Let’s Talk VOCs and AQI

By Erin Olyer Rohlf, LCSW

If you’re like me, you’ll have an urge to fling open the windows on these spring-like, 60-degree days we Denverites enjoy, despite it technically being winter.

Not so fast, though. Let’s talk about VOCs, AQI and other air-related acronyms first. 

How air quality affects our mental health is critical, but not frequently talked about. Poor air quality, whether outdoors or indoors, has been shown to negatively affect mental health, and is suspected to increase depression, anxiety as well as other mental disorders. In fact, some researchers are bold enough to claim that poor air quality can exacerbate serious mental illnesses, like schizophrenia. In fact, British researchers have shown that high levels of serious mental illness happen in places where air pollution is greatest.

Pollutants and particulates in the air we breathe impact both our lungs and our brain. What’s more, indoor air has often been shown to be more polluted than outdoor air, thanks to the host of chemicals, cleaning compounds and other toxic vapors we’re awash in daily.

So what can we do to clean our air and thus support our mental health? Turns out, plenty.

Since on average, Americans spend about 90% of their time inside, let’s start there. 

Start with airing out your home regularly by opening doors and windows for a full 10 to 15 minutes, as often as you’re comfortable with. Doing so flushes out indoor pollution like smoke, mold growth, and cleaning products and off-gassing household items that emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), like some furniture (gross!).

Next, know the day’s AQI, or air quality index. AQI is the daily report of the ozone, carbon monoxide and particulate matter levels in the air. You can find it on the weather app on your phone and a host of other places.

AQI is calculated by data stations throughout the city surreptitiously gathering intel on air. There’s one at 45th and Navajo, for example. Check the AQI before flinging open the windows—the idea is to release indoor pollutants, not add new ones from a wildfire downwind. 

Next, filter what your lungs are taking in for optimal mental health. The American Lung Association provides interesting information online about a DIY air filter that can be created using a box fan, a 20-inch filter (rated MERV, minimum efficiency reporting value, 13 or better) and duct tape. Tape the filter in front of the intake flow of the fan to filter out nasty particulates. Recycle the filter when it gets yucky. It’s that simple. 

Looking for something a bit more aesthetically pleasing than a duct tape project? Luckily, there’s a vast array of air filters for the home to be purchased online or at your local hardware store, ranging from an elegant desktop contraption to a room-size system.

Best plan yet? Buy and cultivate house plants. NASA did a study in the 1980s that suggested plants and associated soil can be used to reduce indoor pollutant levels. More plants equals less carbon dioxide in a room—plus points for charm and positive feng shui. 

Personally, it’s just the excuse I need for a splurge session at The Terrorium Shop (4416 Yates St.). Their window display of discarded mannequin parts upcycled into imaginative planters is equal parts mirthful and weird. There are also The Plant Room (1937 Federal Blvd.), Tigerlily Goods (3795 Grove St.) and a handful of other North Denver plant stores. Consider it an investment in your indoor air and mental well-being. 

More plants are always a good idea, and if you’re so inclined, choose plants that perform double duty with some physical health benefits like an aloe vera plant for healing, or mint for a tincture or tea as an effective stomach soother. 

Finally, since urban living already does enough to stink up your air, don’t add to it by cleaning with crappy chemicals. Choose your cleaning products wisely, and remember to step outside if you gotta light up or vape, to dissipate cigarette and cannabis smoke.

Erin Olyer Rohlf is a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), professional therapist and founder of Higher Healing and Wellness, LLC. Call her at 720-644-1400 or email her at eorohlf@gmail.com for information or to suggest ideas for future columns.

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