 600,000 Africans die annually and millions more suffer from chronic illnesses that are caused by air pollution from inefficient and dangerous traditional cooking fuels and stoves, says the World Health Organization. Solid-fuel cooking in Sub-Saharan Africa makes up 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 6% of global black carbon, notes the World Bank.
As Africa’s economic prospects improve, more people are using propane. But bio-ethanol is emerging as a scalable cooking solution and one that meets the demands of lower income Kenyan households — those making $100 to $300 per month doing such things as selling their vegetables and fruits from outdoor stands.
Public policy should “support sustainable production of clean-biomass and renewable fuels alongside efforts to improve stove efficiency and reduce emissions,” says the World Bank. “Given rapidly rising demand, more efficient cooking solutions alone will not be enough if the sustainability issues in the African wood-fuel value chains remain unaddressed … Although many Africans can theoretically afford at least basic improved cooking solutions, high costs are a critical obstacle for the poor and impede the overall growth of the market.”
But the bio-ethanol enterprise KOKO says that it has streamlined the supply chain and made its cleaner and healthier fuel a bargain. Liquid ethanol used to be put in bottles and sold at corner stores in Africa while charcoal vendors came to homes. Now, though, buying bio-ethanol is like going to ATM machines for fuel: customers take an empty canister and enter a PIN before filling up. Cloud-based software will know if customers have the credit.
Before it even gets to the retail level, micro tankers are picking up the product at the ports. They are then hauling in the ethanol and storing it in underground stations. Those delivery trucks are able to traverse the primitive roads and to go deep into the neighborhoods. About 700 KOKO-brand stores sell bio-ethanol.
“People are used to being able to buy daily necessities little by little, or in small chunks,” says KOKO’s Murray. “It is how we have to sell vital commodities in Africa: It is not a CostCo culture where people buy thee months worth of a product. Africans have uncertain daily incomes. Historically, companies have not been able to undercut charcoal.
“But now with a 40% cost-savings, ethanol could supply the bulk of cooking fuel in Sub-Saharan Africa,” he adds. “We expect the growth to be significant” — and a better deal than propane too, which has much greater upfront capital costs. “Liquefied petroleum gas is not accessible without massive subsidies. Health and education takes precedence. So it is about whatever works on an unsubsidized basis. That’s the reality in which ethanol sits.”
Bio-ethanol has other economic benefits, including being blended in motor fuel and being used in the alcohol found in alcoholic beverages. Generally, ethanol is an important feedstock used in the chemical and manufacturing processes. If it proves itself in African markets, private investment will follow. The use of ethanol could then expand, creating an economic ripple effect.
Bio-ethanol brings promise to Sub-Saharan Africa — the promise of a cleaner and healthier environment at a cheaper price. If it can replace charcoal for cooking, it will minimize deforestation and improve indoor air quality. And if its use can ultimately be expanded to other parts of the economy, the growth would mean more jobs and even more possibilities.
The air pollution inside my house could kill me. That’s what I’ve learned after testing a handful of new high-tech indoor air quality monitors. Are you in the same boat – er, room?
Research shows 96% of homes have at least one type of indoor air quality issue. Everything from cooking to blow-drying your hair can cause problems.
According to the EPA, most of us spend 90% of our time indoors, exposed to air that is up to five times more polluted than outdoors. That can trigger allergies and asthma, affect child development, disrupt sleep and more.
“Most people have no idea how polluted the air is outside of their house, let alone inside,” says Vasileios Nasis, Ph.D. and founder of Netronix Inc. “It sounds alarmist – to say indoor air quality could kill you or make you seriously ill – and people tend not to believe it, but it’s happening, and people have the power to stop it.”
“Most people have no idea how polluted the air is outside of their house, let alone inside.”Vasileios Nasis, Ph.D. and founder of Netronix Inc.
Nasis hopes his company’s $699 gadget called Airthinx will be just the fix people need. Not only to learn more about the air they breathe every day but also how to do something about it.
“For outdoor air quality, you need government policy to change it. But you can control the indoor air quality in your own space and change it on a personal level right away,” Nasis tells me over the phone.
Breathing clean air is big business
The Air Quality Monitoring Market is expected to exceed more than $7 billion by 2024.
It’s been one of the biggest new areas of personal health gadgets I’ve seen since the flood of activity trackers. Could monitoring the air we breathe become the next big health tech trend after the Fitbit or Impossible Burger?
