Rule #1: Control indoor pollutants. Minimizing what is brought into a home -- especially into those tight apartment spaces -- is just about the leading recommendation for addressing air quality of almost every expert we've encountered.
Rule #2: Don't smoke. Duh.
Rule #3: Limit your intentional use of pollutants. For example, you can try cleaning with less-toxic substances. Baking soda and vinegar is often recommended by back-to-nature types as a home-cleaning scrub, replacing industrial-strength cleaning solvents.
Rule #4: Ventilate, ventilate, ventilate. To mitigate the effects of indoor pollutants, consider more venting. The more "bad" stuff you can direct outdoors, the better off you will be. This may be harder to pull off if you rent, but if you can afford it, there are numerous models of outside venting exhaust fans you can install in bathrooms, kitchens, and laundry areas that will help rid you of the organic pollution that emanates from the hot water used in those rooms.
If that's too big a deal, vent the old-fashioned way -- open windows and doors -- when you're doing your industrial-strength apartment cleaning and when you're using air freshener, hair spray, or nail polish.
Rule #5: Take good care of the a/c. Whether it's central, through the wall, or in the window, at a minimum follow the recommended maintenance procedures (one of those things no one does, but if you saw an analysis of what's in the equipment that hasn't been cleaned, you'd be afraid to take in another breath).
Rule #6: Clean the duct system. If you have a duct system, get it cleaned properly if someone in your family seems to be suffering from the effects of bad air or if you see large dust or mold deposits. (Only a lab can tell you if what looks like mold is really mold; some microbiology firms can do an analysis off a piece of sticky tape with some of your sample on it for about $50.) Just make sure that whoever does the cleaning follows EPA recommendations; otherwise, you may be doing more harm than good.
Finally, make sure they clean the entire system, use HEPA vacuum equipment, and protect your furnishings during the work. Better yet, if you really want to know what should be done and when, contact your local EPA office for the fine pamphlet "Should You Have the Air Ducts in Your Home Cleaned?"
Don't hire any firm to clean your ducts that says it's EPA certified -- there's no such thing -- or that wants you to clean ducts regularly or touts the health benefits (as yet unclear). Call the National Air Duct Cleaners Association and check references for at least three candidates as well as state licenses if they're relevant (as they are in California, Texas, and Florida, among others). If the servicer wants to use chemical sealants or biocides, think about it very carefully; the EPA has very mixed feelings on their application.
Rule #7: Give space heaters some space. Those of you who are in old buildings with less-than-adequate heat may be tempted to use unvented space heaters to notch up the temperature a degree or two. Do so only with appropriate precautions. Old or malfunctioning models can release all sorts of noxious elements into the air while sucking out the oxygen (in fact, in many states, unvented heaters are illegal and/or may vitiate your insurance coverage if used).
If you need the heat, get a UL-approved newer model with an automatic sensor that shuts the heater off when the oxygen gets too low. And crack a window, please.
Rule #8: Scrub that humidifier. If you use cool mist or ultrasonic humidifiers, follow the directions, clean them often, and change the water daily. Pediatricians recommend humidifiers to counter the effect of dry winter heat on kids' sensitive membranes. But these become enormous bacterial breeding grounds if you don't treat them right. Better yet, get one of the latest models with a dishwasher-safe tank.
Rule #9: Clean, clean, clean. If you have a child with asthma or allergies, of course you'll want to talk to your doctors and check local groups for detailed instructions on what you can do to minimize dust mites and the like. But what we all should do, even those of us who tend to breathe freely, is suck/mop/sponge up the dust at least twice a week.
But do it right or, again, you'll stir up more problems than you resolve. Damp mop or sponge sills and floors, and use a HEPA-filter vacuum to vacuum floors and furniture (and look under those couch cushions).
Excerpted from The City Parent Handbook: The Complete Guide to the Ups and Downs and Ins and Outs of Raising Young Kids in the City (Rodale, 2004) by Kathy Bishop and Julia Whitehead. Both women live, and parent, in New York City.
All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.