Hidden Hazards

The perils posed by indoor air pollution can hit uncomfortably close to home.

By Beverly Burmeier

November/December 2010

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Air pollution is more than just smokestacks belching black clouds. According to government studies, levels of indoor air pollution can be two to five times higher—occasionally up to 100 times higher—than outdoor air pollution levels. The fact that Americans spend 90% of their time indoors doesn’t help.

The culprits are often products that are part of our daily lives. “More chemicals are used in everyday work and home life than most of us imagine. This means that a great deal of pollution occurs virtually unnoticed,” says Elson Haas, MD, director of the Preventive Medical Center of Marin in San Rafael, California and author of Staying Healthy with Nutrition (Celestial Arts). Some effects, such as headaches or skin irritation, may show up immediately, while others, such as respiratory problems, heart disease and cancer, can occur after years of exposure. “People should not become paranoid, but they should become educated,” says Richard Corsi, PhD, director of the environmental science and engineering program at the University of Texas at Austin. “Special concern is warranted when pregnant women or young children live in a home.”

Reduce your exposure as much as possible. Use fans vented to the outdoors in bathrooms and kitchens. Open windows when using household cleaners and substitute earth-friendly cleaning agents for synthetic ones when possible. Avoid aerosol sprays of all kinds. If you have gas appliances, buy a carbon monoxide home detection kit as insurance against a malfunction. When weatherizing your home, increase ventilation because pollutants concentrate in an “airtight” home. Run a HEPA filtration unit to remove such contaminants as dust, pet dander, smoke and mold spores.

Fresh Air Tips

Besides taking general steps to keep indoor air clean, you should address specific pollution sources. “Our challenge as consumers is to be much more selective in our purchases and at the same time, to ask more questions of retailers and manufacturers,” says Haas. The following items in particular can pose problems.

Candles: Planning a romantic night at home? Nix the scented candles and incense; both give off irritating particles. “Some of the chemicals that make candles smell good are toxic and may be troublesome if they don’t burn completely,” says Corsi. Unscented beeswax or soy candles are better for your lungs.

Carpet: It’s soft on the feet, but plush pile traps pollutants tracked in from outside. New carpets can also emit gases, a phenomenon known as off-gassing, related to the chemicals used in their manufacture. Keep pollutants outside by leaving shoes at the door, Japanese style. When redecorating, look for carpets made of all-natural wool or cotton, or fibers such as sisal and raffia.

Furniture: Items made with engineered wood, including desks, bookcases, couch frames and office partitions, can emit undetectable fumes that cause a skin rash or irritate eyes, nose or throat.

Pressed wood, particleboard and fiberboard are made using adhesives that contain formaldehyde, and sometimes these products are hard to detect because they’re hidden under other components. If you’re susceptible, choose solid wood, metal or plastic furniture. Avoid items with a high resin-to-wood ratio, or use wood products that contain phenol resins instead of urea resins to reduce the amount of formaldehyde emitted.

Perfume: “Perfumes and other fragrant products contain volatile organic compounds that are extremely reactive if there is any ozone in the air,” says Corsi. “The resulting chemical by-
products can be irritating, even toxic, especially when there are multiple scenting agents in the home.” Limit your use of scented products.

Paints, varnishes, and waxes: These products contain organic solvents that can be released during use and persist long after you’ve finished using them. Organic pollutants from these products have been found at rates two to five times higher inside homes than outside. Buy only as much as you’ll use right away. Use outdoors or increase ventilation—exhaust fans help dissipate toxins. If you do store leftovers, seal tightly. You can also look for low-VOC paints, which emit fewer gases.

Pesticides: These products are meant to be deadly—for insects and mice. But they can be dangerous to humans if not used properly; one EPA study reports that 80% of most people’s exposure to pesticides occurs indoors. Instead, use non-chemical pest control methods. Choose disease-resistant plants, apply insecticidal soaps and pull weeds by hand. Remove food and water sources for indoor pests, block off hiding places by caulking cracks and store firewood away from the house. If you do use synthetic pesticides, mix according to directions and only in the amount needed.

Mothballs or crystals: The chemicals in these items negatively affect one in ten people. If you wear a contaminated sweater, you’re breathing bad stuff all day. “The main ingredient is a suspected carcinogen,” says Corsi. So before wearing items stored in moth repellents, clean them. Instead of mothballs, use cedar blocks or boards to keep your clothes free of holes. And be sure to air out dry-cleaned items thoroughly before hanging in a confined space such as your closet, or find a dry cleaner who uses eco-friendly methods.

Air pollution goes beyond power plants and chemical factories—it’s as close as the air in your home. For your family’s sake, reduce airborne toxins as much as possible.

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