According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), air pollution is typically 2 to 5 times higher indoors than out. That means the air your family breathes while enjoying dinner, finishing homework and sleeping may be more polluted than the air on a city street corner.
By Jessica Capets Chevalier
Even though indoor air pollutants may not pose a significant problem for healthy individuals, anyone who suffers from asthma or other respiratory problems may be at a greater risk of having an attack and/or complications as a result of poor indoor air quality.
While the sources of indoor air contaminants are many, knowledgeable homeowners can effectively lessen indoor pollution by making informed choices in regard to ventilation, building materials, cleaning products and even pets.
Indoor Air Pollution Causes
As we become more efficient at sealing our homes against the elements, our buttoning-up has created structures that fail to breathe. As a result, pollutants inside a home can’t escape.
The EPA reports that sources of indoor air contamination are chemical, physical or biological, originating from a variety of sources, including: “combustion sources such as oil, gas, kerosene, coal, wood and tobacco products; building materials and furnishings as diverse as deteriorated asbestos-containing insulation, wet or damp carpet, and cabinetry or furniture made of certain pressed wood products; products for household cleaning and maintenance, personal care or hobbies; central heating and cooling systems; and humidification devices.” Additionally, common dust, pollen and pet dander can also act as irritants to the human body.
According to the American Lung Association, many of us spend up to 90 percent of our time indoors, maximizing our opportunity to inhale these pollutants. How does this affect our health? Covenant Allergy Asthma Care in Chattanooga explains that environmental irritants act as triggers for allergies and asthma, a disease affecting the lungs that causes repeated episodes of wheezing, breathlessness, chest tightness and nighttime or early morning coughing.
With an estimated 23 million Americans – including 7 million children – suffering from asthma, a potentially life-threatening condition, the benefits of reducing indoor air pollutants are obvious: significant improvement in quality of life for nearly 8 percent of the population, not to mention improved breathing for those with allergies and other respiratory difficulties.
Contrary to popular belief, individuals cannot outgrow asthma or allergies; however, if the triggers that cause attacks are eliminated, they can be controlled.
Simple Steps to Reduce Pollutants
Begin lessening the pollutants in your home with simple measures. Dust regularly, using a wet cloth and sweep floors thoroughly and often. Bathe and brush pets to keep hair and dander to a minimum. Wash bedding, rugs, curtains, animal beds, stuffed animals and any other soft surfaces frequently to eliminate particulates. Purchase hypoallergenic pillow cases and mattress covers to reduce irritation during sleep.
“Just be aware of what holds dust: furniture, ceiling fans, curtains. You really have to keep things clean,” advises Shirley Cudabac, development director for the Chattanooga chapter of the American Lung Association.
Next, evaluate your home for potentially larger problems stemming from combustion, building materials, cleaning products and water.
First and foremost in reducing combustion triggers: don’t smoke indoors. If possible, remove smoky clothing upon entering the home – secondhand smoke is a danger for the young and old, healthy and weakened.
Consider the safety of heat and air systems. Make certain that all systems are properly vented and keep vents clean. Annual inspection of these systems by a professional is recommended. Additionally, utilize a furnace filter and replace it often. Those with a fireplace should make certain that chimneys are clean, in good repair and properly ventilated to ensure that exhaust is being drawn up and out of the home.
Lastly, remember that space heaters should be used only for abbreviated periods – never as a primary heating source – because their exhaust remains within the walls of the home.
Dangers of Sick Building Syndrome
In 1984, the World Health Organization identified sick building syndrome (SBS) in approximately 30 percent of new and renovated structures. Sick building syndrome occurs when a combination of indoor irritants and poor ventilation cause individuals to suffer from acute discomfort such as headaches; eye, nose or throat irritation; dry cough; dry or itchy skin; dizziness and nausea; difficulty in concentrating; fatigue; and sensitivity to odors.
Any irritants can trigger sick building syndrome, but off-gassing from building materials plays a major role. That’s because many building materials – adhesives, carpeting, upholstery, manufactured wood products, copy machines, pesticides and cleaning agents -– emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which evaporate quickly and contribute to photochemical smog in the atmosphere.
How can you avoid these pollutants when building or renovating a structure? Many products are now offered with low-VOC ratings, including carpet, cabinetry, paints and stains. Additionally, utilizing repurposed materials not only reduces waste, but ensures that the products have already off-gassed prior to entering the home. Whenever possible, choose hard, easy-to-clean surfaces for your home – wood flooring rather than carpet, blinds rather than curtains – to make it easy to remove pollutants effectively.
Preventing mold growth within a space is another important step in maintaining good indoor air quality. Does your foundation have leaks that are allowing water to puddle and foster mold spores? Use caulking to fill cracks in the foundation, window casings or walls that allow water entry into the home. Additionally, utilize downspouts and gutters to angle water away from your foundation. Run a bathroom fan to effectively eliminate dampness and, therefore, mold and mildew in your bathroom. If you choose to utilize a dehumidifier to alleviate excessive moisture, make sure to keep it well-maintained because the unit itself can support the growth of mold and mildew.
Lastly, consider what air pollutants are brought into the home in the form of cleaning or personal care products. Items with excessive fragrance and chemical odor can act as irritants, especially to those with a compromised respiratory system. Keep these pollutants to a minimum by choosing fragrance-free items and make certain to ventilate an area when using items with fragrance.
The EPA lists poor indoor air quality as the fourth largest environmental threat to our country. This may come as a surprise until you realize that, for the most part, indoor air pollution is a largely unrealized threat within each home and office. In most every case, proper ventilation is key in controlling indoor air pollution and keeping all individuals – those with and without respiratory problems – breathing easy indoors.
Jessica Capets Chevalier is a Chattanooga resident. She was raised in Western Pennsylvania and earned a BA in English at Geneva College and her MFA in Writing at Penn State University.