Indoor Air Problems? Where to Start?

Recently, we have noticed that everytime we are in the living room, our nose/throat/eyes get irritated. When the heater comes on, it's worse. Most of us start coughing. I feel my throat burning.

Something doesn't feel right. When the sun beams into the house, the air looks filthy with many dust particles. Some of us have been coughing a lot and have had bronchitis recently. Kids seem to be congested with runny nose often (which could also be simply because it's winter.)

We have a pretty fancy air purifier that is supposed to be good for up to 1500 sq ft and have it running 24/7. When the heater comes on, it often triggers the purifier to go into high gear. When kids rough play nearby, the machine also kicks up to high gear. 

Our house is extremely leaky. We have cracked windows and visible holes around many windows and doors. Last year's wildfire was really hard. We felt so defeated when the official recommendation was to keep the doors and windows shut and stay inside when we knew indoor air was pretty much the same as outdoors. I wonder if we should have had some sort of professional cleaner come out and detox the house after the wildfire. Did anyone do that? Any recommendation? 

We replaced the HVAC air filter recently. 

Some ideas we have are the following but it's so overwhelming and I'm not sure what to do first or where to start:

- get PGE to come out and inspect the furnace which has never been looked at for the 3 years we have lived here and we have no idea when it was last inspected

- get the air duct clean (is there a company that inspects, maintains and cleans furnace and air duct?)

- get a consultant to come out and inspect indoor air quality and check for dust, mold, asbestos, lead, etc. 

- replace the couch

- get the area rugs professionally cleaned or replace them (these are not fancy rugs and have never been professionally cleaned in the 10 years we have had them)

- get a deep cleaning service 

- fire the current cleaner and hire a better house cleaner (our current cleaner comes every other week but doesn't seem to dust well but I don't think it's entirely the cleaner's fault. I think it's the house. I just dusted yesterday and I see a noticeable layer of dust today.)

- lift up the couch and vacuum under the couch which sits low to the ground and I'm pretty sure it has not been vacuumed underneath for years

I feel pretty lost and helpless and don't know where to start. I feel overwhelmed and anxious that ou house is poisoning us and worried that it's causing allergy and asthma for the kids.

I would truly appreciate any tips / help you can provide. 

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Hi, I used this company to clean the air ducts and it worked great! https://www.breathable.com/ When I moved into this new house, I wanted to make sure the air we were inhaling was clean.

It is very likely that your furnace is sucking air from indoor & outdoor. If that's the case, you might want to clear the areas around the furnace too. Also, the wildfires might have made the ducts very polluted, so I'd really recommend the company above.

More important than any of these things - especially since those difficult fires are here to stay - is sealing your house properly.  Otherwise fire-related particulate matter can get in...as well as allergens, dust, etc. year-round.  

I would highly recommend you consider replacing your windows.  US Window Renewal out of Alameda is exceptional and well-priced - their rate to install 21 windows was only $2K more than buying the windows themselves from Ashby Lumber and the like.  If that's out-of-the-question for your budget, at the least you should get the plastic that can be put up and attached to the frame to seal the window.  It's typical to use this in old homes where folks can't afford to replace in cold climates.  It works very well.

Then, hire a handy-man, or do the work yourself to replace old, worn-out seals around doors, windows, and use dry dex to fill cracks and holes in the walls (you can build-up over a few days if it's deep - if it's a shallower crack, caulk works well).  We just replaced all the weather stripping on our doors that was less than 5 years old, but was letting a lot of air into the home.  Due to the unevenness of many homes (no square corners!) in earthquake country, we have an old towel we keep by the front door to 'tuck' into the corner where air comes in.  Ideally we'd re-do the threshold and make it uneven to match the door, but we haven't had time.  So towels can be a good work-around if you have situations like this.

I would deep-clean your home - maybe involve your kids, throw on masks, and deep clean rugs (beat them for dust, then carpet clean?), dust all blinds, move all furniture and dust, etc.  Vacuum as a last step to suck it all up with a high-quality canister vacuum - rent one if you don't have one.  The Coway high-quality air filters work well, but we've notice we need to clean-out the filters more frequently than the manual suggests.  My BIL is an HVAC tech and also says it's well-worth having your ducts cleaned-out every few years, and that he recommends buying the cheap air filter for your furnace and replacing it monthly vs. a thick allergen filter, and that's what we do and it seems to help a lot.

