Do you step outside for fresh air when preparing to tackle a big project or solve a complex problem? Many people do to clear their minds when they need to focus on a challenge.

But, why? Why do we feel the need to breath the outside air to clear our heads?

According to YPO member Bill Hayward, President of Hayward Lumber, founded in 1919, it is because our homes may, literally, make us sick.

Shortly after moving into his “dream home” in 2008, Hayward, his wife and their young children began suffering from chronic conditions — sneezing, stuffy noses, fatigue and decreased mental acuity.

“I couldn’t hold a 10-digit number in my head long enough to dial it,” Hayward explains. “I’d blank on words. I’d fall asleep in meetings. My board didn’t know what to do with me. My wife was no longer able to get pregnant, and my daughter had incredible green stuff coming out of her nose, and we had these weird rashes.”

Hayward learned his crawlspace was wet, and mold had taken residence within his home’s walls. The family moved out, and, over the course of the next two years, all his family’s symptoms disappeared.

Most of us eat three times a day and are careful about what foods we use to fuel our bodies. But we take 23,000 breaths a day. Hayward says we should be as careful about the air we breathe at home (and at work) as we are about eating. He offers the following strategies for identifying, mitigating and eliminating risks.

Trapped, damp and unregulated

The science is simple. Hot air rises and escapes out of the top half of our homes. Replacement air is sucked in from the lower half of the house, through the crawl space, or “right where the pest control guy sprays,” as Hayward puts it. “All that dampness gets sucked into our house, and once it gets in, it doesn’t get out.”

Hayward notes that no legislation exists governing housing ventilation. “As we’ve come to understand the importance of healthy homes, we want to make them tighter, but we want to intentionally introduce fresh ventilation with filtration that manages moisture.”

The wellness community has shifted from thinking genetics, exercise and diet were the primary drivers of health and longevity. “Now we understand that 60% is attributable to environmental exposures,” Hayward says.

And with so many families bonding over cooking while we were staying home during the pandemic, here’s some bad news. The kitchen is a hot spot for unhealthy air, Hayward shares.

“On a heavy cooking day, the pollution in your kitchen, if measured with outdoor criteria, would be worse than a bad pollution day in New Delhi. When we cook, it creates a ton of carcinogens. When we clean in the kitchen, chemicals combine with each other and the ozone to form new chemicals.”

The solution is to have great kitchen ventilation. Also, fix any leaks in your refrigerator or ice maker.

As we’ve come to understand the importance of healthy homes, we want to make them tighter, but we want to intentionally introduce fresh ventilation with filtration that manages moisture. ”
— Bill Hayward, President of Hayward Lumber share twitter

As for any unpleasant odors? Hayward says to identify the source and fix it rather than masking odors with air fresheners or candles. “Buying an air freshener to cover up an unpleasant odor is the equivalent to hearing a loud knocking from your car engine and deciding to turn the radio up,” he says.

Another common air quality culprit: your children’s menagerie of stuffed animals. These collect tons of dust allergens, which can really impact health, Hayward explains. The solution is simple: when your kids aren’t looking, at least once a quarter, tumble the stuffed animals in a hot dryer.

Health impacts of unhealthy air

Breathing unhealthy air causes more than allergic reactions, according to Hayward. People report nausea, dizziness, stomach pains, even infertility.

He cites a Harvard University study that demonstrated that unhealthy air impacts cognitive capacity and productivity. “When you improve air quality, Harvard saw cognition improvement between 60%-260% across nine categories of cognition,” Hayward explains. “They also measured a 12% improvement in productivity.”

Hayward says that during the 18 months living in his ‘sick’ house, he “experienced foggy thinking, difficulty remembering words. I literally started reversing the way I was writing words.  I couldn’t hold them in my mind. I had extreme fatigue.”

Prolonged exposure to unhealthy air can lead to toxic induced loss of tolerance (TILT), which makes you hypersensitive. “I spent two years hypersensitive to all chemicals and any kind of mold exposure,” he says. “And mind you, I grew up working in lumberyards and hardware stores. I couldn’t go in my hardware stores without feeling sick for three years.”

Hayward installed massive ventilation systems in all their hardware stores. He says employees tell him they feel better and are more focused, especially in the afternoon, when previously they felt sluggish and unfocused. “We’re experiencing cognitive and productivity gains that Harvard identified, and our people love it,” Hayward says. 

10 simple steps to a healthier home

  1. Store cleaning supplies outside of the house. Consult Hayward’s Chemical Storage Action Plan for more information.
  2. If your garage is attached to your home, seal it with non-toxic foam.
  3. Download the Healthy Living app and use while shopping for personal care items and cleaning supplies to know what contains carcinogenic and other unhealthy ingredients.
  4. Run the bathroom fan during, and for at least 20 minutes after, showering.
  5. Run kitchen hood fans every time you cook.
  6. Choose glassware and cast iron or ceramic cookware.
  7. Clean carpet using a HEPA-filtered vacuum at least once a week (more for high-traffic areas and homes with pets).
  8. Change furnace filters at least 3-4 times a year.
  9. Take off and leave your shoes at your entryway.
  10. Dust door tops, windows, hanging picture frames, ceiling fans with an electrostatic microfiber cloth several times a year.

To learn more ways to improve the air quality at your home and office, visit Hayward’s site and watch his TEDx Talk.

YPO members: If this Q&A has been as big an eye-opener for you, join the Health and Wellness Network and participate in our upcoming YPO Healthy Home Challenge with Bill Hayward as our resource to make your home healthy!