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If you have allergies you’ve definitely noticed pollen season has started. This week my allergies started kicking in. Like other allergy sufferers, I’m looking for ways to relieve my symptoms. For most people, medication is the best and most used option. But, this blog is about homes, so what can be done to help make your home an allergy refuge?
First, we have to know the enemy. Right now, tree pollen is the culprit. According to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology’s website the main tree pollens currently are oak and willow. I recently took some dust samples from around my house and one sample from outside. Sure enough, plenty of pollen like objects. It's a little hard dealing with old material because most of the material is very dark in color. The first likely pollen below was found in HVAC dust with a light microscope. The sphere is about 60 microns at x1000. The second image shows a likely spherical pollen from my vacuum dust. Even for a professional microscopist, pollen identification is difficult with a plain light microscope.
Not surprisingly, I found no pollen in the basement. I’m not saying there isn’t any pollen in the basement. There just isn’t enough to clearly show up in the couple tape lifts I took. But once I moved upstairs and vacuumed the carpet I found plenty. I also found a few pollen grains in my ductwork. The images below are from the outside sample I took just a couple days ago. The first thing I noticed is how much clearer the fresh pollen grains are. There is definitely tree pollen in some of the pictures. Again, x1000 magnification.
Pollen in your home will be concentrated near windows and doors. Most of the pollens above will settle out, electrostatically attach themselves to a surface, or come in with the dirt on your feet. Pollen is only a problem once you breath it in or get it in your eyes. Is there anything you can look for? Yes.
Dust is our enemy. Technically, dust is anything that is smaller than around 60 microns (that’s about a quarter of a hundredth of an inch). Most dust around your home is composed of skin flakes and textile fibers from carpets, clothes, and paper (think tissue paper). I would love to go into more detail about dust, but that requires its own blog article in the future.
Wherever you can find dust, you expect can find pollen. However you clean up dust you can clean up pollen. Always start at the top. For me, that means dusting ceiling fans. The most effective way to dust a ceiling fan is to use a wet rag. Wet rags trap the dust as you run the rag over it. Never use a feather duster because as you run the duster over the dust, the duster sends a lot of dust particles into the air. Doing nothing might actually be better than using a duster.
While the small amount of dust you sent into the air settles, clean window blinds and sills next. Again, use a wet rag to help prevent dust from being sent into the air while your wiping.
Finally, it’s time to pull out the vacuum cleaner after things have settled. Pull out your attachments and begin by vacuuming couches and recliners. Don’t forget to vacuum your pillows. As you sit down on a couch your weight compresses the pillow causing air to be expelled. This expelled air shoots dust particles into the air that can be inhaled. When you lay down and take a nap your putting your face right next to a pollen laden pillow if you don’t clean it.
It’s finally time to vacuum the carpet. Pay special attention to the areas in front of windows and doors. Pollen can settle to the floor shortly after entering through your windows. Areas in front of doors tend to have increased amounts of pollen because you drag it in with your feet. You would think that the pollen in your carpet wouldn’t be a big deal. But, as you walk across carpet you disturb the carpet fibers causing dust particles to be flung into the air.
If you’re in the market for a new vacuum consider buying one with a HEPA filter. My vacuum is a Hoover WindTunnel. With pollen being so small, a HEPA filter is technically needed to catch such small particles. Without a HEPA filter filtering the air, when you vacuum your actually blowing small dust and pollen particles into the air with the exhaust. People with severe allergies can be affected.
I tested this by taking samples from the bagless canister and from the screen on the front of the HEPA filter ( I couldn’t technically get to the HEPA filter without ruining it so I took samples from between the charcoal filter and the screen on the front of the HEPA filter). Guess what I found? I found pollen in the canister but none on the face of the HEPA. Here is what I found on the HEPA filter screen.
I found sand particles just in front of the HEPA. (My best guess is that they made it there because of their higher density. They are roughly the same sie as the skin and fiber particles.) While in theory you need a HEPA filter, my initial results indicate otherwise. I would not put sampling out of the question. Without being 100% sure, I prefer to error on the side of caution and get a vacuum with a HEPA filter.
In a previous article about filters, I said that using the filter in your furnace to clean the air in your home was not effective. If you rely on the furnace or A/C to turn on and clean the air in your house right now you’re out of luck. Furnaces and air conditioners are being used the least right now because the outdoor temperature is close to most people’s thermostat setting. If you want to clean some of the air in your home you need to turn the fan on your thermostat to ‘on.’ This causes the blower in your furnace to run constantly without the furnace or air conditioner on. As a result, the amount of air circulated through your filter is significantly increased. I suggested a MERV 8 filter as about the highest MERV you want to go to keep your air conditioner running smooth. At MERV 8, you can filter out much of the pollen in the air.
You would think that with pollen being so small it would not make such an impact on your body. The human body was designed to filter out large particles. Larger particles are not as dangerous to your health because your nasal passages are fairly effective at removing them before they get to your lungs. The dangerous particles are the small ones because they make it past your body’s filter system. Pollen makes it into your body where it is mistaken as an invader by your immune system. Your immune system triggers its defenses and one of the resulting chemicals release is histamine. Hence, many allergy medications are anit-histamines.
Allergies may not be new, but they are getting worse. Over the last several thousand years mankind has modified its habitat to select for plants that are annuals. Annual plants complete their life cycle, from seed to dust, in one year. As a result, they put most of their energy into reproducing. This allows us to grow corn (which is actually an oversized annual grass), but it also means we have increased the amount of pollen in the air compared to what once was.
You can plan on having allergies in the future. Pollen in the air is not preventable and, unfortunately, we are encouraging the growth of high pollen producing plants. With proper cleaning, your house can become a place of relief during allergy season.