“Yes, except I don’t think it’s a trend,” Shelly Miller, a professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Colorado, Boulder tells me. “These new, lower-cost sensors are a critical development in improving public health, and I think they are here to stay.”
Plugged into a power outlet like a nightlight, sitting on a shelf like a book, or attached to a wall like a thermostat, these Wi-Fi and Bluetooth-connected gadgets monitor indoor air quality 24/7. Many of them also have a traffic light type display on the device itself that glows green (good), yellow (caution) and red (alert).
Putting them to the test
There’s no better testing ground than my very own new (to me) home. It’s an 1888 Victorian that sits in a pocket of some of the worst outdoor air quality in the entire United States.
We’re a few blocks away from the Port of Oakland, sandwiched in an industrial area between major freeways. Diesel truck traffic, massive cargo ships, trains, recycling and wastewater treatment plants – all of it – belching invisible particles nonstop into the air and, eventually, into our lungs. Add to that stirring up 131 years of ashy-like dust renovating this old house, and there’s no telling what we’re going to find in our air.
To “see” the air we’re breathing, I line up three of the gadgets I’ve been using off and on for the past year, including the Awair Glow C ($79), Plume Labs Flow ($179) and Airthinx IAQ ($699).
Awair Glow C plugged into the kitchen. (Photo: Jennifer Jolly)
Great for starting out
The Awair Glow C is just slightly larger than the average nightlight – which is good because you can also use it as a nightlight – and plugs directly into a power outlet. It monitors the basics, including humidity and temperature, and gives a reading of various chemicals floating around in the air. It uses those readings to provide a high-level overview of a home’s air quality and can trigger a fan or air purifier plugged into the power outlet on the front of the device. How tech determines if you land a job or get a loanSponsored by U.S. Cellular
Overall, it’s the least sophisticated, yet simplest for the general consumer. It told us we need to keep an eye on the humidity levels, or risk growing mold and farming dust mites.
The Plume Labs Flow is a portable air quality sensor that monitors airborne chemical levels and particulate matter both indoors and out, which is really interesting to see how living in an armpit of poor outdoor air pollution impacts the inside air. It also tracks changes over time and sends alerts when things take a turn for the worse.
The Awair Glow C mobile app shows good air quality overall, but warns about rising humidity. (Photo: Jennifer Jolly)
The Plume app is intuitive and quickly shows the levels of chemicals and nitrogen dioxide – plentiful in vehicle exhaust and even stir-fry smoke, and a likely culprit of everything from poor sleep to headaches. It also alerts us to high humidity, right about the same time we discover a leak in the roof just above the kitchen area where these devices are plugged in.
Airthinx IAQ professional-grade air quality monitor shows a red light signaling poor quality during recent renovations of the author’s house in West Oakland, Calif. (Photo: Jennifer Jolly)
But if you’re really serious…
If you think of the Awair Glow C as a car that gets you to a clean air destination in the most basic way possible, the Airthinx IAQ is more like a fighter jet.
Yes, the Airthinx unit monitors the basics like temperature, humidity and chemicals, but it also does a whole lot more by sniffing out the tiniest particles drifting through a living space. These microscopic specks are called particulate matter, and depending on their size, they can stay afloat for weeks. This includes things like dust, fungi, pollen and even bacteria. The levels of particulate matter in the air can change dramatically within hours, signaling a rise in mold growth or outside winds pushing pollutants into open windows.
The gadget feeds all of that information into a cloud-based dashboard accessible from anywhere, seeing up-to-the-minute reports on air quality. Trouble is, it’s so detailed that I have no idea how to interpret the data on my own.
“Ah, you seem to have the perfect storm of poor air this week,” Nasis says when I call him back to translate the Airthinx readings for me.
It’s true, the renovation going on right now includes finding that leak in the roof, drilling holes in ceilings and walls, installing tile, painting and so. much. dust.
“Every day around 6 p.m., there are a lot of particles and high VOCs and that might make you feel dizzy. Specifically on Monday around 6 p.m., it was really bad with high formaldehyde, too. Perhaps something plastic was burning, or someone sprayed an aerosol?”
That’s when the real sleuthing starts. We’re priming and painting our walls, which could be to blame. Our contractor also removed old foam insulation from a half bathroom right next to our kitchen this past week. During the 1970s, urea-formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI) was the go-to for any homes, and since that’s the last time this home was renovated, that’s also a likely source of icky air.
