Indoor Air Quality and COVID

We have all had to learn new things — social distancing, face covering protocols, staying at home — during this pandemic and the research and health community is no exception. In fact, they are continually discovering novel things about COVID and how to protect public health.

Transmission of the COVID virus is thought to be mainly from person-to-person contact through respiratory droplets from coughing, sneezing, and talking which enter the lungs. The six-foot social distancing that we are all familiar with has been a mainstay precautionary practice to reduce the spread of the virus. However, new research shows that the six-foot distance may actually not be adequate to prevent exposure in indoor settings.

Numerous studies show that microdroplets (essentially aerosols) can stay suspended in the air much longer than previously thought, travel more than six feet, and circulate in rooms. The new research suggests that wearing facemasks in public buildings, offices, etc. maybe a prudent precaution. Further, heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems can move and recirculate these microdroplets (~ 1 micron in size), and therefore filtration is recommended. Filtration will not eliminate all risk of transmission of airborne particulates, since several other factors influence disease transmission, but is one tool in addition to facemasks and handwashing to reduce risk.

CDC, EPA and ASHRAE provides some practical guidelines to management of indoor air quality: 

  • Using a minimum of a 13 Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) HVAC filter. This level can capture up to 85% of particles 1-3 microns in size. These filters are the pleated kind and can be purchased online or at some hardware/box stores, (though often they only sell MERV 12 or lower). Note: These filters reduce air flow slightly and must be replaced every three months to make sure they don’t get clogged to where air flow is restricted possibly damaging the system
  • Maintain the fan component of the HVAC system to run 24/7. Most thermostats allow for that option. Simply turn the fan from auto to on
  • If weather and temperature conditions permit consider increasing fresh airflow from outside
  • Consider using a portable room air cleaner a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) room filter or. This may be especially a wise practice if someone has been sick. A HEPA filter (equivalent to > MERV 16) will provide up to 99% capture of the virus droplets.

Being safe during this pandemic has adjusted our lifestyle and practices, and we need to remain diligent and adaptable to minimize risks. Indoor air quality is yet another important consideration to protect your health.

Home Maintenance for Your Health

Maintaining your home and appliances helps them last longer, perform better, and keep their value. However, did you know following maintenance practices is also good for your family’s health? 

Let’s consider those things in the home that can influence our health. 

Keeping a clean home can reduce dust, dust mites, pet dander, bacteria, mold, and mildew. This is especially important for those that have allergies or asthma. Many of our appliances (vacuum cleaners, air conditioners, refrigerators, etc.) have filters designed to capture various contaminants.

As with any filter, including those associated with your home’s HVAC system, they have to be changed regularly to function effectively. Not changing them can lead to reduction in performance and potentially lifespan, but also, harmful contaminants can no longer be trapped and are thus released into the air and environment of the interior of your home. 

Water filters in particular, can potentially build up bacteria if filters are not changed as recommended. If you have a faucet filtration system for the whole house, as opposed to a single unit on one faucet, be sure to follow the manufacturers’ recommended maintenance schedule. 

If you are like me, you may forget when you last changed a filter or when it’s supposed to be replaced. I remember to change the smoke or carbon monoxide alarm batteries when daylight savings time begins, but may forget other appliances. To help me with keeping on a good maintenance schedule, I started writing the date of the changeover directly on the filters. 

I also put reminders and certain maintenance items, such as heating and air conditioning service, or flush my tankless water heater, on my phone calendar and set reminders. You can even include things like having your septic tank pumped every two or three years.

Finding a way or system for you to remember and getting into the habit of home maintenance will help provide peace of mind that you are not only protecting value, but also providing a healthy environment for you and your family.  

Save Your Skin with Cold Weather TLC

This blog was written by River Philbert (’20), communications intern for the Family and Consumer Sciences Extension program.

