The first step in ridding your home or business of indoor air pollution is to understand the sources of indoor pollution. You also need to know the kind of pollution given off by those sources and how that pollution may affect your health.

By identifying the nature of the indoor air pollution you need to control you can decide on a plan of action. This may include steps to reduce the indoor pollution sources, adding appropriate fresh air through ventilation, and whether choosing humidifier air purifier combo would be the best remedy for your situation.

There are three primary types of indoor air pollution you will have to control:

  • Respirable Particles
  • Biological Pollutants
  • Gases, Odors, and Fine Mists

Each of these kinds of indoor air pollution has it’s own unique source, negative health effect, and method of control.

Are you at risk for one or more of these? That will depend on the sources of these pollutants present in your indoor environment and how hazardous the pollutant is. The extent of your exposure both in quantity of indoor pollution and length of time exposed will be important. Also, your general health condition will play a role. Even persons in good health may find themselves to be particularly sensitive to certain kinds of indoor air pollution. For a consideration of the effects of indoor air pollution on health see Indoor Pollution – Are You A Victim?

Indoor Air Pollution Sources

Possible sources of indoor pollution are almost too numerous to name. Anything that releases gases or particles into the air is a cause of indoor air quality problems. Inadequate ventilation increases indoor pollution by not bringing in enough outdoor air and by not carrying indoor air pollution outside. High temperature and humidity also increases some pollutants.

Any combustion source such as oil, gas, kerosene, coal, wood, and tobacco products is a contributing factor to both particulate pollutants and noxious gases. They also contribute significant additional humidity since water vapor is itself a combustion byproduct.

Also, building materials and furnishings such as asbestos containing insulation, wet or damp carpet, and cabinetry or furniture made of certain pressed wood products are a problem. Products for household cleaning and maintenance, personal care, and arts and crafts or other hobbies are a source both of particulates and gases, in particular volatile organic compounds. Central heating and cooling systems and humidification devices and sources such as radon, pesticides, and outdoor air pollution can all worsen your indoor air quality.

To further assist you in clearing your air of unwanted pollution I’ve provided articles to each of the primary types of pollution. You will find information on what sources create each pollutant, what the hazards are, and how you can take steps to control these sources. Also covered is the sort of air purifier you need to properly filter out that pollutant.

Environmental Tobacco Smoke

best air purifiers

Environmental tobacco smoke, or secondhand smoke, is comprised of two types of smoke. Mainstream smoke, the smoke that has been inhaled by the smoker and then exhaled is the first type. Because of transformations of the smoke’s qualities inside the lungs it is different from the second type of smoke, sidestream smoke. Sidestream smoke is the smoke that is released from the burning end of the cigarette. Though recognized as two different types of smoke by researchers because of modest differences in chemical and particulate makeup they nevertheless share many of the same particulate and gaseous contaminants. However, sidestream smoke has been found to contain many of these contaminants in 10 to 170 times greater concentrations, depending on the chemical. This makes sidestream smoke potentially far more toxic. Sidestream smoke has also been shown to comprise as much as 85% of the smoke in a room with smokers. All told, secondhand smoke is recognized to contain thousands of chemical compounds, some sources listing as many as 4000. Many of these chemicals are known to be toxic or to cause cancer. A short list of some of the gaseous and particulate compounds and their health effects is listed here:

Gases in ETS and Known Health Effects
Chemical Cancer Causing Agent Non-Cancer Health Effects
1,3-Butadiene Yes irritant, neurological effects
Acetaldehyde Yes irritant, dermatitis
Acetone No irritant, dizziness
Acetonitrile No irritant, cause vomiting
Acrolein Yes irritant, pulmonary edema
Benzene Yes central nervous system depressant, nausea
Carbon monoxide No headache, dizziness
Carbonyl sulfide No irritant, central nervous system depressant
Ethyl benzene No irritant, central nervous system depressant
Formaldehyde Yes irritant, induce asthma
Hydrazine Yes hepatotoxic, dermatitis
Methanol No neurotoxicant, irritant
Methyl chloride Yes central nervous system depressant, fatigue
N-Nitrosodiethylamine Yes NA
N-Nitrosodimethylamine Yes causes liver damage
N-Nitrosopyrrolidine Yes NA
Pyridine Yes irritant, dizziness
Styrene Yes central nervous system depressant, irritant
Toluene Yes central nervous system depressant, irritant

“Irritant” may be an eye, respiratory, and/or skin irritant.