But my husband was cooking on our gas stove during those specific times as well. According to the EPA, gas stoves and ranges are a common cause of poor air quality.
We adjusted the stove hood and fan, and added two more new gadgets to the review mix – the Blue Pure 211+ ($299.99) and Molekule ($799) air monitoring purifiers. (Stay tuned for those reviews.)
The air quality is better already, but I wouldn’t have figured it out without Nasis’ help.
Airthinx IAQ laptop dashboard is way too complicated for me to figure out quickly on my own. (Photo: Jennifer Jolly)
Bad air, now what?
Knowing your air quality is bad is one thing, but understanding why it’s bad and how to fix it can take some serious detective skills, and in some cases, more than a basic understanding of the role of various pollutants in your space. That’s the biggest weakness in all of these consumer air quality monitors so far.
“This information is really complicated,” professor Miller says, “They all should have good customer service because most people need it.” She said of the devices she’s tested out, Airthinx has the best support overall. “With all of these devices, I always check to see if they have a good user interface, how responsive their support is, and whether they have independent, third-party studies to show how accurate they are.”
The night we almost died
Even as studies drawing links between poor air quality and tens of thousands of deaths continue to pile up, most of us don’t think too much about air quality until it gets really bad. Or almost kills us.
That’s what happened two winters ago, when my family experienced a series of strange illnesses that culminated with my husband in the emergency room after a weeklong debilitating migraine. The whole family was experiencing headaches, nausea, sleepiness and body aches, and we soon found out why: The 100-year-old disintegrating gravity furnace in our rented home had been spewing toxic exhaust into our space for months. (Our former landlady apparently forgot – her words, not mine – to fix it for at least a year.)
When gas-company crews came to inspect the entire system late one night, after I felt especially sick and thought I smelled “gas” in the air, the technician told us carbon dioxide (CO2) and carbon monoxide (CO) levels were so high, especially in our bedrooms, that our family “might have made it until morning.” Our carbon monoxide detector had not gone off, and it seems all of the indoor air quality monitors I’ve now reviewed could have tipped us off, long before any of us got sick.
Thurka Sangaramoorthy, a medical anthropologist and associate professor at the University of Maryland’s flagship campus, had to throw away her furniture, her collection of about 1,000 books, invaluable documents and personal mementos collected since she started teaching at the school in 2012.
The reason? A combination of mold, mildew and moisture that have plagued her office in Woods Hall, which houses the university’s anthropology department on the College Park campus, Sangaramoorthy said.
“Some of those [items] were really near and dear to me,” she said. The expensive regalia she wore when she graduated with her PhD was also destroyed by mold. “I consider my office to be a complete loss.”
Fifteen professors in U-Md.’s anthropology department have battled mold, and the health complications that come with it, for years, said department chair Paul Shackel. He started keeping a log of mold-related episodes in 2015.AD
“It affects teaching, it affects the morale of people, and people are kind of discouraged because this has been going on for a while,” Shackel said. “The university is taking steps, but the steps, I don’t think, are big enough.”
Complaints about mold in the academic building have a familiar ring: A year ago, nearly 600 students were displaced from their on-campus housing at U-Md. because of a mold outbreak — an outbreak that sparked criticism of the university’s administration.
Amid the mold infestation, dozens of students developed adenovirus infections, and an 18-year-old freshman died of complications from the virus. Mold does not cause adenovirus infections but can set the stage for other health problems. The director of the university health center, in emails to administrators last year, acknowledged that “mold can cause respiratory irritation that may increase susceptibility of any viral infection.”AD
Professors in the anthropology department say they regularly carry wipes to clean mold from the walls and furniture in their offices. Some try their best to avoid their offices, opting to work from home.
U-Md. in recent years has spent nearly $500,000 on efforts to control moisture in Woods Hall, including waterproofing, dehumidifiers, window sealing and a new drainage system, university spokeswoman Katie Lawson said in an email.
“We care deeply for the well-being of our community, and we are working closely with faculty members in Woods Hall on interim measures and permanent solutions to address moisture control,” Lawson said. “We are currently finalizing a plan to relocate faculty offices.”
Facilities Management, the department that oversees campus infrastructure and repairs, said in a statement that it has installed rain guards and provided mold remediation services.AD
But the issues persist, faculty members say.
The anthropology department’s location in the basement of Woods Hall makes it prone to humidity. Mold thrives in damp conditions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Jen Shaffer, an assistant professor in the anthropology department, said she tries to stay away from her office. She has offered to hold Skype meetings with students while she works at home.
