Your Humidifier: Healthy or Harmful?

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February 3, 2019

We place a considerable amount of trust in the products we use to keep our homes clean, safe, and healthy. But as we’ve seen with some tried-and-true cleaning practices, taking the time to question even the most common household tricks can teach us much more about our health than we may realize. Oftentimes, we inadvertently create the biggest health risks in our homes, and they’re usually hiding in plain sight.

In unfortunate cases, these health risks can come in seemingly innocent packages, like a humidifier.

Maintaining the right level of humidity in your home is important. Humidity plays a role in your overall comfort, and too high or low humidity can lead to health problems.

High humidity indoors can be very uncomfortable–causing the air to feel stale and warmer than it truly is. Humidity over 60% can also cause mold and mildew growth, affecting allergies and causing further health hazards.

Indoor humidity that is below 20% can cause serious discomfort. Low humidity can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation, and can trigger certain skin conditions such as eczema. 

Low indoor humidity is a very common household problem, especially during winter months or in areas with dry, desert-like climates.

One of the easiest ways to control your humidity levels in drier months is with the help of a humidifier. Many doctors recommend placing humidifiers in high-use areas (like bedrooms) to help with skin and respiratory health--likewise, some pediatricians recommend placing humidifiers in nurseries to help keep the nursery clean and promote better overnight breathing for babies.

The team at Awair is very familiar with humidifiers; CEO Ronald Ro uses humidifiers in his home to help with his child’s eczema, the Awair Glow works seamlessly with common household humidifiers, and the Awair app will recommend humidifiers to Awair users if they experience low levels of humidity.

It came as a shock when the team began to see a growing number of Awair users reach out asking why, after turning on a humidifier, their Awair 2nd Edition would alert them of high levels of fine dust (PM2.5).

The news of rising fine dust levels as a result of humidifiers was alarming. Fine dust is particulate matter that can be found in the air that is incredibly small–a single particle has a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers, which means you can easily fit 40 fine dust particles across the width of a single strand of hair.

Although it may be small, Fine Dust shouldn’t be underestimated–in fact, its size is what makes it more formidable. Unlike larger (and more visible) dust particles, PM2.5 are able to bypass your nose and throat and be absorbed by your lungs and bloodstream.

Exposure to Fine Dust can have detrimental health effects, and has been known to lead to coughing, chest tightness, shortness of breath, irritation of the eyes/nose/throat, and can trigger asthma, bronchitis, and other respiratory problems. Scientific studies have also linked exposure to an increased risk for heart attack, stroke, certain cancers, and birth defects.

There are many sources of indoor fine dust, including activities such as cooking, burning candles, and lighting fireplaces. Humidifiers, however, are not a common source of fine dust

The Experiment:

The Awair team decided to get to the bottom of this issue by conducting a few experiments.

To figure out what was causing this unexpected increase in fine dust, we decided to replicate the scenario by placing a humidifier and an Awair 2nd Edition inside our “test chamber”--essentially, a large glass box we use for our Awair experiments. We decided to use a generic brand warm mist humidifier, since our users reported this issue across a variety of different brands. The humidifier was aired out for 24 hours to allow for any VOC off-gassing.

Once the experiment station was set in place, we checked on the air quality of the test chamber via the Awair app and noted that PM2.5 levels were at a perfect 0.

With our fine dust starting point in place, we filled the humidifier with tap water from the sink, and powered it on:

Just as we saw with other Awair 2nd Edition users, the amount of fine dust in the air increased dramatically a few moments after the humidifier was powered on. Now that we had replicated the issue, what was the cause?

Since our test chamber had very healthy PM2.5 levels of 0 before we powered the humidifier on, we were confident the root of the issue laid within the water vapor it creates once it’s up and running. To prove this theory, we needed to change the water vapor--so we began tinkering with the type of water used in the humidifier.

We reset the experiment, this time replacing the tap water with filtered water:

Water vapor from purified water contained significantly less fine dust particles, if any at all. How did these two different types of water create drastically different results?

In order to prevent the growth of bacteria and other microorganisms, tap water is typically treated with various chemicals, including fluoride and chlorine. In addition, some tap water has been found to contain traces of toxic metal salts, hormones, or other contaminants from pipes. When we fill our humidifiers with water from the sink, these unwanted tap water ingredients are also turned to water vapor, dispersing throughout our homes and effectively being identified as fine particulates by the Awair 2nd Edition.

The filtered water did a decent job at protecting us from a majority of the particulates found in our tap water. We decided to take the idea further by testing how distilled water--the purest form of water, containing essentially H2O:

Although it narrowly outperformed filtered water, it seemed that distilled water would be an even better option.

Our curiosity would be fulfilled after one final test. Many people trust bottled water as the cleanest drinking source, and we wanted to see if this would be true once it entered our air:

Bottled water typically has added minerals for taste or nutrition purposes. While it may be safe for drinking, we can confidently recommend not using bottled water in your humidifier. 

The Takeaway:

Much like a recipe, the ingredients you choose to add to your humidifier can determine how it affects your health. Experiments like these show us the profound importance of understanding how our habits affect the air we breathe. If we can continue to take the time to be more mindful of the air in our homes, offices, schools, and beyond, we’ll learn more about how even the smallest changes--like choosing the right water for our humidifiers--can have an impact on our health.

Take Control of the Air You Breathe

Awair Element tracks chemicals and toxins in your home and alerts you when pollution levels become unhealthy via the Awair Home app. To learn more about Awair Element and how it can help you create a healthier home environment, follow the link below.