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The Air We Breathe.

Taking care of our indoor environments.


As Canadians anticipate the coming winter season, it’s not surprising that we’re spending more of our time indoors. With the fight against COVID-19, our overall time spent indoors is increasing[1] as public health measures call for to limit social gatherings and encourage staying at home especially if symptoms are present.[2]

With more time spent indoors, monitoring and maintaining the quality of our indoor air is vital to our health and well-being.

According to Tang G. Lee, a professor at the University of Calgary who teaches building design, civil engineering, and indoor air quality, people spend about 90 per cent of their time indoors.[3][4] Whether it’s relaxing at home, working at the office, learning in school or even commuting to and from their destinations, the majority of our time spent is indoors.

“You would have a concentration built up of all kinds of potential contaminants … You could have airborne contaminants that you are breathing in [and] because it is in an indoor environment, it is not flushed out,” says Lee.

With an indoor environment, there are higher concentrations of bacteria and air contaminants. Contaminants can originate from household cleaning products, solvents, glues, carpeting, and other airborne bacteria particulates.

“We're breathing a chemical soup of all these things that have a synergetic effect that can affect health,” says Lee.

In contrast, with an outdoor environment there is open space and natural elements like wind which continuously dilutes the air from pollutants. This significantly decreases any risk of inhaling any harmful pollutants or air particulates.

Ensuring safe indoor air quality with ‘house hygiene’ and essential household maintenance

One key factor to indoor air quality is what Lee calls “house hygiene” which is simply regular household cleaning.[5]

Routine cleaning and dusting are recommended in order to maintain a healthy indoor environment. When it comes to vacuuming, Lee encourages the use of a central vacuum system over a portable one. In terms of which cleaning supplies to use, solutions made with organic ingredients can also help improve our indoor environments.

Even with regular house hygiene, some contaminants can be missed as some are microscopic and undetectable. While these smaller contaminants are unseen, they can also be odorless and tasteless which is the case with carbon monoxide (CO).[6]

Candy Parker, a firefighter with the Foothills County Department, says that CO is one of the most dangerous gasses in our households. Whether its smaller concentrations of CO over a longer period of time or a larger concentration over a shorter period of time, CO is lethal.[7]

Carbon monoxide is a byproduct of fuel that can cause illnesses with flu-like symptoms including headaches, nausea, dizziness. In severe cases where exposure to CO is high, CO poisoning can lead to brain damage or death.[8]

One important measure in keeping CO absent from our environment is by monitoring it with carbon monoxide detectors.

“There's new practices for [carbon monoxide detectors] and they're recommending that you have one outside every sleeping area and if you can, in every sleeping area,” Parker says.

Carbon monoxide detectors should be installed close to the ground as they are a heavier gas Parker adds. About once a month, they should be tested and if they are battery-powered, they should be replaced every year.

Another precaution is to make sure that fuel-burning household appliances are properly maintained, in particular furnaces as they are the main source of CO. Parker recommends having your furnace professionally inspected on a yearly basis and to replace furnace filters.

Dryer vents, furnaces, stoves and fireplaces should also be free of any debris or clutter, especially when heavy snow is forecasted.[9]

“One thing a person needs to think about is clearing the vents … [That] there's nothing stacked in front of it, the snow hasn't built up [and that] it hasn't iced over so you're always getting that clean exchange of air,” Parker says.

Although the importance of our indoor air quality can sometimes be missed, it’s critical to think about the air we’re breathing. With proper house hygiene and maintenance, we can all ensure a healthy indoor environment.



[1] Statistics Canada. How are Canadians coping with the COVID-19 situation? (April 08, 2020)

[2] Government of Alberta. COVID-19 info for Albertans. (n.d.)

[3] Tang Gim Lee (Professor, School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, University of Calgary), interview by the author, Calgary, October 2020.

[4]Neil E. Klepeis et al. “The National Human Activity Pattern Survey (NHAPS): a resource for assessing exposure to environmental pollutants.” Journal of exposure analysis and

environmental epidemiology vol. 11,3 (2001): 231-52. DOI:10.1038/sj.jea.7500165

[5] Lee, interview.

[6]Government of Canada. Testing indoor air quality. (October 02, 2020)

[7] Candy Parker (Firefighter, District 7 Foothills County Fire Department Blackie Station), interview by the author, November 2020.


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