“I feel bad because I prefer a face-to-face meeting,” Shaffer said. “I feel kind of nervous with students coming in and out of my office. I don’t know what their medical histories are, and it could be potentially dangerous.”
Sangaramoorthy also prefers to work at home. She said she reconfigured her teaching schedule this semester to limit her time on campus to two days a week.
She and other faculty have experienced health-related issues. Shackel developed skin rashes. For Shaffer, it’s her sinuses.AD
“I know when I walk into the building, I can start to feel my sinuses clog up,” Shaffer said. “Overall, my eyes get all gluey, and you just get this pressure building up in your head.”
Shackel, upon visiting a dermatologist three years ago, was prescribed a steroid cream. Only recently did he consider his issues could be attributed to the mold growing in his department.
Sangaramoorthy, who said she had never experienced allergies before coming to U-Md., watched as skin peeled from her fingers when she tried to clean the mold in her office. Her skin got so sensitive it would puff up when she touched it.
She went to an allergist who indicated the associate professor’s skin condition was the “cumulative effect of years of being exposed” to mold, Sangaramoorthy said.
Woods Hall is one of the older buildings on the College Park campus. It was built in 1948, according to the university’s website.AD
The academic building is scheduled to undergo renovations at some point between 2021 and 2030, according to the campus facilities master plan. The document doesn’t provide information on what those renovations will include.
In 2014, Facilities Management replaced drywall and caulked window sills with waterproof sealant to address moisture problems, according to a statement from the facilities department. Floor fans and dehumidifiers were installed and more insulation work was done in 2016 and 2017.
Facilities Management continues to monitor mold growth in the building.
In February, the student newspaper, the Diamondback, reported that U-Md. will renovate 16 dorms to prevent more outbreaks.
Meanwhile, professors in the basement of Woods Hall will do what they can to stay healthy this school year.AD
“I’m owed a very sort of safe workplace environment where I can actually feel comfortable coming to,” Sangaramoorthy said. She just returned from a year-long sabbatical. She said her symptoms disappeared while she was away.
“The minute I start having issues again, I’m gone.”
Sometimes life’s easier when you’ve got something to take care of, and house plants make finding that something a whole lot easier.
Owning house plants can help improve one’s mood by providing something low-effort to keep track of. Furthermore, owning houseplants contributes to improving indoor air quality and fighting climate change.
In honor of National Indoor Plant Week, here are a few green companions that could keep you company.
Known for their low upkeep and small stature, succulents might just be the national plant of colleges across the country.
Succulents are a form of cactus evolved to retain large amounts of water over a long period of time. This makes them especially easy to care for, as they do not go dry very easily.
Succulents can also be practical, like the aloe plant of Aloe Vera fame.
Maybe you like plants but dislike their aesthetic. In that case, bamboo shoots are a perfect alternative.
Bamboo’s aesthetic deviates from traditional plant aesthetics but in a good way. Instead of copious amounts of leaves or spines, the average bamboo shoot consists of a single, upward growing rod. This makes this plant perfect for minimalists.
Bamboo is also an incredibly low-effort plant to maintain. The amount of water they need varies by size, but most don’t need to be watered but once every two weeks.
However, maybe you do like the plant aesthetic. Trees are great, but most are too large to grow in someone’s home. This is not the case with money trees.
The money tree is a form of nut tree from Central and South America. Although they’re called trees, most are small enough to fit comfortably on a two-person coffee table. They still look like full-grown trees though, so they’re perfect for the arborist who’s short on space.
They also require a minimal amount of water and fertilizer, and any extra effort is with it for the plant’s natural aesthetic.
To go one step further, perhaps you really like natural aesthetics. In that case, the bonsai tree is all aesthetic all the time.
Bonsai trees arrived in America as a Japanese art form where they are built from the ground up by their owner. Once the tree grows to a proper size, the owner can trim its branches in whatever way he or she wants, creating their own aesthetic.
This all means that bonsai trees are higher-effort than most other indoor plants. If you have extra time on your hands, however, bonsai trees are both relaxing and fulfilling.
If you prefer your plants to have practical uses, you can do no better than growing fresh spices. Many of your favorite meal additives can be grown right in your dorm.
Garden sage, rosemary, chives, mint, basil, oregano and parsley are only some of the tasty things you can grow on your windowsill.