Are Air Quality Tests Accurate?

Are Air Quality Tests Accurate?

During peak allergy season, it’s pretty common to have a nagging scratch in the back of your throat mixed with bouts of sneezing, but it may not only be allergies that are to blame.

You may also have poor air quality in your home, and there are tests specifically designed to determine if that is the case.

How accurate are air quality tests? Air quality tests are not always accurate. They may not provide conclusive, reliable results due to the high variability of external factors that can affect outcomes, at times giving a false negative where problems do exist. While air quality tests are beneficial, other methods of inspection, in addition to air quality testing, may be necessary. 

Continue reading to learn more about air quality test accuracy, how these tests work, and what they measure — as well as ways in which you can improve your indoor air quality with simple lifestyle changes.

The Importance of Indoor Air Quality 

When we consider pollutants, we often think only of the outdoors. But indoor air quality is just as important, and perhaps even more so given that these are the places we spend the vast majority of our time.

Indoor air quality (IAQ) refers to the quality of the air you breathe both inside your home and other infrastructures, as well as around them. Air quality affects your health in multiple ways, which we will talk about in more detail later on.  

In essence, the air you breathe does not merely consist of inhalation of oxygen and exhalation of carbon dioxide. 

Mixed in with the air you breathe may also be volatile compounds and gasses, microbial contaminants, such as mold and bacteria, as well as other pollutants and allergens (source).

Air Quality Testing – How to Best Approach Testing to Get Accurate Results

Based on the number of contaminants that can occur inside your home, there is good reason to be concerned about your air quality, and wonder what to do about it.

One option is to obtain an air quality test. Still, it is essential to know that indoor air quality testing acts more as a way in which to confirm an already suspected pollutant, versus diagnosing the problem (source).

In other words, if you suspect that you have mold growth in your home, or have visually detected mold, an air quality test can help confirm that to be the case. 

However, if you are unsure of what contaminant is specifically affecting your air quality, a single test may not provide the precise accuracy you are looking for.

What Does an Air Quality Test Detect?  

An air quality test can detect the various contaminants that may exist in your home, but a single test is not able to test for all pollutants at once.

In general, pollutants fall into three main categories: biological pollutants, chemical pollutants, and combustion pollutants. Biological pollutants include mold, allergens, and other bacteria. 

Chemical pollutants are those that you’ll find in paints and household cleaners — specifically those that contain a high incidence of VOCs —volatile organic compounds and other chemical pollutants, which we will further discuss below.

Combustion pollutants are those that result from tobacco smoke, carbon monoxide, or other contaminants from cooking ranges or even automobile exhaust. 

When you obtain an indoor air quality test, you are essentially testing for contaminants sourced from one of the three above categories. 

If you choose to have all three categories tested, you would need to test for each separately, which can be costly but will provide you with an analysis based on the presence of the tested compounds in your home.    

Biological Pollutants

It is actually not recommended that you test your air quality for biological contaminants as the first line of defense.

The reason you should take a different approach is that your specific symptoms and reactions to these contaminants are a much more effective way in which to identify the source of the problem. 

Earlier, we stated that these tests are more a way in which to solidify and confirm a suspected contaminant versus diagnose a problem. In the case of biological contaminants, it is best to visually inspect your home prior to conducting an air quality test.  

It is also possible to get a negative result for a biological test by testing the air alone when there is, in fact, a mold pollutant present, for example.

Also, specifically for mold testing, the results of the test may not be representative of actual exposure or the presence of mold outside of a short-term period (source).

If you’d like to learn more about the specifics of air quality testing and mold, you can read about this in more detail in “Does and Air Quality Test Detect Mold.”

When it comes to mold, the best test is a visual inspection or evaluation for a “musty” smell. If you can visibly see mold in your home, there is no need for an additional test.  

A better remedy to your symptoms is to thoroughly clean the area and reduce the level of humidity and moisture to prevent added mold growth. 

The benefits of conducting a biological pollutant test are more in line with confirming what you may already suspect — whether that be a high incidence of pollen or allergens, dust or dust mites, or mold. 

You can conduct an air quality test for one or more biological pollutants from a dust and air sample, but remember that each is a separate test, and in general, at a separate cost. 

Chemical Pollutants

Unlike biological pollutants, chemical pollutants carry an added weight of concern over adverse health effects and dangers from exposure. And, these pollutants — especially those from cleaners — can be emitted into the air whether in use or in storage. 

If you’ve ever used a paint stripper or even an art supply with a powerful smell, causing lightheadedness or dizziness, that product likely contains volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Some of these products are highly toxic, while others are not more than a nuisance. 

