Indoor air pollution, in homes as well as commercial buildings, is being recognized as a serious health problem. Because most people in the United States spend an estimated 90 percent of their time indoors, the health risks of poor indoor air quality can significantly increase the risk of health problems. You may think indoor air pollution won’t affect you, but chances are it already has. Have you ever felt nauseated after painting or cleaning? Well, that’s a neurotoxin for you. The problem is, these toxins affect you all the time. You might not feel downright sick, but maybe you’ll feel run down and headachy as the day wears on. And it gets worse. Many of these toxins have a cumulative effect. You never get rid of them. They collect until you reach your threshold. Every year thousands of men, women and children will suffer illnesses from indoor air pollution.

Over a quarter of a million new chemical substances are created each year. No government agency can keep pace in documenting the harmful effects of these substances. Chemicals in material and fabrics have increased 500% in 20 years. Formaldehyde, volatile organic compounds (VOC’S) and solvents are among them. Paints, cleaning solutions, carpets and other materials emit toxic fumes. The process continues for months, even years, after installation or use. Toxic chemicals are either inhaled or absorbed through the skin. Product aroma, even a pleasant one, can be an indicator of toxicity. The EPA in a 1989 report to Congress estimated that the health and productivity cost of indoor air pollution to be “tens of billions of dollars annually”.

The EPA regulations limiting harmful chemicals address only the exterior environment, not indoor air quality. Even so-called “environmental products” can still contain toxic ingredients not prohibited by any government regulation. Many of these ingredients are added to facilitate the manufacturing process and do not translate to any benefit in terms of usability or performance. They are used because they are cheap, and because no one has the time or resources to study the long-term affects of even the 50,000 most common chemicals. There is no toxic data for 80% of them(!).

The sources of indoor air pollution can be categorized as:

  1. Combustion Sources like oil, gas, kerosene, coal, wood, and tobacco products. Tobacco smoke is a complex mixture of over 4,000 compounds, more than 40 of which are known to cause cancer in humans or animals and many of which are strong irritants. Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless gas that interferes with the delivery of oxygen throughout the body. At high concentrations it can cause unconsciousness and death. Lower concentrations can cause a range of symptoms from headaches, dizziness, weakness, nausea, confusion, and disorientation, to fatigue in healthy people and episodes of increased chest pain in people with chronic heart disease. Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is a colorless, odorless gas that irritates the mucous membranes in the eye, nose, and throat and causes shortness of breath after exposure to high concentrations. People at particular risk from exposure to nitrogen dioxide include children and individuals with asthma and other respiratory diseases. Particles, released when fuels are incompletely burned, can lodge in the lungs and irritate or damage lung tissue. A number of pollutants, including radon and benzopyrene, both of which can cause cancer, attach to small particles that are inhaled and then carried deep into the lung.
  2. Chemical out-gassing or contamination from building materials, asbestos-containing insulation, carpets, cabinetry or furniture made of certain pressed wood products, household cleaning and maintenance products, personal care products, or chemicals used in hobbies. EPA’s Total Exposure Assessment Methodology (TEAM) studies found levels of about a dozen common organic pollutants to be 2 to 5 times higher inside homes than outside, regardless of whether the homes were located in rural or highly industrial areas. Additional TEAM studies indicate that while people are using products containing organic chemicals, they can expose themselves and others to very high pollutant levels, and elevated concentrations can persist in the air long after the activity is completed.As an example, Plywood and particle board are loaded with acetone and formaldehyde. These toxins evaporate or “off-gas” (more on off-gassing later), causing flu-like symptoms, runny nose, itchy eyes, headaches, nausea and sore throats. Polyurethane wood finishes contain ethoxyethanol, a chronic toxin that accumulates until you reach your limit. Most stains and varnishes and sealers contain acetone, methanol and pentachlorophenol. The distinctive smell of paint is actually dibutyl and diethyl phthalate, and a host of other compounds that cause nausea, dizziness and severe headaches. That new carpet smell? Take a deep breath…. dichlorobenzene, butadiene, toluene, trichloroethane and other narcotics (better yet, don’t breathe at all). Off-gassing is like evaporation, only with solid material. It happens because even the densest solid material isn’t really solid. There are spaces between the molecules, and molecules can work their way into the atmosphere just like they do during evaporation. All of this would be OK if they were water molecules. Unfortunately they’re usually something toxic. To make matters worse, today’s energy efficient homes seal in all these toxic gasses so they accumulate. Off-gassing of VOC’s are everywhere… paints, stains, varnishes, cleaning supplies, and anything made of plastic or vinyl.
  3. Biological sources like bacteria, molds, mildew, viruses, animal dander and cat saliva, house dust mites, cockroaches, and pollen. Some biological contaminants trigger allergic reactions, including hypersensitivity pneumonitis, allergic rhinitis, and some types of asthma. Infectious illnesses, such as influenza, measles, and chicken pox are transmitted through the air. Molds and mildews release disease-causing toxins. Symptoms of health problems caused by biological pollutants include sneezing, watery eyes, coughing, shortness of breath, dizziness, lethargy, fever, and digestive problems. Children, elderly people, and people with breathing problems, allergies, and lung diseases are particularly susceptible to disease-causing biological agents in the indoor air.
  4. Environmental pollution comes from sources like outside air pollution, herbicides and pesticides, and radon. Herbicides and pesticides have a toxic mix (they are designed to kill things) too lengthy to go over here. Outdoor air pollution comes from many sources. The largest contributors are internal combustion engines (cars and trucks) and power generation. Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that has been linked to lung cancer.

