Chemist researching impacts of poor indoor air quality

Normally, when the topic of air quality come up, people think about the outdoors, but a researcher at the University of Saskatchewan is looking inside, exploring the impact of the air indoors.

"We spend more than 90 per cent of our time indoors," said Tara Kahan, a chemist at the U of S and the Canada Research Chair in analytical environmental chemistry. "If we are thinking about air quality and how that affects our health, it's really indoors that we have to worry about."

One obvious source of concern would be the very material used in home construction but here in North America, Kahan said that thanks to building regulations, building materials are less of an issue than one might think.

"I've actually measured formaldehyde levels in some houses here. They're pretty low. We don't really need to worry about that."

What's more of a concern, according to Kahan, is the impact everyday living has on the air quality in our home. Lighting a candle, using essential oils in a diffuser or using certain household cleaners can all have a negative impact on the air we breathe.

Then, there's cooking.  

"Gas stoves are definitely worse polluters than, say, electric stoves," Kahan said. "I love gas stoves but just one cooking event can decrease air quality for hours, unfortunately."

A range hood, vented to the outdoors can help. Also, Kahan said the range hood has a better chance of moving harmful air particles out of your home if you cook on the back burners.

Kim Brunhuber/CBC

This all may sound somewhat alarming but it's important to remember that the work Kahan and others are doing is in the early stages. It's good to be more mindful about what's happening inside your home — perhaps you can stop burning incense and candles, or avoid cleaners with bleach — but for now, she said, don't panic.

"My advice is just do what you're doing," said Kahan. "We are learning more. Don't be worried about it because it's easy to get totally scared and feel like you should never cook, you should never clean."

It's also a good idea to do some research before spending money to try and filter your indoor air because Kahan said that some filters, like ones that use ionizing technology or UV lights, can create a more dangerous chemical reaction.

"A lot of things that people do because they think they are cleaning the air, they are cleaning some things but they could actually be making much worse things."