Good luck!

I would contact Synergy in Emeryville and have the air quality tested. I work with them when my clients buy homes with Asbestos in the ductwork and want to make sure it hasn't entered the airspace. They are not that expensive and they are very well regarded. They are easy to find - just google them. I have hired them more than once when I need ductwork replaced as well. 

Sorry to hear you're going through this!  Two years ago I was in touch with this consulting firm (Healthy Building Science: https://healthybuildingscience.com/) that focuses on indoor air quality for a problem I had in my home.  After talking briefly on the phone, they ended up saying that my specific problem (which they had encountered many times before and was related to a wood sealant misapplied by a contractor in our crawl space) would resolve itself within a few months.  They didn't charge me for that advice and they were 100% right.  Which makes me appreciate them even more -- they could have charged me a fee to come out, but instead effectively allayed my concern without me having to pay them for it.  So, I think they're good people with relevant expertise.  I recommend you at least give them a call to see if they might have services they think could help you!

This could be a dust problem, but it could be other things as well. Let me respond to each of your possibilities. 

Some ideas we have are the following but it's so overwhelming and I'm not sure what to do first or where to start:

- get PGE to come out and inspect the furnace which has never been looked at for the 3 years we have lived here and we have no idea when it was last inspected

Yes, have PGE out to check. It will cost you nothing extra. Might as well.

Make sure your furnace has appropriate filters in place. You may need a HEPA filter and a carbon filter. It may be appropriate to put a filter in the cold air return also. These filters need to be changed regularly. 

- get the air duct clean (is there a company that inspects, maintains and cleans furnace and air duct?)

I've heard air duct cleaning is a scam. I doubt that this will help. You might be better off washing the curtains. 

- get a consultant to come out and inspect indoor air quality and check for dust, mold, asbestos, lead, etc. 

Maybe this could help. 

- replace the couch

Maybe this could help. Is the couch moldy? Does it smell? Is it full of fire retardants, which  are toxic? 

- get the area rugs professionally cleaned or replace them (these are not fancy rugs and have never been professionally cleaned in the 10 years we have had them)

The glues used in rugs and carpets usually have formaldehyde in them. I doubt professional cleaning will do much. If you can't see the rug pattern on the back, replace them with rugs in which you can see the pattern. Those have no glue. 

- get a deep cleaning service 

Sometimes cleaning can make things worse. Many common cleaning substances are toxic. You need little more than water, baking soda and vinegar to keep things clean. Baking soda helps if you need something abrasive. Vinegar is great for soap scum. If you use them together, you get lots of exciting foam, which means they are reacting with each other, but does nothing otherwise. 

- fire the current cleaner and hire a better house cleaner (our current cleaner comes every other week but doesn't seem to dust well but I don't think it's entirely the cleaner's fault. I think it's the house. I just dusted yesterday and I see a noticeable layer of dust today.)

Whoever it is, they use be using non-toxic substances for cleaning. 

- lift up the couch and vacuum under the couch which sits low to the ground and I'm pretty sure it has not been vacuumed underneath for years

Wouldn't hurt. 

General ideas: To improve air quality, use fragrance-free personal care products and household care products. Do not use any air "fresheners". Do you use your fireplace? It would be better to clean it out and never burn wood again. Candles look nice in a fireplace. I suppose it could be the paint. You might want to repaint with low-voc paint. Do you have plants in the living room? Some plants clean the air, some cause people to react. The coughing may get worse when the furnace comes on because the fan stirs up the dust, and you are allergic to dust mites. Or it may be because the warmer air causes more toxins (like formaldehyde) to off-gas. 

Good luck. I hope you figure it out soon. And if you figure it out, please consider letting us know. 

