With quarantine procedures in place throughout the country, many people have been forced to rethink how they’ll continue to stay in shape. I’ve vouched for home gyms as the ideal solution.
However, as I pumped iron in my garage, a startling thought forced me to reconsider my plans for exercising at home. Not because I don’t have the necessary equipment or motivation, but because I noticed a hidden danger that could invisibly harm my health.
Unseen dangers in the air
My apartment’s garage is part of a series of connected garages, with each separated by concrete walls or wood composite boards. Pipes weave through them, usually funneling water and waste from the apartments above them. The holes that accommodate those pipes offer gaps that allow air to flow freely from garage to garage.
While the particulars of my situation are unique, the broad point is common. Garages, and basements, are used to house things people don’t want in the living room. That includes wastewater pipes, furnaces, and bottles of household cleaners.
A study published in 2016 shows that exhaust ventilation in attached garages helps to improve residential indoor air quality. The study measured the indoor air quality of several homes over a winter season, measuring the level of pollutants in the air. It became obvious that a garage was a source of indoor air pollution, and that venting it properly made a big difference.
We spend upwards of 90% of our time indoors, yet the air quality inside is frequently worse than the outdoor air.
Øyvind Birkenes, CEO of Airthings, is something of an air quality evangelist. “We spend upwards of 90% of our time indoors, yet the air quality inside is frequently worse than the outdoor air in the world’s most polluted cities,” said Birkenes.
“Research has even shown that humidity can play a direct role in our immune system,” said Birkenes. “Humidity levels that are below the recommended threshold have been proven to increase the transmission rates of airborne viruses like the seasonal flu.”
The health impacts of poor air quality are sometimes described as “sick building syndrome” said Lars Felber, director of public relations at Eve Systems. This term most often describes maladies that affect office workers due to poor ventilation, but can be applied to any situation where indoor air quality harms a building’s occupants.
“A variety of health and comfort effects [are] associated with the time spent in buildings with, among other factors, elevated VOC levels,” said Felber. “Symptoms of the sick building syndrome include headaches, mucous membrane irritation, asthma-like symptoms, skin irritation, and dryness.”
Worrying about indoor air quality might seem paranoid. It’s not. There are several common sources of pollutants to worry about. Each is well-documented and well-understood.
Though I leave the garage door cracked open while I exercise, the exposed areas in the garage had me thinking about unseen dangers that could be affecting my health. Carbon monoxide was the first to come to mind.
It’s an invisible killer that’s colorless and odorless — with the potential of being fatal. It’s reported that more than 400 Americans perish each year due to unintentional poisoning from carbon monoxide, with more than 20,000 people requiring emergency room visits because of it.
Perhaps you’d notice the effect of carbon monoxide during a workout and remove yourself from the area. On the other hand, you might initially blame the symptoms on an overly enthusiastic workout. It’s safer to make sure your garage is free of any potential source of carbon monoxide before you start doing reps.
Another unseen danger is radon, which at prolonged high exposure can result in cancer. Similar to carbon monoxide, radon is colorless and odorless, making it a silent killer if it’s not properly detected. Typically, radon gas is expelled from the breakdown of uranium in soil, water, and rock, which then enters homes through exposed cracks in the foundation — so basements are prime suspects by default for high levels of radon.
Surprisingly, radon is responsible for 21,000 lung cancer deaths annually. That makes it the number one cause of lung cancer in non-smokers. It’s a serious problem, though its effects can take a very long time to manifest.
Radon risk is regional. In some areas, it’s so common that radon testing is usually folded into a home inspection if you purchase a property. In other areas, the risk is slim to none. The Environmental Protection Agency provides a map of regional data to help you determine your risk.
Beyond those two unseen dangers, there’s also the worry of volatile organic compounds — commonly referred to as VOCs. You don’t want to be breathing these gases as you’re working out because of the health risk problems they pose.
Air fresheners, paints, varnishes, composite wood products, and vinyl flooring all produce some sort of VOCs, so breathing in these gases can be harmful over the long term. These, of course, are the same products you’d commonly store in a garage or basement. They’re especially harmful to children, which can result in serious allergies or asthma.
For adults, short-term exposure to low levels of VOCs can result in minor effects such as dizziness, headaches, and nausea. Chronic exposure can lead to cancer, as well as liver and kidney damage.
How to make sure you’re breathing safe air
Breathing properly is essential for any workout. If you can master the proper techniques, you’ll be able to maximize your workouts with improved endurance and blood flow. Does this mean you should abandon your garage or basement entirely?
It’s important to make sure the air you’re breathing isn’t toxic or harmful.
Not at all. Those spaces are valuable places to exercise, and exercise is a great way to improve your health. However, it’s important to make sure the air you’re breathing isn’t toxic or harmful. That’s where indoor air quality sensors can help.
These gadgets may seem retro compared to the smart home gadgets we’re all familiar with, but what they lack in utility and design, they make up for in their ability to sniff out hidden dangers in the air. You’ll be informed about pollutants as you’re exercising, in addition to when you’re not, so you can keep a detailed history of what’s going on.
These options can help you gauge indoor air quality. Most of them are specialized, often just detecting one type of indoor particulate matter, but some can analyze several.
You might also consider speaking with local contractors, such as home and building inspectors, to see if they can measure your indoor air quality. These one-time services are likely to cost as much as several home monitoring devices, but often cover a wider spectrum of pollutants.
Smarter and healthier workouts
The next time you exercise from home, think about what you’re breathing in. Smart indoor air quality sensors don’t cost a fortune, with the most expensive one priced at a smidgen over $200 — and the rest comfortably under $100.
If you find yourself in a similar situation as myself, with the garage too far away to reach a home network, consider models that can sync data via Bluetooth. Examples include the Airthings Wave Mini, which tracks and detects VOCs.
Obviously, these smart sensors will notify you about what’s in the air, but it’s up to you to figure out how to eliminate or reduce them. While there are professional solutions that can be explored, something as simple as proper ventilation can dramatically reduce levels. Monitoring air quality is the first step in improving the air you’re breathing in.
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