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Five ways to improve your Utah home’s winter air quality

February 15, 2024
< 4 min read
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Utah’s winter outdoor air quality is often worse than major metropolitan cities like Los Angeles and New York City, and poor air quality can reduce Utahn's life expectancy by up to 3.6 years. Experts attribute 2,500 and 8,000 premature deaths in Utah to air quality issues.

Air quality also puts a strain on the broader economy. According to a study that included University of Utah scholars, the economic cost of air pollution can total upwards of $3 billion annually. 

While Utah’s outdoor winter air quality receives a lot of attention, health experts say it’s just as important to pay attention to indoor air quality. According to the American Lung Association, Indoor air can be 2–5 times more polluted than outdoor air, and many Americans spend 90% of their time indoors. 

Indoor air can be 2-5 times more polluted than outdoor air. -American Lung Association

This winter, Utahns are advised to improve the air quality inside their homes by:

Replacing the furnace air filter

Air filters can last up to 6–12 months, but some need replacing sooner. HVAC professionals suggest Utahns check their air filters monthly and replace them as soon as they look dirty or full. Depending on how many people are in a home and how large the home is, replacing the filter more or less frequently may be necessary to maintain good air quality. 

It’s important to remember not all air filters are created equal. Air filters are ranked on a Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) scale from 1–12, with 12 filtering the most particulates. A lower MERV filter might be a good fit if base particulates like pollen or dust mites are the only concern. However, if the home is exposed to tobacco smoke, is in an area with high outdoor pollution (like the Salt Lake Valley in the winter), or is at risk for mold spores, a filter on the higher end of the scale may be advisable. Normal furnace filters don’t impact gaseous pollutants in homes.

Testing for radon

Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers, and Utah has four times more radon than the national average. In fact, one in three homes in Utah has dangerous radon levels (compared to 1 in 15 homes nationally). Because Utah homes are shut during the winter months and because snow and cold temperatures reduce the amount of radon that can escape outdoors, the concentration of radon inside a home can increase significantly during cold months.

This is an important issue for homes with families in particular. According to Nick Torres, an advocacy director of the American Lung Association, households with children should be extra wary as kids are more susceptible to radon.

The only way to detect radon is to test for it. Currently, all Utahns can get a free radon test at UtahRadon.org, and normally, tests can be purchased from the State. 

Even if a home has been tested before, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends testing every two years for radon.

The only way to detect radon is to test for it. [image courtesy of Alpha Energy Laboratories] 

Running an air purifier

Plenty of things can impact the air quality inside a home, including pollution, dust, dander, and other “particulate matter,” which refers to the solid and liquid particles in the air we breathe in that are far too small for the eye to see. Air purifiers help reduce the particulate matter load, thus reducing the likelihood of developing lung diseases, and some can also curb the spread of airborne viruses and bacteria.

A good quality air purifier can help keep all these irritants at bay. Purifiers have a limited range, so homeowners may need more than one in a home. Purifiers do not help with gas-based contaminants like radon and carbon monoxide.

Checking carbon monoxide detectors

Just like radon, carbon monoxide can’t be detected with human senses, so it’s crucial to have carbon monoxide detectors inside all homes. Like smoke detectors, these should be checked and cleaned regularly, and batteries should be replaced annually.

Carbon monoxide poisoning may start with flu-like symptoms and can eventually cause brain damage, so it’s important to maintain CO detectors to prevent exposure from being misdiagnosed as a seasonal illness. The EPA recommends placing one detector on every floor. These detectors generally cannot detect other harmful indoor gasses, like radon.

carbon monoxide detector
Replace batteries in carbon monoxide detectors annually

Increasing ventilation to avoid mold

Mold grows in humid, damp environments, and if mold grows in a home, it can cause many health issues. Many Utahns ignore the potential of mold growth because we live in such a dry environment, but it’s still a major concern in Utah.

Mold can start growing in a home in as little as 24 hours. To avoid mold growth, increase ventilation in bathrooms and laundry rooms using small fans. If moisture increases noticeably inside a home, use a dehumidifier to trap the humidity and return areas of a home to a healthy moisture level.

All of these measures can be understood as short-term solutions with long-term impacts. Testing for Radon is a short-term activity with potentially long-term implications — that’s the arc of outdoor and indoor air quality in Utah. The longer-term health impacts are best mitigated by regular, proactive actions by individual Utahns.

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