Air Pollutants In Your Home
According to the American Lung Association, the average American breathes 3,400 gallons of air each day, making ambient air pollution a major environmental crisis. When air pollution is the topic at hand most people think of the outdoors and contaminates produced by factories, automobiles and the like. What many people don’t know is that indoor air pollution can be just as bad as (or worse than) outdoor air pollution to an individual’s health.
US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) studies of human exposure to air pollutants indicate that indoor air levels of many pollutants may be 2 to 5 times, and occasionally, more than 100 times higher than outdoor levels! What’s worse, it is estimated that most people spend as much as 90% of their time indoors making home, school and/or the workplace potentially hazardous to one’s health. According to the EPA, health risks are probably higher for infants, the elderly, and persons with chronic diseases.
Adding insult to injury, laws designed to improve energy efficiency by cutting down on drafts have done everything but improve indoor air quality. Tightly sealed homes constructed in the last couple of decades may have diminished the use of fossil fuels, but have wreaked havoc with American’s respiratory systems. Homes that can’t “breath” can’t dilute pollutants contained in building and decorating products.
In general, indoor pollution sources that release gases or particles into the air are the primary cause of indoor air quality problems. Inadequate ventilation can increase indoor pollutant levels by not bringing in enough outdoor air to dilute emissions from indoor sources and by not carrying indoor air pollutants out of the home, allowing concentrations to build up. High temperature and humidity levels can also increase concentrations of some pollutants.
All of these pollutants have one thing in common; they contain chemicals that are part of a larger class of chemicals known as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). VOCs are organic (carbon-based) chemicals that evaporate readily at room temperature. VOCs are typically found in high indoor concentrations in dry-cleaned clothing; chloroform from chlorinated water; benzene from tobacco smoke (one of the leading indoor air pollutants); formaldehyde from fabrics, pressed wood products and insulation; styrene found in adhesives, foam, lubricants, plastics carpets and insulation; methylene chloride from paint strippers; and carbon tetrachloride from paint removers.
Other potential sources of indoor air pollution are central heating, cooling and dehumidification systems, household cleaning and maintenance products, outdoor sources such as pesticides and biological contaminants such as animal dander, mold and cockroaches.
While indoor air pollution affects people differently, in general, short-term exposure may cause immediate effects such as headaches, dizziness and allergies. Long-term exposures can result in respiratory disease, heart disease and cancer, all of which can be severely debilitating or fatal.
Building-related illness is a discrete, identifiable disease or illness that can be traced to a specific pollutant or source within a building. In contrast, the term “sick building (sick home) syndrome” is used to describe situations in which building occupants experience acute health and comfort effects that appear to be linked to time spent in a building, but no specific illness or cause can be identified. Both syndromes are associated with acute or immediate health problems.
While this is not particularly good news, awareness is the first step in creating a healthier indoor environment and improving your health. Your best defense against indoor air pollution is a strong offense. First, identify and control sources of pollution to reduce and prevent indoor air contamination. This can range from changing housecleaning products to airing out freshly dry-cleaned clothing to tossing out formaldehyde-containing furniture. Equally important is to improve ventilation. Proper ventilation – the mixing of indoor air with outdoor air – can revitalize the air in your home and protect your health.
Since cigarette smoke is one of the single greatest contributors to indoor air pollution it goes without saying that smoking indoors is a no-no. By the same token, fireplaces and other fuel-burning appliances (water heaters, furnaces, stoves, etc.) should be properly adjusted and vented to the exterior. Doing so will both prevent carbon monoxide poisoning and improve the efficiency of the appliance.
Adequately sized exhaust fans should be used wherever moisture and combustion are present – in the bathroom, laundry and kitchen. A bath fan, for example, will remove help to dissipate chloroform gas, which is a byproduct of chlorinated water. It will also remove excessive moisture that can lead to mold that can produce yet more heath hazards.
There are still other indoor air pollutants that deserve your attention such as asbestos, lead and radon. The first two were used pervasively in building products before being outlawed by the EPA in the late 1970s. The rule of thumb with asbestos and lead is that it is best left alone if it in good shape and not peeling or crumbling. Asbestos or lead should not be scraped or sanded and should be removed only by a professional abatement contractor with the proper equipment. Moreover, testing should be performed after the abatement process to ensure the air quality is safe.
Radon, on the other hand, is a naturally occurring gas that is derived from uranium in the ground. Radon can make its way into a home through cracks in foundation or basement walls. Small amounts of radon can be controlled by sealing cracks with a caulking or patching compound. Higher levels of radon may require the installation of an exhaust system that will disperse concentrated amounts into outdoor air.
Do-it-yourself test kits are available for many indoor air pollutants such as lead or radon. Other indoor pollutants such as asbestos require professional testing. In either case, if your or someone in your family hasn’t been feeling up to snuff or if you suspect that your home contains more than its share of pollutants, we suggest that you put your best foot forward and have your home tested by a pro.
For more information on indoor air pollution and what to do about it visit the EPA website at www.epa.gov or the American Lung Association website at www.lungusa.org.
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