Particulates in ETS with Known Health Effects
Particulate Cancer Causing Agent Non-Cancer Health Effects
2-Naphthylamine Yes irritant, dizziness
2-Toluidine Yes central nervous system depressant
4-Aminobiphenyl Yes hematuria, lethargy
Aniline Yes methemoglobinemia
Arsenic (inorganic) Yes hemolysis, neuropathy
Benz[a]anthracene Yes NA
Benzo[a]pyrene Yes dermatitis, irritant
Cadmium Yes bronchiolitis, irritant
Catechol Yes methemoglobinemia
Chromium VI Yes renal toxicity, hemolysis
Dibenzo[a,i]pyrene Yes NA
Dibenzo[a,I]pyrene Yes NA
Hydroquinone No central nervous system excitation, tinnitus
Lead (inorganic) Yes affects central nervous system, depression
N-Nitrosonornicotine Yes NA
Nickel Yes immune alterations, irritant
Nicotine (also gaseous) Yes NA
N-Nitrosodiethanolamine Yes NA
NNK Yes NA
Phenol No cardiac arrthythmias
Quinoline Yes irritant, nausea, coma

“Irritant” may be an eye, respiratory, and/or skin irritant.

The above data was compiled from the report, Proposed Identification of Environmental Tobacco Smoke as a Toxic Air Contaminant released by the Air Resources Board of California.

Can an air purifier remove tobacco smoke?

If you’re looking for an effective way to remove tobacco smoke from your indoor air, you’re certainly not alone. Millions of nonsmokers are concerned about the health effects of secondhand smoke on themselves, their children, co-workers and customers.

Attempting to cash in on this concern are numerous manufacturers touting their latest “high tech” purification method. Often only a few years in the business, they hawk a confusing array of devices and methods, “Ozone! No ozone! Best! Newest! Latest technology! Multi-Tech! Eats smoke! Three ways, no four ways, no five ways to clean your air!”

How do you know what is really going to work? With all the competing and contradictory claims from the so-called smoke eaters, do you know how to choose the best air purifier for cigarette smoke. Can an air purifier remove tobacco smoke effectively?

The answer begins in understanding the problem.

Understanding the nature of tobacco smoke pollutants

Tobacco smoke contains two different kinds of pollutants.

The first is particles. This is the smoke that you see and is the easiest to filter. These particles come in a wide variety of sizes, measured in microns. A micron is one one-thousandth of a millimeter. Though microscopic, most filter media is capable of trapping some or even most tobacco smoke.

Just get any smoker to blow through a piece of clean white cloth and you’ll see the contaminants accumulated on the cloth. Of course, waving a cloth around the room to clear smoke is probably not the best way to remove tobacco smoke, though you could use it to gag the smoker!

The smoke that you see is not necessarily the smoke that you smell. This second component of tobacco smoke is the chemical gases given off by burning tobacco. Over four thousand chemical contaminants have been identified in tobacco smoke.

As dangerous as particle contaminants are to the lungs and tissues of the airways, these chemical toxins are extra dangerous.

Why?

While particles are limited to the airways, these chemical toxins can pass through the lung tissues into the bloodstream. This is how nicotine is delivered to the brain. While in the bloodstream these toxins will pass through every organ and tissue in the body causing low level poisoning. This is why long term exposure to tobacco smoke, both mainstream and secondhand, has been found to increase cancer risks in every organ of the body. The health effects of tobacco smoke exposure are systemic, encompassing the whole body.

So, if we are to choose an air purifier that can remove tobacco smoke we need to find one that effectively addresses both the particulate and chemical nature of tobacco smoke.

Unfortunately, while there are a lot of choices, most are not up to the job.

Understanding air purifier technologies and their limitations

There are five primary technologies marketed as air purifiers. These are sometimes modified, combined and hybridized with one another to produce the diverse selection of products currently on the market.