Portrait of white woman doing her daily skincare routine

Does your skin drastically change when the weather gets colder? Well, you’re not alone. Myself and many others battle with dry, itchy, flaky skin when the temperature drops and the weather gets colder. 

In the winter, humidity levels in the air drops making the water in your skin evaporate, and causing your skin to be extremely dry and flaky. To further the problem, indoor heating contributes to dry air in your home environment as well. When it’s cold, many of us like our homes and cars nice and toasty, but the direct heat that hits our skin also increases water loss in our skin. 

Here are four habits that you should adopt to keep your skin protected and glowing through the season. 

Man having an outdoor showerTake Shorter Showers: In the winter nothing is better than taking a long hot shower before getting ready for work. It can relax you and also clear stuffy noses, but hot showers sadly, aren’t good for your skin. Hot water takes away moisture from your skin which can cause your skin to become dry and flaky. The skin has natural oils to keep you moisturized, but high water temperatures strip the oils from the outermost layer of skin. Cooler showers can help to keep your skin moisturized and hydrated, and also promote healthy shiny hair as well. 

Change Your Moisturizer: Moisturizing is key in skincare, but it is especially crucial during the cold months. The cold and dry air causes our skin to become dry so using a good moisturizer can help to lock in your skin’s natural oils, to keep your skin hydrated. Despite the fact that it’s cold out, the sun can also be damaging to your skin in the winter so using a moisturizer with SPF can help to provide healthy, glowing skin.

Another great tip is moisturizing immediately after a shower. This is the time your skin is the most hydrated so moisturizing can lock in hydration before you towel dry.

Woman relaxing with a facial mask at the spaFacial Masks & Face Scrubs: Facial masks can help to keep your skin hydrated and give a little extra moisture during the winter. Face masks are good because they help to unclog pores and brighten skin. When masks dry on your face and harden it causes expansion in blood vessels underneath your skin, which improves your skin tone almost instantly. It is best to use a face mask about 1-3 times a week. Choose one that has Hyaluronic acid, which can be found in many products, because it helps to draw water back into the skin adding extra moisture. 

Facial scrubs are also a staple in skincare routines. Scrubs can help exfoliate dead skin cells and dirt. They also help to remove dry and flaky skin caused by the weather. Over time your skin has buildup but light exfoliating can provide clean, glowing skin. It is best to exfoliate 1-2 times a week. 

Invest in an air humidifier: It is routine for us to want to turn up our heat during the winter, but the artificial heat inside your house can make the air dry in your interior spaces. The drier the air in your home, the drier your skin will be. An air humidifier can help add moisture back into the indoor environment, which can help to fight dry skin. 

Another benefit of an humidifier is that it can make the air feel more warm than dry. This can be beneficial because you can turn down your thermostats to conserve energy. The best humidity level should be between 30-60% but it all depends on the outside temperature. 

There are also car humidifiers, which can purify the air and help keep your skin moisturized during your commutes. Another great benefit of car humidifiers is that they come with scent diffusers, so you can put essential oils to make your car smell nice. 

Through the different seasons, the needs of our skin changes, and in winter, show your skin some extra TLC. To have healthy, glowing skin during the colder months, you should adjust your skincare routine and habits to accommodate the weather. 


Simple Steps To Protect Your Well Water

About 60% of our body is water, so it makes sense that the quality of our drinking water can affect our health. Our lives depend on clean water, but when you just open the tap to pour a glass of water, it’s easy not to think about what may be in it. So, how do you know whether your water is clean? If you pay a water bill, then your water utility should be ensuring that your water meets all the standards set out by the EPA. But if you have a private well, then it’s your responsibility to test your water.

It just so happens that March 10-16 is National Groundwater Awareness Week, so in honor of the theme—Think!—let’s give some thought to your well water and how you can protect it.

Groundwater is the source of drinking water for 44% of the U.S. population—that’s more than 13 million households and over 132 million people who rely on wells! Even though you can’t see it, the groundwater supply in America is 30 times larger than all U.S. lakes, streams, and rivers combined. Every day, Americans use 79 billion gallons of groundwater.