The presence of pungent chemical smells is an instance where a test can be beneficial to determine if there are indeed high levels of chemical pollutants or VOCs in your home.

There are home kits available that you can purchase, but the accuracy with a home test kit may be less than optimal. 

Your best option is to have a certified technician collect an air sample to avoid inaccurate results or errors in the process of collection.

A professional is going to have the necessary equipment and knowledge to provide you with the best, most accurate results. 

And, when it comes to most dangerous pollutants, such as radon, accuracy is integral to making decisions about what to do to remedy the situation and keep you and your family safe. 

If you are concerned about radon exposure, a specific air quality test for that purpose is crucial, whether you choose a DIY home kit or a professional service.

Combustion Pollutants

The last category of testing includes combustion pollutants – these include immediate dangers, such as carbon monoxide leaks or long-term adverse effects from tobacco smoke. 

When it comes to tobacco smoke or indoor fires, the recommendation is simply to avoid both — don’t smoke or allow others to do so in your home, and ensure that your fireplace is working correctly with clear ventilation. 

You can still test your air quality for these compounds, however, to determine the level of toxicity or carcinogenic compounds.

If you are concerned about carbon monoxide (CO) leaks, a certified professional must inspect your appliances — including stoves, furnaces, and even your clothes dryer to ensure that they are working correctly. 

Every home should also have a carbon monoxide alarm that will inform you if there are dangerous levels of CO in your indoor air. 

How Long Does it Take to Get Air Quality Test Results?

In general, an air quality test takes anywhere from one to three hours, depending on the size of your home and what you are testing for.

It also depends on whether or not you are doing it yourself, or if you are having a professional conduct the test for you.

In either case, it can take anywhere from two days to two weeks to get results, which usually come in written form, analyzing the compound or compounds that they tested.

How Often Should Air Quality Be Tested?

How often you should test your air is subjective, and depends much more on whether or not you have addressed the root of the problem or, perhaps, made lifestyle changes that have improved your air quality. 

If you continue to suffer from symptoms, you may choose to test your air quality every few months. If you are concerned that an old problem is resurfacing, a test once a year can provide you with the peace of mind you are looking for. 

Other instances in which it may be beneficial to conduct an air quality test include if you plan to renovate, paint, or do additional work on your home. These types of renovations will inevitably impact your air quality. 

Similarly, if you plan to have a child, or if you or someone in your family has a diagnosed health condition, an air quality test can help you to know that the air you are breathing is safe (source). 

In the next section, we’ll talk more about common pollutants and simple lifestyle changes you can make to better your air quality.

Image by Sue Byford via Freeimages

Common Indoor Air Contaminants

It’s reasonably likely that, at least a few times over a year, you’ve noticed an off-putting smell in your home and wondered what was causing it.

Often, that wonder leads to masking those odors with a variety of air fresheners rather than determining the root cause.

Unfortunately, the root cause of some household odors comes from indoor pollutants, several having a strong smell, others no smell at all. Some are harmful, filled with a variety of chemicals from household products, while others may be nothing to worry over. 

But many of these common indoor air contaminants may be adversely affecting your health and could even cause serious harm over time.

So, determining the cause and origination of indoor air pollutants is vital, especially if you are experiencing any adverse reactions, including allergies or asthma. 

Below are just a few common sources of indoor air pollutants.

Smoke – Tobacco and Indoor Fires

Most of us are fully aware of the dangers of tobacco smoke, but even if you are not a smoker, second-hand smoke both inside and around your home can cause problems.  

The smoke that is released does not dissipate fully after exposure but rather can remain on surfaces, including curtains and carpeting (source).

Additionally, indoor fires and fireplaces can also be a culprit, emitting carbon particles and other compounds that adversely affect the air quality. 

Fireplaces must be working correctly as well as maintained and cleaned frequently to avoid exposure to air pollutants from gasses and soot. 

Carbon Monoxide and Radon

These two fumes are often cited as “invisible killers” and are incredibly harmful. 

They are both colorless and odorless, and can severely impact your health and the air quality within your home due to old or unworking gas ranges and cooktops, as well as furnaces, wood, kerosene, and propane heaters (source).

While exposure to carbon monoxide can be lethal very quickly, radon is emitted through the air via the decay of radium. It can accumulate in buildings and concrete – specifically basements and crawl spaces (source). 

As an individual continually inhales radon, it builds up in the body in high concentrations over time, causing serious health complications.