So what can one do to protect themselves and their family?

Combustion Sources
  • Take special precautions when operating fuel-burning unvented space heaters.
    Install and use exhaust fans over gas cooking stoves and ranges and keep the burners properly adjusted.
    Keep woodstove emissions to a minimum. Choose properly sized new stoves that are certified as meeting EPA emission standards.
  • Have central air handling systems, including furnaces, flues, and chimneys, inspected annually and promptly repair cracks or damaged parts.
  • Don’t smoke at home or permit others to do so. Ask smokers to smoke outdoors.
  • If smoking indoors cannot be avoided, increase ventilation in the area where smoking takes place.
  • Do not smoke if children are present, particularly infants and toddlers.
  • Follow label instructions carefully. Potentially hazardous products often have warnings aimed at reducing exposure of the user.
  • Throw away partially full containers of old or unneeded chemicals safely.
  • Keep exposure to emissions from products containing methylene chloride, benzene, and
    perchloroethylene emissions from newly dry-cleaned materials to a minimum.
  • Ask about the formaldehyde content of pressed wood products,including building materials, cabinetry, and furniture before you purchase them.
  • Do not cut, rip, or sand asbestos-containing materials.
  • Keep areas where children play as dust-free and clean as possible.
  • Install and use exhaust fans that are vented to the outdoors in kitchens and bathrooms and vent clothes dryers outdoors.
  • Ventilate the attic and crawl spaces to prevent moisture build-up.
  • If using cool mist or ultrasonic humidifiers, clean appliances according to manufacturer’s instructions and refill with fresh water daily.
  • Thoroughly clean and dry water-damaged carpets and building materials (within 24 hours if possible) or consider removal and replacement.
  • Keep the house clean. House dust mites, pollens, animal dander, and other allergy-causing agents can be reduced, although not eliminated, through regular cleaning.
  • Take steps to minimize biological pollutants in basements.
  • Use nonchemical methods of pest control when possible.
  • Consider the use of an air cleaner that is effective at particle removal.
  • Support legislation that reduces auto and factory emissions.

If you are remodeling or building a new home:

Choose building materials and furnishings that will keep indoor air pollution to a minimum.
Some chemical exposure is inevitable and unavoidable. But there are other decisions one can make about their interior environment that mean a lot. Start by using natural materials like wood instead of carpet or vinyl. Wood additionally does not harbor biological allergens like dust mites and dander. Other natural flooring products, like Cork, Marmoleum and Bamboo offer the same benefits and are kind to the environment.

Any liquids used for finishing walls, wood, concrete or metal can be of the low or no VOC variety. There are sealers that nearly eliminate the out-gassing from plywood and particleboard, forming a molecular structure that blocks toxic emissions. There are a growing list of adhesives, caulks, primers, paints, finishes, cleaners and personal hygiene products that eliminate toxic content in their formulations. There are even products designed to prevent the out-gassing from carpets, carpet backing and carpet adhesives; and sealers that encapsulate surfaces which would typically be subject to mold and mildew.
Avoid excess chemicals on any interior or exterior surface of your living environment, including your lawn. Lawn pesticides and herbicides are never good for people or pets… read the labels. There is an indicator of a chemical-free lawn… it’s called a dandelion.

Change air filters often, and take steps to control excess humidity and moisture in your home. Moisture is a necessary ingredient for the growth of most biological pollutants, including mold and mildew. By controlling the relative humidity level in a home, the growth of biologicals can be minimized. A relative humidity of 35-60 percent is generally recommended for homes.