The National Groundwater Association suggests a simple maintenance reminder for well owners: Test. Tend. Treat. These three words can help you to know how to protect your water quality by testing your water, tending to or maintaining your well, and treating your water when necessary.

Drinking Water_Pexels-_Daria Shevtsova
There are lots of possible contaminants that you could test for in your drinking water. To get our recommendations, visit our website. (Photo by Daria Shevtsova)

We’ve talked previously about how testing is the only way to know whether your water is safe to drink. If you have not tested your well water before, or if it’s been a few years, now is a good time. The results can bring peace of mind or tell you what needs to be treated. The University of Maryland Extension also recommends some simple water protection tips:

  • Use a state-certified lab to test your drinking water annually for bacteria and nitrate, which are signs of fecal contamination.
  • Pump your septic tank at least every three to five years, or as determined by an annual professional inspection.
  • Protect your septic drainfields from traffic, tree or shrub roots, and excessive water runoff
  • Properly store and dispose of household chemicals such as cleaning products, fertilizers, paints, pesticides, and petroleum products. Do not dump them down the drain or toilet, or on the ground.
  • Use high-efficiency appliances and fixtures.
  • Conserve water by taking shorter showers, turning off water when brushing teeth, fully loading dishwashers and laundry machines, applying mulch around landscaping to reduce watering needs, and installing a rain barrel to collect rainwater for irrigation use.

Protecting groundwater is both an important public health and environmental issue. By thinking about how we affect this resource and following simple practices, we all can be better stewards of our ground and drinking water. Pass it on—remind a friend or family member!


Could Your Drinking Water Use Some Spring Cleaning?

As we all look forward to winter giving way to warmer days, we often think about spring cleaning projects around the home. Is testing your well water one of those projects? If you have a private well, it’s up to you to make sure your water is safe to drink. Testing your water is an easy task to forget, so why not put it on your spring-cleaning to-do list?

What Should You Test For?
The University of Maryland Extension recommends that you test your well annually for nitrate and coliform bacteria to ensure that animal waste is not contaminating your water. We recommend annual testing because the quality of groundwater—the source of your drinking water—can change over time. When rainwater falls, it can come in contact with numerous sources of contamination before it percolates down through the soil to recharge your aquifer. Once underground, gravity and pressure direct the flow of groundwater, bringing any contaminants with it. Aquifers span great distances, so while groundwater flow is relatively slow, contamination from activity far away can eventually impact your well. Testing annually for nitrates and coliform bacteria allows you to track any changes in water quality.

Dirty brown water running into a sink
Rust can often be easy to see in your water. High iron levels can cause a reddish-brown discoloration. While iron is not pleasant in water, it doesn’t pose a health risk. Most drinking water contaminants that can impair your health are odorless, colorless, and tasteless, making it hard to tell if your water poses any danger to you or your family.

If it’s been several—or even just a few—years since you last tested your water, make sure to also include copper, E. coli, hardness, lead, pH, total dissolved solids and sulfates. You can check with your county health department for their recommendations on any contaminants of local concern to test for.

How Can You Get Your Water Tested?
Testing is relatively simple. Refer to our website or contact your county health department to get recommendations for certified water testing labs. Every lab offers different packages, so check online for pricing. Once you’ve made a selection, the lab can send you sample bottles with sampling and mailing instructions. The lab will send you an analysis that reports your specific test results, including indications of any parameters that exceed the EPA guidelines. If any of your results exceed the EPA guidelines, you should contact your county health department or Extension office to identify what treatment, if any, is warranted. You can also use this online interpretation tool to better understand what your report is telling you.

Testing is the only way to know the quality of water you and your family are drinking. An annual check-up for your well water is a wise investment in protecting your family’s health. So, remember to include drinking water testing to your spring cleaning chores!