Household Cleaners

person holding yellow plastic spray bottle
Image by JESHOOTS.COM via Unsplash

Household cleaners, unfortunately, are linked to quite a few volatile air pollutants.

In recent years, there has been a movement away from the usage of ingredients that are linked to serious health problems and less minor conditions such as eye irritation and headaches.

However, many still emit contaminants into the air both when used and in storage. 

And, while you may think that the fragrances in your cleaners are good for you, producing pleasant smell, they may be emitting even more harmful pollutants into your indoor air. 

Many cleaning products emit chemicals called VOCs, which are the main source of indoor air pollution.

Manufacturers use VOCs in standard cleaning supplies and household products, including bleach, air fresheners, detergents, upholstery cleaners, and aerosol spray products (such as hairspray) (source).

Other products that may contain VOCs emitted into the air include paints, office equipment such as copiers and printers, and pesticides.  

Air Fresheners, Candles, and Incense

Most everyone loves scented candles; they’re purchased in abundance over holidays and given as gifts. However, scented candles and other fragrances also contain VOCs and can adversely affect the air you breathe and cause respiratory problems as well. 

The good news is that many companies are reformulating products that contain harmful contaminants. Still, avoiding these and opting for opening your windows to let in fresh air is a better option overall if you are aiming to improve the air quality in your home.

Mold, Mildew, and other Allergens

Mold and other bacteria will inevitably grow in areas where both moisture and oxygen are present for an extended period.

As mold colonizes an area, it produces airborne particles filled with allergens and other compounds that negatively impact air quality (source).

If you use a humidifier to moisten the air in your home, it may also cause mold growth if not emptied and cleaned daily, especially since mold spores and bacteria within the humidifier can then be released into the air. 

Other allergens and bacteria may come from pet dander and pollen during peak seasons, or even from human skin. 

Effects of Poor Indoor Air Quality

It is difficult to determine precisely the effect of each contaminant on one’s health — people will react differently to different levels of airborne particles, allergens, and contaminants. 

Some contaminants will lead to immediate, short-term problems while others are more severe, long-term hidden dangers. 

Below are a few potential effects — both short- and long-term —  of poor air quality in the home (source):

  • Irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat
  • Headaches, dizziness, and fatigue
  • Respiratory problems and diseases
  • Heart disease
  • Cancer

If you are confident that you have had exposure to some of the above contaminants, or you’ve noticed your air quality is inadequate based on symptoms experienced, an indoor air quality test can help to identify some of the problems.

An indoor air quality test can also guide you in making lifestyle changes to better your indoor air quality. 

Improving Your Air Quality 

Regardless of whether you have decided to have your air quality tested, there are steps you can take both apart from an air quality test or in conjunction with one. 

The first step is to both identify and control sources of air pollution, especially those that are biological in nature.

Increasing or improving the ventilation in your home can remedy quite a few air quality problems, whether that includes opening windows more frequently, or changing filters in your HVAC (heating, air conditioning, and ventilation) system. 

Additionally, running a fan can clear your air and better circulate air within your home. If you find that you have high levels of humidity in your home, you can take steps to keep your indoor humidity at an optimal level of between 30-50% (source).

Most department or hardware stores have humidity or moisture gauges to measure the level of humidity indoors.

Decreasing humidity will keep mold growth at bay so, if the humidity level in your home is high, try opening windows or turning on the air conditioner at a low setting. 

Other ways in which to better your air quality through lifestyle changes include:

  • Avoid smoking or letting others smoke in your home.
  • Regularly inspect all appliances in your home.
  • Install a carbon monoxide alarm if you have not already done so.
  • Clean regularly to avoid dust and allergen build up.
  • Avoid the use of cleaning products with VOCs.
  • Ensure areas are well-ventilated, especially when painting or crafting.
  • Never mix household cleaners, and be sure they are correctly stored. 

Final Thoughts

Indoor air quality is an increasing problem and one we need to address, whether through personal changes or via an indoor air quality test.

But remember, air quality tests, depending on the pollutant you are testing for, might be better utilized to confirm an already suspected problem versus provide a particular diagnosis.

The only exception when it comes to air quality testing is when it comes to dangerous chemical compounds such as radon and carbon monoxide. Do not hesitate to test if you suspect radon exposure or a carbon monoxide leak in your home. 

Safety and peace of mind come with knowledge of the pollutants in your indoor air, and air quality tests are designed for that purpose, allowing you to make decisions and lifestyle changes to better the air you breathe.    


I'm a Pharmacist and a passionate researcher into clean air and pure water for the home. I believe these 2 elements play a significant role in our health and overall wellbeing.

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