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Ways to Tackle Household Odors

By Arianne Cohen

Household odors. Just the thought of them makes you blush in shame: Something in your house…smells. But odors are, in a way, good news. They’re a helpful early alarm system—your home’s way of telling you that there’s a problem. Here’s what you can do about them.

What Exactly Is an Odor?

Odors are nothing more than gaseous molecules floating around in the air that our noses can detect. Something in your home is producing so many molecules that they’re becoming airborne. But your nose is useless in telling you whether the odor is hazardous or not. “A pleasing odor is not necessarily good for your health,” says Richard Shaughnessy, PhD, director of the Indoor Air Program at the University of Tulsa. In fact, some nice odors—like some air fresheners—are chockful of chemicals, which may be irritating. So it’s a good idea to aim for a house that smells like, well, nothing. Just clean, fresh air.

How to Ventilate?

Many odor problems are actually ventilation problems. A smell becomes airborne, and the millions of offending molecules can sometimes just linger. To get things circulating, try doing one of the following for 15 minutes each day:

- Open windows the smart way

Open both the top and bottom of a double-hung window about halfway. This provides a natural circular airflow, with warm air escaping out the top and cooler air coming in the bottom.

- Create a cross-breeze

Make a wind tunnel by opening opposite windows of a room. Air will enter through one side of a room and exit the other.

- Turn on the a/c

Air conditioners with a HEPA filter, which removes 99.97 percent of airborne particles, are fantastic air cleaners. “Run your air conditioner on low, and keep the filter cleaned and changed regularly,” says Tim Ryan, a professor of environmental health sciences at Ohio University. “When you filter out the particulates, you get rid of some of the smell.” This is because odor molecules can attach to particles in the air; when you get rid of the particles, you get rid of many odor molecules too. Air conditioners without a HEPA filter will also work—just not as efficiently.

- Place fans strategically

Fans only work in combination with one of the above three tricks, otherwise you’re just moving smelly air around. One side of the fan pulls air into the fan, and the other side pushes it out around the room. (If you can’t tell which is which, dampen your hand and hold it in front of the fan. It will be obvious whether that side is pushing or pulling.) Position the fan so it’s blowing the dirty air out a doorway or toward an air conditioner.

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