Not likely you are being "poisoned". Start with common sense, cleaning, and detective work. Do what is inexpensive and obvious first. Do what's more expensive and complicated (replacing furniture, hiring consultants, expensive countermeasures) only if your first steps don't improve matters. 

  • Anyone, allergic or not, will cough and react when dust and particulates are at a sufficient density to irritate the respiratory system.
  • Allergies are usually triggered by dust mites in housedust. Other common allergy triggers are mold, animal dander, cockroaches, household chemicals, and odors/fragrances.
  • Asthma is often (but not always) triggered by allergies, and in these cases breathing is impaired.

You can't eliminate these triggers/irritants; that's impossible. But reducing them can work wonders. That means patch holes and leaks around windows and doors (even with tape); clean/vacuum/wash what you can; and filter out irritants.

A deep clean is a good start. That just means a lot of hard work: clean all household surfaces, using non-irritating cleaning solutions and elbow grease. Then check that it all got done.

As for your regular housecleaner, compare your dusting/cleaning to hers an equal number of hours later. And ask what she is using to clean.

If the living room is the worst spot, give that special attention. So, vacuum the couch all over (top, sides, arms, the springs, underneath). Then hit the couch (to raise dust) and inhale for a few minutes. Not feeling good? Wash the covers. Still not good? Replace the pillows, or replace the couch. And for goodness' sake, put legs on the couch or elevate it with books or bricks so you can vacuum under it regularly. 

The rugs: Vacuum on top, flip 'em over, vacuum on the bottom and underneath. I find Swiffers get particles that vacuuming leaves behind on the floor. If you get rugs cleaned, make sure the chemicals used leave no odor or residue.

Look at your cleaning/household supplies. Are you using air fresheners? Fabric softeners? Scented laundry detergent? Cleaners with strong odors? These can be allergy triggers. Switch to stuff that doesn't have fragrance and strong odors. Also, sprays (any kind) are more likely to cause respiratory issues than liquids. (Bummer, because sprays are more convenient.)

If your furnace isn't fully combusting its fuel, that's a health hazard as well as an irritant (but you'd probably already be smelling it). I think PG&E only handles re-lighting furnace pilot lights for gas furnaces. But if you bought the house, there's an inspection report--check that. If you do get a furnace inspection, ask about fresh filters on the furnace vents.

Air duct cleaning can help, but might not, and it will CAUSE problems if done improperly. Here is what the EPA has to say:
https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/should-you-have-air-ducts-your-home-cleaned

For advice from the pros, here is a link to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America: https://www.aafa.org/search?q=cleaning.

Good luck!

Sounds like you need to get your furnace checked ASAP.  Call Atlas Heating & Air Conditioning.  They are excellent, they installed our new furnace and replaced all the ducts.  They also removed our ancient furnace and removed asbestos connected to it.  Good luck!!

Sorry to hear about your situation. We had toxic black mold for 2 years before it was identified. I would recommend contacting a John Banta, CIH, Environmental Health Scientist of restcon.com. He will identify the issue and work with you to solve it properly. Don’t waste time and money going things until he’s figured out the issue for you. Good luck! 

Definitely have PGE come out to inspect it. It’s free. I’d start there and call them right away. 

Cooking, especially on a gas stove, results in way more particulates in your house than you would expect, in the air and sediments. Remember to always use the range hood fan, open a kitchen door or window to the outdoors, and to leave the range hood fan on for 10 minutes after cooking.

I second the recommendations for John Banta/ Restcon.  

And here are a few thoughts on mold. Air testing for mold is really unreliable. I experienced a terrible mold problem and the air samples showed nothing wrong.  If you suspect mold - start by getting an inexpensive humidity meter. Place it in living room and then in different rooms and see if the readings are different.  Mold is inhibited when the humidity is kept below 60% (aim for 50-55%) - so if your living room is measuring humid, get a dehumidifier and run it for a few days, see if that makes a difference.  Last, replacing windows is wonderful for reducing air leaks but can cause other problems. The kind that are sold as replacement windows are generally installed without reflashing the window opening (which would involve chipping away stucco or peeling back siding to do this part).  And the window flashing is a critical part of keeping water out of your wall.