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Written by:  Gail Martin
Date: January 1, 2007

Every year, there is a new must-have item for the nursery. First hygienic diaper disposal units, then wipe warmers. Now, air purifiers are among the latest hot nursery gadgets.

How much is hype and how much is helpful? Is nursery air dangerous? Do babies need an air purifier to be healthy?

The answer is — “It depends.” According to the National Safety Council (NSC), “indoor air often contains higher concentrations of hazardous pollutants than outdoor air.” The NSC fact sheet explains that one downside of more energy efficient homes is that air becomes trapped and stale inside, locking pollutants indoors.

“Children breathe in 50 percent more air per pound of body weight than adults do,” says the NSC. Since we spend 90 percent of our days indoors, and 65 percent of that time in our own homes, home air quality matters. In fact, the NSC says that indoor air can be up to 100 times more polluted than the air outside.

Studies to determine the risks and effects of this fairly recent hazard are still new and conflicting. Many side effects of exposure to indoor air pollutants mimic other conditions, such as colds or allergies. “Common symptoms of exposure to indoor air pollutants include: headaches, tiredness, dizziness, nausea, itchy nose and scratchy throat,” says the NSC. “More serious effects are asthma and other breathing disorders and cancer.”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there are many causes of indoor air pollution, including: household cleaners, second-hand tobacco smoke, smoke from heating sources fueled by oil, wood, coal, gas or kerosene, fumes from household chemicals, pesticides and even construction materials themselves.

How severe the reaction is depends on many factors, including the age of the baby, prior exposure to pollutants and exposure of the mother during pregnancy.

Air purifiers and their manufacturers are careful to avoid claiming that their products reduce the risk of asthma or other health problems. But worried parents are quick to put the news reports together with claims of cleaner air and conclude that air purifiers are a new necessity for a healthy baby.

Experts hesitate to go that far. Maeve O’Connor, MD, is on staff at Carolina Asthma and Allergy Center. She is board certified by the American Board of Allergy and Immunology, and an expert on respiratory illness. “None (of the air purifiers on the market) have actually been scientifically proven to remove allergens from air or decrease allergy or asthma symptoms,” says O’Connor. While some studies show tiny decrease in air-borne allergens, says O’Connor, such a change is not likely to be enough to be “statistically significant.”

“The risk factors for infant asthma include being exposed to second-hand smoke,” says O’Connor, who lists other risks as early viral infections, being born prematurely, having a mother with asthma, and the presence of dust mites and cockroaches in the home.

HEPA filters and air filtration units don’t trap the particles left behind by mites and roaches, says O’Connor. The units are more efficient at trapping pet dander. O’Connor says that filtration units in individual rooms are more effective than whole-house systems, and are most effective if switched on right after vacuuming, when particles have been stirred up into the air.

Filters and filtration units, says O’Connor, “are not the end-all-be-all.” The good news is that there are simple, inexpensive ways to reduce many indoor pollutants that can affect babies’ breathing.

Vacuum cleaners with HEPA filters can help, says O’Connor, if they have a tight seal on the collection bag. “Studies show they are reasonably efficient,” she says. Getting rid of carpets and going with tile or wood floors, nixing overstuffed furniture and clearing out piles of dust-collecting stuffed animals also helps. Avoid strong-smelling household cleaners, candles and air fresheners. To discourage dust mites, O’Connor suggests the use of mite-resistant mattress and pillow covers (not plastic). These covers keep the mites from burrowing into soft bedding.

Wet-washing hardwood floors frequently also helps to cut down on dust and irritating particles. Wash bedding at 130°F to keep mites away, and always wash new clothing, since mites can get into fabrics in the warehouse.

If there are pets in the house, keep them out of the baby’s room. Wash pets frequently to cut down on dander. “I feel like telling someone to get rid of their pet is a losing situation for all of us,” says O’Connor.

Smoking is one of the leading causes of infant breathing problems, says O’Connor, and one of the most avoidable. Avoid smoking in the car and do not smoke in the home at all — even when the baby is not present. If an adult does smoke, encourage the person to wear a designated jacket that can be removed and left outside to keep from bringing smoke particles back into the home.

So do air purifiers in nurseries help? Used in combination with other techniques to keep indoor air free of irritants, a purifier in the room might help to incrementally decrease pollutants, which might be significant for a baby that is especially sensitive. Until studies can turn up results that are more conclusive, air purifiers fall into the same category as chicken soup — it may help, and it can’t hurt.



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