Get A Free Or Reduced Septic Tank

Do you know if it’s time for a new septic tank? Most tanks are designed to last 15-40 years when maintained correctly. Did you know that Maryland has a program that can save you a bundle on a new septic tank if your tank is nearing the end of its life, or even if you are looking to build a new home? Depending on homeowner income level, the Maryland Bay Restoration Fund can provide up to 50-100% of the cost of an approved Best Available Technology (BAT) septic tank, which costs between $11,000-$17,000.

BAT tanks are engineered to remove 50-85% more nitrogen from wastewater than conventional tanks, which is why they are also called advanced treatment systems or enhanced nutrient removal systems. This nitrogen, in the form of nitrate, can contaminate well water and pollute nearby waterways, leading to dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay—which is why the Bay Restoration funds are not eligible for installing conventional septic units.

remsberg_don jones samples septitech trash tank
The excessive rainfall of 2018 washed a particularly large amount of pollution from our yards, streets, and farms into the Bay, leading to a D+ grade. The state is trying to reduce these pollutants by helping homeowners and organizations upgrade their septic tanks. BAT tanks, like the one shown here, are so effective at treating wastewater that a sample of effluent taken from the tank is almost clear. (Photo by Edwin Remsberg)

County permitting offices manage the applications, using a tiered ranking system to determine funding support. The counties prioritize homes with failing septic systems located within 1,000-feet of tidal water, but they also support projects that may not meet these criteria. More than 14,000 BATs have been installed using these funds. Non-profit organizations are also eligible for up to 100% of the costs, and for-profit businesses are eligible for up to 50% of the costs. The fund also supports connecting to public sewer systems and, for lower income households, replacing drainfields.

If you’re considering a new septic tank, make sure to apply. Counties are allocated a specific amount per year, and unused funds are returned to the state. Those funds may as well go to your new tank!

The Maryland Department of Environment (MDE) has evaluated and approved nine BAT units for use in Maryland. These systems vary in design and efficiency. If you’re considering an upgrade, it’s important to solicit recommendations from at least three septic installers who are licensed to sell BAT tanks. Most septic professionals licensed to sell BAT units are limited to a few options, so you want to be able to understand how different models will work, how their installation will affect the look and use of your property, and how much you should expect to pay for the initial purchase and continue operation. MDE has extensive information on the nine systems including installation and maintenance costs, nitrogen removal, and electrical costs. To get more information, contact your county representative.

Make Way For The Turkey!

When was the last time you cleaned out your refrigerator? If it’s been a while, why not start today? November 15th is National Clean Out Your Refrigerator Day—right before the holiday season begins, so you can have plenty of space to store a turkey and leftovers!

This can seem like a daunting task but you can do it in five simple steps:

First, remove everything from the refrigerator. You can keep perishables fresh by putting them in a cooler with ice packs while you clean. Toss out old or expired food in the trash. If you are not sure, remember the saying “When in doubt, throw it out!”. You can also check the FoodKeeper app or website. Recycle glass or plastic containers.

PRO TIP (from the ultimate pro): This is also a great time to take inventory in preparation for Thanksgiving.

Next, remove the shelves and drawers. Allow them to warm up to room temperature before washing to prevent breakage. Wash in hot, soapy water and rinse. Allow items to air dry.

Clean the inside of the refrigerator from top to bottom. Use a clean, dry cloth or towel and homemade refrigerator cleaner (see recipe below). Tough spots may need a plastic, non-abrasive scrubber or soak them with a wet cloth. Use an old toothbrush to reach those hard to reach places, like corners, shelf seams, and rubber door seams.  Rinse thoroughly and dry with a clean cloth or towel.  Do not forget the interior doors as well.  Some of those shelves can be removed for easier cleaning.

