There are few things as elementally important as clean air.
Each of us takes up to 30,000 breaths a day. What our bodies want is oxygen, but in the modern world what we actually inhale often contains all sorts of less-than-good stuff. This is especially true of our indoor air, where a wide variety of contaminants can accumulate.
Why Indoor Air is More Polluted Than Outdoor
Indoor air contaminants come in many forms, from floating particulates like pet dander and smoke to chemical vapors that off-gas from the materials our homes are built from and products we use in them.
Because indoor air is essentially trapped, it cannot easily mix with fresh air and thus disperse these contaminants. Instead they tend to accumulate.
In cities, even the outdoor air can be laden with things like diesel particulates and other toxins. It eventually works its way indoors and mixes. That’s the bad news.
How to Clean Indoor Air
The good news is that there are ways to clean the air. We’ve written in the past about a variety of these methods, ranging from Moso bags to wool rugs to houseplants. Unfortunately, all of the methods are passive, only affecting air that happens to pass over the plant/rug/Moso bag. This doesn’t make them useless–they are certainly better than nothing, and in our home we have found Moso bags to be truly effective against odor from our garbage can. But passive filters are also are essentially useless against particulates, which can be particularly bad for our lungs.
Over the years our readers have asked us to look into various air filter/purifier systems. For a long while, our research led us to believe that expensive electronic air filters weren’t worth the generally high price. Recently, we took a deeper look into all the various technologies and the companies involved in actively purifying indoor air, and I’ve been impressed with some of the newer technologies, which I have outlined here:
Types of Air Filters
We’ve all heard this term (which stands for High Efficiency Particulate Arrestance), but probably don’t know exactly what it means. HEPA filters must trap at least 99.97% of all particles larger than 0.3 microns; many of the particles caught in a HEPA filter (including many chemicals) are so tiny they can’t be seen with the naked eye. HEPA filters also trap mold, viruses, and bacteria, so they create a more sanitary environment, and of course they also trap larger particles that can cause lung irritation. (Side note: Make sure your vacuum cleaner is a HEPA-sealed model, too.)
2) Activated Carbon
Activated carbon filters are comprised of trillions of molecular sized pores that have high absorbent and chemical bonding ability. They are very effective at capturing pollutants like chemical emissions, gases, tobacco smoke, and odors. Once captured, these pollutants are not released back into the air. Activated carbon filters are very helpful to people with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) because they absorb formaldehyde, which is found in the adhesives used in carpeting, wood paneling, and upholstered furniture. Fragrances, as well as many chemicals found in household cleaning products, are also removed from the air, making the environment much more breathable, especially for babies, children, the elderly, and those suffering from asthma.
(Here’s my favorite filter that uses both HEPA and activated carbon.)
3) Ultra Violet (UV)
Air purifiers using this technology have a UV lamp installed inside of them; as microorganisms pass by the UV rays radiated from the lamp, cellular or genetic damage occurs, destroying the microorganism. Although UV technology is effective at killing viruses and bacteria, it is best used with a filter system ahead of the lamps. Without a filter system, too many microorganisms get shaded from the light by particulates.
4) Negative Ion
Negative ion air filtering technology has proven to be less effective than others because it simply masks the polluted air as opposed to actually cleaning it. This type of air purifier does not have the ability to absorb or dispose of the harmful contaminants in the air. The negative ion simply takes the airborne particles out of the air and transfers them to walls and other solid things in the room. When stuck to walls and other surfaces, they have the ability to become re-circulated back into the air. For this reason, I do not recommend negative ion filters.
Ozone air purifiers produce the gas ozone (O₃). Health professionals have refuted the claims made that these devices are safe, and no agency of the federal government has approved of these devices. Exposure to ozone may ignite asthma symptoms and a high enough level can even scar the lungs. Many of the chemicals found in indoor environments take months or years for ozone to react, making them virtually ineffective. Ozone does not remove particles such as dust and pollen. Obviously, I do not recommend ozone filters.
The Most Effective Air Filters
While some individuals may have a specific reason for investing in an ultraviolet, negative ion, or ozone air filtering unit, the vast majority of us need the air-scrubbing power of HEPA and activated charcoal. Those two things combined do an excellent job of eliminating almost all of the common irritants/pollutants found in most homes.
The Noise Factor
Of course, only the air that passes through a filter is affected, and the best way to circulate air through the filters is with fans. It’s a simple equation: the more air that passes through the filter, the cleaner the air stays.
While some companies make filter units that are super quiet, the fact is that moving air makes noise. To the extent that noise is lessened, filtering power is likewise lessened. This does not mean that filters need to be loud, but, especially when set on the high setting, filters sound exactly like what they are: a fan.
Austin Air: The Best Air Filter on the Market
For extra filtering power, Austin mixes their activated carbon with zeolite, a mineral with superior ability to trap toxic gases and odors such as formaldehyde, ammonias, and carbon monoxide.
Made in Buffalo, New York, Austin Air filters have garnered wide acceptance as one of the very best air filtration systems available. They are the only manufacturers to have their products designated as Medical Grade Air Purifiers, and the only manufacture to successfully reduce asthma attacks and respiratory problems in a clinical trial. Johns Hopkins Hospital has chosen Austin Air medical grade air purifiers to conduct four clinical trials. Austin filters were selected by the Federal Government to provide the emergency air purifiers to the citizens of Anniston, Alabama, during the destruction of chemical weapons.
Two other air filtration systems that we consider Good Stuff:
1) The Airpura T600 HEPA Air Purifier employs similar technology to Austin and is mostly targeted towards smoke, so if you’re a smoker this is one to consider. They are a bit pricier than Austin.
2) IQAir HealthPro Plus Air Purifier is another filter that meets our criteria, but it is also more expensive than Austin, and made for smaller spaces.
There are other decent air purification systems out there. Some are very slick looking, some have interesting bells and whistles. But other than the ones that produce ozone, any filter is better than having no filter at all. We like the Austin because of the combination of proven robust filtering technology, quality construction, versatility, and price point. Maia just put one in her house, and she loves it.
Please ask your questions about air filters below.