The Smell of Poor Indoor Air Quality: Spring Cleaning Series

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The Smell of Poor IAQ

Spring Cleaning (Part 1 of 5) – Biological Pollutants and the smell of poor indoor air quality.

I think we can all agree with the experts, that some of the most polluted air we breathe today is in our homes. Research shows that most Americans spend close to 90% of their time indoors where many spend even more time at home with the recent pandemic and economic lock-downs.

You would think that breathing clean indoor air would be a priority for just about everyone. Unfortunately, it isn’t. We usually start thinking about good Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) only when we can’t breathe or more commonly when we can’t stand that weird smell. Biological Pollutants are often to blame for the smell of poor indoor air quality.

Biological Pollutants and the Smell of Poor Indoor Air Quality?

Biological Pollutants (BPs) are (or were at one time) associated with living, breathing organisms who have an uncanny ability to collect and thrive in small, isolated, poorly ventilated environments. All they need to survive is a food and moisture source. Unfortunately, our homes have become an ideal environment that can provide both.

BP’s are directly responsible for degraded IAQ and many can damage your home and your health. Experts tout that they may also be a major cause of lost productivity at work and in schools and be responsible for many doctor and hospital visits. Some common BPs include:

  • Animal saliva, dander, feces (dog/cat/rodent/avian/reptile and minute hair/feather/skin scales)
  • Microbial organisms like bacteria, viruses, yeasts, molds, mildew, fungus
  • Pollen and dust mite, cockroach, insect parts.

How Do You Know You Have a BP Problem?

The Smell of Poor Indoor Air Quality: Spring Cleaning Series 2

Sometimes you have a small clue, a little water staining along the trim (like in this picture). Other times there is no primary or secondary indicators of moisture damage that would indicate a hidden mold matter. In this case, water migrated under the commercial grade vinyl floor from the kitchen on the other side of the home. The baseboard staining in the bathroom was a good indication of moisture. But in no way did it broadcast how severe this mold growth was behind well painted walls.

Most of the time you won’t even realize it. The changes are very subtle and often invisible to the untrained eye. But you just might smell it. The odors you might encounter are often described as “Weird” and are associated with minor nuisance-type health issues (tickle in my throat, dry/watery eyes, headache, itchy skin). But for the most part, the odor is intermittent, seasonal, and seems to get worse as time goes by. A quick ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate) pen test can help establish if the home environment has biological normalcy where other chemical tests can help exclude chemical issues.

Where do Biological Pollutants Hide

Karvelas Sampling

Attic Fungus is pretty common in homes. You often see it growing in patches on the north side of your attic where attic ventilation often dilutes the odor. If not managed properly it just might migrate down into the dead air space of your home’s wall cavity. That’s when it starts degrading your IAQ and you might smell it.

These BPs collect thrive in micro-climates associated with conditioned human-occupied environments. We refer to these organisms as Stagnant Air Organisms (SAOs) who often inhabit isolated dead air spaces like wall cavities, ceiling plenums, interstitial spaces, basements, attics, etc. Anywhere air is allowed to stagnate and has inadequate ventilation.

Sometimes, it’s a combination of open spaces (with dead air pockets) in your home that’s the problem like your library (with all those old books that molds love) or the fancy flocked / vinyl wallpaper that attracts, holds, and concentrate airborne contaminants. Many times the hiding places make no rational sense at all.

But My Home is Very Clean

Many of these Biological Pollutants are in every home and make up a big part of the home’s dust burden. No matter how clean it looks, it’s impossible to get rid of them all. Even a spotless home may have issues with biological pollutants that you just can’t detect with the naked eye. But you just might detect that weird odor or smell of poor indoor air quality.

In fact, very clean homes are often the toughest to diagnose. The diligent attempts at cleaning often eradicate all the visual clues we often rely on in diagnosing the problem. But don’t be fooled, that odd often intermittent odor is a sure sign there’s a problem (somewhere). These biological pollutants are patient, and just don’t go away on their own.  So trust your gut and start investigating.

How Can I Correct This Myself

In general, good housekeeping, and maintenance of heating and air conditioning equipment, are essential. Proper ventilation and air distribution also is a big help. Many times you can tweak your current cleaning regime to reduce BPs by:

replace air-filters regularly

  1. Upgrading / Replacing air filters more regularly
  2. Clean the home more thoroughly and frequently
  3. Add stand-alone or In-Line Air purifiers (like Austin Air Machines or the Reme-Halo)
    austin air systems
  4. Upgrading your vacuum cleaner to a true HEPA device
  5. Have an outside Hygiene Consultant assess your Cleaning / Hygiene Protocol
  6. Monitor total “Particle Loads” in your home with a particle counter to help assess cleanliness
  7. Implement a “Real-Time Environmental Monitoring” system for the home
  8. Once or twice a year “Shock Treat” your home (like “shocking your pool”) to manage that smell of poor indoor air quality.
  9. Install commercial grade dehumidifiers to keep humidity low (40-50%RH)
    Humidex Ventilation

But remember, while this may appear relatively simple, it’s is a complicated matter with lots of moving parts where you still might not get the results you are looking for if you do it yourself.

Still Have That Weird Odor

While the problem appears pretty simple at first, the reality is that correcting the smell of poor Indoor Air Quality / lingering odor challenge may drive you crazy in the long run. The Building Biologists at GreenWorks most likely have dealt with similar IAQ / odor challenges that often defy rational logic. Try reaching out to GreenWorks via their Contact Portal with your challenge and they can probably help you figure out your next step.


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Avatar for Victor Coppola

Victor Coppola

Victor Coppola is a Building Biologist with decades of diverse environmental experience spanning natural resource management and contaminated sites to Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) and building hygiene matters. He focuses on the three most prevalent issues degrading today's built environment: Moisture Odor & Mold (M.O.M.). Mr. Coppola and his Team are sought out by individuals and professionals concerned about IAQ to those actually suffering from Biotoxin Illness. His hybrid blend of environmental interests and services enable him to give a unique perspective into today's changing environment. Think your home is killing you, better call Victor and his Team at GreenWorks.
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