This typical refrigerator scene may be screaming, “Don’t you just want to spend the morning cleaning me???” And you may be saying, “Don’t look…. don’t look. Just get what you need and get out.” But if you’re preparing any holiday meals, may as well grab that extra trash bag and get scrubbing. Where else will you put that 16-pound bird? At least you can catch up on your podcast playlist.

Replace the clean shelves and drawers and put the food back into the refrigerator. Be sure to wipe off the outside of the jars and containers to keep everything clean. Use a clean cloth when working with your food jars to prevent contamination and dry them well.

Now that the inside is clean, remember to clean the outside. Starting from the top, wipe down and clean the exterior of the refrigerator with warm, soapy water.  If you have a stainless steel refrigerator, you will need a soft rag and vinegar or window cleaner to keep the surface shiny.

You should also vacuum the refrigerator coils seasonally (every three months) to keep it running smoothly. Unplug the refrigerator and move it so you can reach the coils at the back of the refrigerator to clean. Use your owner’s manual for assistance if needed. After cleaning, put the refrigerator back in place and plug it back in.

To keep your refrigerator clean, wipe up spills as they occur and throw out food every week.  Add an opened box of baking soda in the back of your refrigerator to eliminate odors and keep the refrigerator smelling fresh. And, if you’re already thinking of getting healthy in the new year, now is a great time to restock your refrigerator with healthier options.


Homemade Refrigerator Cleaner Recipe

  • 2-tbsp baking soda
  • 1-quart warm water

Dissolve baking soda in warm water. Pour into a labeled, spray bottle. Spray and wipe inside and outside surfaces. Apply a baking soda paste on stubborn spots. Rinse with a clean, wet cloth.

Create A Healthier Home Environment Today

In my last post, I introduced a framework for creating a healthier family environment. Today, I want to share some in-depth tips on what you can do, at this very moment, to make your home environment more positive and healthy.

Designate Space for Family Connection
Create a practical space to energize, play, exercise, and de-stress. Work with each other to plan and design space for such activities and avoid using tech gadgets while in this space. This space should be designated for self-care and rejuvenation. In case of limited space at home, focus on creating designated time where you and your family can practice creative activities and exercises.

Mom and Baby_Pexels 1257110 - Daria Shevtsova
Even small spaces can provide a lot of opportunity to relax and connect with each other.

Write Down Personal and Family Goals
The process of change starts with an effective goal. So it is critical that you take some time to dig deep when identifying personal and family goals. Your goals should be specific and as time-focused as possible. If you are creating goals for the family as a unit, this step may take more time, especially since you want to make sure to involve every single member of the family, where possible. When you’re done, post your goals in a common space as a reminder to everyone, or create a vision board to inspire your family members in achieving their goals.

Create Accountability
Create an action plan for yourself and help your family members do the same. Take advantage of free apps for calendars, checklists, and/or fitness/nutrition tracking to create focus and accountability. If you prefer analog, download a goal tracking template. Then, hold a weekly family meeting to talk about the week and support each other. Remember, healthy competitions are effective but it is important to be empathetic towards each other’s progress as well.

Baking with Kids_PIxabay 1951256_1920
Cooking with kids can make clean-up a little harder, but it hits some of the other checkmarks on a parent’s to-do list, like building independence in their kids.

Schedule Junior Chef Days
Involve kids in age-appropriate and safe meal prep activities, like washing vegetables, drying salad greens in a salad spinner. You can also go one step further and have your kids cook a healthy meal on a certain day of the week. This works best with older kids but you can also encourage younger kids to participate.

Keep Healthy Foods Within Reach
Clean out your pantry of all high-calorie foods, and replace them with healthier foods and snacks, such as dried and fresh fruits, dry roasted nuts, homemade energy/granola bars, low-fat yogurt, and low-fat milk. Use food labels to make healthy choices. Prep and store these healthy snacks and foods within easy reach of family members. So, for example, cut and prep fresh produce and place them in front on refrigerator shelves, or display fresh fruits on the table.