This makes it impossible to consider the actual products out there one by one but if you understand the underlying technologies being used you can determine which have merit and which don’t. We’ll consider each one beginning with the ones to avoid.

The first air purifier up for consideration is the negative ion generator, sometimes called an air ionizer. This product works by using high voltage to ionize the air passing through it. It may or may not use a fan. It’s method of air cleaning, if you can call it cleaning, relies on the fact that these negative ions will attach to and charge particles floating in the air. The idea is that these particles then are drawn to and collect on room surfaces or possibly to each other, making them heavier and quicker to settle out of the air. Yes that’s right, your walls, tables, chairs, and everything else, become one big particle collector. That’s why these devices are so notorious for blackening the walls near where they are placed. The effect has even been given a name, it’s called “black wall effect.” The biggest problem and possible threat to your health comes from the fact that these charged particles enter your lungs when you breathe and imbed themselves there with even more tenacity than they otherwise would. This is probably the exact opposite outcome you’d like considering that you want to remove tobacco smoke. The EPA has brought this issue up in it’s own reviews of air cleaners. Finally, the negative ion generator has no impact at all on chemical contaminants, gases and odors, since these do not attach to the negative ions and become charged.

The second air purifier claimed by manufacturers to remove tobacco smoke is the electrostatic precipitator. These products are the ones usually bearing some version of the word “ionic” and are among the most common air purifiers on the market since they have been heavily promoted to the point that consumers have no idea that anything else exists. It is basically an ion generator like the first except a set of plates has been added that have a charge opposite the particles passing through. This attracts the particles and they tend to separate out of the air before the air reenters the room. This helps eliminate the black wall effect mentioned above. The contaminants collect on the plates instead. Since it is possible to collect particles down to 0.1 micron versus a HEPA filter’s 0.3 micron filtration you will sometimes hear a manufacturer proudly proclaim their product to be “Better than HEPA!” However it must be pointed out that these devices have been shown to only be about 80% efficient at collecting particles versus HEPA’s 99.97% efficiency. This means an electrostatic precipitator leaves about 20% of the contaminants in the air. What is worse, efficiency steadily declines as the plates become loaded with contaminants. Research has shown that 80% of the original clean plates collection ability is lost in as few as three days. This is under normal use. Attempting to remove tobacco smoke with its heavy particulate load will render the plates ineffective at an even faster pace. The end result is the owner must clean the plates at a minimum of every other day and preferably every day to maintain any reasonable level of usefulness. Of course, these ionic electrostatic precipitators also do nothing at all for chemicals, gases and odors. If you want an air purifier to remove tobacco smoke you should pass these by.

A third type of air purifier is the ozone generator. It is often promoted as a means to remove tobacco smoke because of ozone’s ability to react with chemical contaminants. When ozone fully oxidizes a volatile organic compound, or VOC, the only products left are water and carbon dioxide. This sounds wonderful, right? But there are several really big catches to this scenario. First, it must be pointed out that commercial ozone generators are used in hotel room prep, car detailing, and fire and smoke restoration to eliminate smoke odor, tobacco and otherwise. When used in these capacities an extremely high level of ozone is being produced. This is because there are literally millions of VOCs present that need to be rapidly eliminated. But no humans are present when these devices are in operation and the area being treated is ventilated afterward to allow the ozone to escape. Ozone’s highly reactive nature means it can rupture cell walls and destroy tissues as easily as it can break up chemical contaminants. Exposing a person to the levels necessary to deal with these polluted environments would have dire consequences up to and including death. With sufficient cellular rupturing in the lungs a person would drown in their own fluids. Any ozone generator sold to the home market must produce ozone at far lower levels. However it is widely recognized, that is by everyone but sellers of ozone generators, that at levels tolerable for long term exposure could never effectively deal with indoor pollution, much less remove tobacco smoke. You’d be better off simply opening a window. It is also recognized that asthmatics, hyper reactive airway sufferers, and others with breathing difficulties are especially susceptible to increased ozone levels. This is why the EPA issues ground level ozone alerts when outdoor levels become unhealthy. A typical home-use ozone generator can exceed these levels making them especially dangerous to many of the very people they are marketed to. In Canada, the government has issued warnings against their use by persons who already own them and has restricted their sale. Unfortunately, in the US no governmental body recognizes itself as having oversight and authority to pull the plug, though the FTC has filed suit against and penalized some manufacturers for fraudulent claims regarding these devices. On a final note, ozone is not recognized as having any impact on particulate pollution. If you want an air purifier to remove tobacco smoke an ozone generator simply isn’t up to the task and actually exposes you to an additional contaminant.

