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Econundrum: How Can I Clean My Allergen-Filled Indoor Air?

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My allergies and asthma are killing me this year. What can I do to clean the air inside my home? —Bettie Linklad

Nearly one in 12 Americans—24.6 million of us—now suffer from asthma, which is often triggered by allergens and irritants. Those include things such as cigarette smoke and harsh fumes from volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that evaporate from many home products, including cleaners, pesticides, and glues used in everything from carpets to particleboard.

Adding to respiratory challenges in summertime are outdoor air pollutants such as smog, or ground-level ozone, and pollen. Start by trying to keep these out of your home. Check your local air quality index daily at airnow.gov and pollen.com. Both ozone and pollen counts rise during the day, so keep windows closed during the day. If you're running an air conditioner, which can filter smog and pollen particles, be sure to wash the filter with liquid soap and warm water once every two weeks. Also, use a doormat and kick off your shoes as soon as you enter your home to avoid tracking allergens throughout the house.

Then, to tackle indoor your indoor air, perform a quick allergy-asthma trigger audit by focusing on the allergens below:

DUST: The mites’ microscopic excrement is one of the most powerful triggers found indoors—or anywhere, for that matter. Wash bedding in hot water every two weeks. Heavy drapes, tablecloths, and carpets also collect dust. And don’t forget the dust bunnies behind and under furniture!

COCKROACHES: These noxious critters are very unhealthy for anyone but can make air unbreathable for asthmatics. See our recommendations for natural pest repellents.

FRAGRANCES: Any strong one, whether synthetic (petroleum-derived) or plant-based, can provoke allergic reactions. Use fragrance-free household cleaners, shampoos, soaps, and other personal-care products.

PAINTS: If you’re planning on doing home-improvement work during the summer, choose low or no-VOC paints and ventilate well. VOCs (volatile organic compounds) are dangerous for anyone to inhale, producing teary eyes, runny noses, and irritated lungs.

NEW FURNITURE: Don’t bring any new composite wood products into your home unless they are made with certified low-VOC, no-formaldehyde product certified as such by Scientific Certification Systems. Even old wood product, which may seem to have off-gassed its last, can suddenly release more VOCs in summer’s humidity and heat, so be alert.

MOLD: Summer’s high humidity stimulates growth of molds and mildews. Ventilate and let sunshine in. Air conditioners help dehumidify, and you can remove these fungi with solutions of four parts water mixed with one part white vinegar, borax, or hydrogen peroxide (be sure to wear gloves). Avoid conventional cleaners that use chlorine bleach and ammonia.

PET DANDERS: Damp mopping and frequent vacuuming are a must, especially as your dog or cat sheds excess fur in hot weather.

Mindy Pennybacker is Whole Living’s “Econundrums” columnist. She regularly answers readers' green-living questions. She is also editor of GreenerPenny.com and author of Do One Green Thing: Saving the Earth through Simple, Everyday Choices.

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