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States Craft New Policies for Protecting Indoor Air Quality

Wednesday, June 27, 2018
Tobie Bernstein

Tobie Bernstein

Senior Attorney; Director, Indoor Environments and Green Buildings Program

June is National Healthy Homes Month, a good time for policymakers to consider strategies for reducing exposure to air pollutants inside homes. It’s also a good time to highlight new policies in California and New York that aim to improve home indoor air quality and that are likely to have impacts beyond those two states.

Filtering Outdoor Pollutants

Particulate matter (PM) is a complex mixture of extremely small particles and liquid droplets that may contain components such as nitrates, sulfates, organic chemicals, metals, and soil or dust particles. As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) notes, numerous studies link PM exposure with an array of cardiovascular and respiratory problems. Most people think about PM as an outdoor pollution problem, but recent years have seen growing attention to indoor exposures. A study of the chronic health impacts of indoor air pollutants found that fine particles are a significant contributor to health impacts of indoor air exposures in homes.

houses along a San Francisco streetIn 2016, the National Academies of Science conducted a Workshop on the Health Risks of Indoor Exposure to Particulate Matter that discussed filtration of outdoor air as a key strategy for reducing indoor PM and noted that mechanical ventilation systems that  supply air from the outdoors can be equipped with efficient particle filters at a cost that is not prohibitive. However, current industry standards call for filters in most home ventilation systems to have a minimum efficiency reporting value (MERV) rating of 6, while recent research suggests that higher efficiency filters are required in order to effectively filter outdoor air pollutants.

In May, California took a major step toward improving filtration of outdoor pollutants that enter homes when the California Energy Commission approved the state’s 2019 Building Energy Efficiency Standards, to take effect January 1, 2020. While the new standards made headlines for requiring solar photovoltaic systems in new homes, they will also make California the first state to require that ventilation systems in both high-rise and low-rise residential buildings have air filters with a minimum MERV 13 rating (see 2019 Building Energy Efficiency Standards, Cal. Code Regs. tit. 24, §§120.1(b), 150.0(m)). According to the California Air Resources Board, this action is expected to reduce indoor particle levels by about 50 to 90 percent in new residential buildings.

PM can also result from indoor activities such as cooking, smoking, and wood burning, and it is important for individuals and policymakers to consider strategies for addressing those sources as well.

Reducing Chemical Exposures From Home Cleaning Products

Cleaning is important for a healthy indoor environment. Yet, as EPA notes, cleaning products may contain chemicals associated with eye, skin, or respiratory irritation, as well as other health issues.

Over the past several years, significant policies and programs have been established to help reduce exposure to these chemicals, especially in children’s environments. Several states have enacted laws requiring schools to use third-party certified “green cleaning” products and practices. States such as Vermont and Colorado prohibit the use of chemical air fresheners in licensed child care facilities. And broad guidance on green cleaning is now available to help child care providers reduce chemical exposures.

California and New York recently became the first states to require disclosure to consumers of the ingredients in cleaning products, a move aimed at helping families choose greener and healthier products for their homes.

Earlier this month, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) issued a new policy requiring manufacturers of household cleaning products to disclose information to DEC about intentionally added chemical ingredients, including fragrances, as well as non-functional byproducts and impurities. Companies must also post the information on their website, along with: a description of information being withheld as confidential business information; studies the company has conducted on health and environmental effects of the products; and a toll-free number for consumers. The disclosure requirements—with effective dates ranging from July 1, 2019, to January 1, 2023—implement a long-standing state statute and regulations that direct manufacturers of cleaning products to submit ingredient information about their products as required by the DEC (see N.Y. Envtl. Conserv. Law §35-0107; N.Y. Code Rules & Regs. tit. 6, §659.6).

New York’s policy follows California’s enactment late last year of the Cleaning Product Right-to-Know Act. That Act requires manufacturers of specified types of cleaning products sold in the state to disclose chemical ingredients that are intentionally added to the product and that are included in one of several regulatory lists designated in the law. The Act also includes disclosure requirements for certain fragrance allergens. The law lists the information that must be disclosed, both on the product label (by 2021) and the product website (by 2020). Employers that are required to maintain safety data sheets will have to provide this information to their employees as well.

The effects of these new policies are likely to spread beyond California and New York, as other states update their building codes in the coming years and as consumers across the country gain access to information about chemicals in the products they use inside their homes.

Visit ELI’s Indoor Environments and Green Buildings program for more information on how state policies address indoor air pollutants in the home: https://www.eli.org/buildings/publications-topic#homes.