Our fourth contender is the HEPA filter. HEPA filtration technology was developed by the US atomic Energy Commission as a means to remove fine particles contaminated with radioactive isotopes from the air of the scientists and workers working on nuclear research projects. It has the ability to remove particles from the air as small as 0.3 micron at 99.97% efficiency. This was the standard set for filtration effectiveness. It is more efficient with a larger particle size and somewhat less efficient with a smaller particle size, but to be considered true HEPA filtration it must meet this standard. This particle trapping efficiency is more than adequate to remove tobacco smoke from the air. Its effectiveness at doing so will remain at 100% throughout the life of the filter. The only reason to replace it is when particle loading begins to reduce the amount of air flowing through the filter. A high quality HEPA filter should last five years under normal use, less in a smoke filled environment, but is still your best choice to remove tobacco smoke. It needs to be pointed out that while the media being used may meet HEPA standard the air purifier incorporating it may be way off the mark. If the media was cheaply made it may have cracks that allow air to pass unfiltered. Since HEPA filter media can be brittle it may have become cracked or otherwise damaged in manufacturing. Poorly made air purifiers may have gaps between the housing and the media that allow air to pass. Poor seals may allow air to bypass the filter. All these weaknesses can reduce the actual efficiency or the air purifier and your ability to remove tobacco smoke and other pollutants. To choose the best air HEPA air purifier look for a company that specializes exclusively in air purification products, not just one that has contracted some factory floor space in China so they can cash in on the growing air purifier market. Look for warm rolled medical grade HEPA filter media, to insure against cracks. Expect a well built housing and quality seals. Try to find a company that guarantees the actual efficiency of the overall unit, not just the theoretical efficiency of the media. Finally, HEPA will not remove chemicals, gases and odors. For that HEPA needs to be partnered with activated carbon, our next air purifier technology.

The last air purification method we’ll consider is the activated carbon filter. Activated carbon is produced when a raw carbon stock is subjected to high pressure steam. The heat and steam drive contaminants out leaving behind pure carbon containing millions of micro-pores. These tiny pores enable the carbon to adsorb volatile chemicals passing through the carbon. Activated carbon can adsorb as much as 60% of its own weight in chemical pollutants. This makes it ideally suited to remove tobacco smoke gases and odors. Additional catalysts and compounds can be used to treat the carbon so that it removes specific contaminants with greater success. The effectiveness of activated carbon has led numerous manufacturers to include it in their products. Unfortunately this usually takes the form of a foam pad that has been impregnated with a few token ounces of carbon. This foam pad often serves double duty as a prefilter to protect a higher efficiency filter further downstream. This kind of arrangement does not benefit the consumer. The few ounces of carbon can quickly use up all adsorption capacity. What is more, without any depth to the carbon bed, there is insufficient dwell time for the carbon to adsorb chemicals anyway. Using the carbon in the capacity of a prefilter subjects it to particle contamination that clogs its pores and further reduces its chances of adsorbing chemicals. The inabilty of the carbon to really make any difference is made obvious by the fact that some manufacturers of this kind of filter also include a scent cartridge to mask odors. If the carbon were working the scent would be unnecessary. Not only that but the carbon would adsorb the scent rendering the scent useless. To truly be effective an air purifier needs to include many pounds of activated carbon, especially if its intended purpose is to remove tobacco smoke odors and gases. It is also preferable if the activated carbon has undergone special treatments to enable it to better handle the chemical contaminants typically found in cigar and cigarette smoke. Look for a special smokers air cleaner carbon blend.

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