It’s highly likely that you may be taking your air for granted. After all, when do you think about air? Really, only when you don’t have it or if you start to develop respiratory problems. Then air gets some attention. But respiratory problems don’t usually happen overnight. So you may have an air quality problem but not experience physical issues as a result until months or even years later.
Long-term health effects can include chronic respiratory disease, such as Emphysema or COPD, lung cancer, heart disease, and even damage to the nerves, brain, liver, or kidneys, as well as endocrine system disruption. Continued exposure to polluted air particularly has damaging effects to the lungs of growing children and may aggravate or complicate existing medical conditions.
There are a lot of factors that can affect air quality. You may have none of these factors in your environment. But it’s possible you may have one or more.
The most common causes of poor air quality in a house or building are:
- Not enough ventilation.
- Lack of fresh outdoor air.
- Contaminated air being brought into a dwelling or facility.
- Poor upkeep of ventilation, heating and air conditioning systems.
- Dampness and moisture damage as a result of leaks, flooding or humidity which results in mold. Mold can be behind walls or under floors.
- Smoking indoors.
- Toxic substances used in the house or facility including toxic cleaners, craft supplies, high VOC paint, chemicals used as fire retardants or scotchgard on upholstery or carpets, in many construction materials, glues, carpet padding, etc.
Here I will list some of the most major concerns regarding air quality, followed by information about how you can test your air quality and what you can do to fix many of these issues you may have.
Across many major cities, a hazy brown layer of pollution hangs over the skyline, especially in the warmer months. It is formed as a result of industrial emissions from cars, factories, power plants, and other sources burning fossil fuels like coal, gas and natural gas and diesel. These emit dangerous exhaust and toxins into the air, that then react with heat and sunlight in the atmosphere. However, air pollution can still be harmful even when it is not so visible.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution is one of the world’s top causes of premature death, although much of these deaths happen in developing countries. However, in the U.S. around 41,000 people a year are estimated to die early because of air pollution. As well, for every person who dies prematurely, hundreds or thousands more suffer breathing problems such as asthma, bronchitis, emphysema and COPD.
An extensive body of scientific evidence shows that long and short-term exposures to fine particle pollution, can cause a host of respiratory consequences — anything from coughing, wheezing and throat irritation to asthma, a weakened immune system resulting in increased risk of infection and permanent damage to lung tissue. As well, with these toxins entering your body through your lungs, scientific evidence also links this to harmful effects on the cardiovascular system, including increased hospital admissions and emergency room visits for congestive heart failure, heart attacks, strokes and reduces blood supply to the heart.
Ozone can increase the frequency of asthma attacks, cause shortness of breath, aggravate lung diseases, and cause permanent damage to lungs through long-term exposure. Elevated ozone levels are linked to increases in hospitalizations, emergency room visits and premature death.
Unfortunately, pollution levels in many areas of the United States exceed national air quality standards for at least one of the six common pollutants. As well, even if you don’t live in one of the many cities throughout the U.S. With elevated levels of air pollution, you may also be in a more isolated hot spot if you live or work near a major freeway or airport or industrial facility.
Indoor Air Quality
There are many sources of indoor air pollution. These can include:
- Fuel-burning combustion appliances.
- Tobacco products.
- Building materials and furnishings as diverse as: asbestos-containing insulation, newly installed flooring, upholstery or carpet, 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.
- Excess moisture.
- Outdoor sources that get into the home or building such as: radon, pesticides and outdoor air pollution.
The relative importance of any single source depends on how much of a given pollutant it emits and how hazardous those emissions are. In some cases, factors such as how old the source is and whether it is properly maintained are significant. For example, an improperly adjusted gas stove can put out significantly more carbon monoxide than one that is properly maintained.
Some sources, such as building materials, furnishings and products like air fresheners, can release pollutants more or less continuously. Other sources, related to activities like smoking, use of toxic cleaning products, some hobbies (glues, paints, etc.) release pollutants intermittently. Unvented or malfunctioning appliances or improperly used products can release higher and sometimes dangerous levels of pollutants indoors. Pollutant concentrations can remain in the air for long periods after some activities.
The most commonly found indoor air pollutants include:
- Asbestos, a type of insulation and fire retardant commonly found in very old buildings/houses. It is no longer allowed to be used as it was found to cause cancer.
- Biological Pollutants — includes bacteria, viruses, animal dander and cat saliva, house dust, mites, cockroaches, and pollen.
- Carbon Monoxide (CO) — an odorless, colorless and toxic gas. Because it is impossible to see, taste or smell the toxic fumes, CO can kill you before you are aware it is in your home. Lower amounts will make you feel sluggish and even dizzy and can cause nausea and headaches. It inhibits oxygen intake. Smoking indoors, gas appliances, gasoline powered equipment, furnaces, fireplaces and the like are the biggest sources.
- Formaldehyde/Pressed Wood Products — a chemical used widely by industry to manufacture building materials and numerous household products. The biggest source if formaldehyde in homes is the presence of pressed wood containing resins in furniture and building materials, including particle board, hardwood plywood paneling and medium-density fiberboard. Formaldehyde can cause irritation of the skin, eyes, nose and throat and fatigue. High levels of exposure may cause some types of cancers.
- Lead — Before it was known how harmful lead was, it was used in paint, gasoline, water pipes, and many other products. Old lead-based paint is the most significant source of lead exposure in the U.S. today.
- Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) — unvented combustion appliances such as gas stoves and tobacco smoke are the biggest sources.
- Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) — Concentrations of many VOCs are consistently higher indoors (up to ten times higher) than outdoors. Organic chemicals are widely used as ingredients in household products. Some building materials, carpets and upholstery that have been treated with fire retardants and scotch guard, paints, varnishes, glues and wax all contain organic solvents, as do many cleaning, disinfecting, air fresheners, degreasing and hobby products. Elevated concentrations can persist in the air long after the activity is completed.
- Pesticides — According to a recent survey, 75 percent of U.S. households used at least one pesticide product indoors during the past year. Products used indoors most often are insecticides and disinfectants are the main sources. Another study stated that 80 percent of most people’s exposure to pesticides occurs due to use indoors. It can also be tracked in from outside.
- Radon — described in more detail below.
- Secondhand Smoke/ Environmental Tobacco Smoke.
- Stoves, Heaters, Fireplaces and Chimney.
Radon is an odorless, colorless, naturally occurring radioactive gas that has been found in homes all over the United States. It comes from the natural breakdown of uranium in soil, rock, and water and it gets into the air you breathe. Radon typically moves up through the ground to the air above and into your home through cracks and other holes in the foundation.
“It is inhaled into the lungs, where it can damage the DNA and potentially increasing cancer risk”, according to Douglas Arenberg, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine in the Pulmonary and Critical Care Department at the University of Michigan Health System.
One in fifteen U.S. homes has high levels of radon, according to the EPA. But certain geographic regions are at greater risk. In general, the Northeast, southern Appalachia, the Midwest and northern plains areas tend to have levels over the recommended limit. Coastal areas tend to have lower levels. Newer homes may also have higher levels of radon as the soil around the house is more porous, making it easier for radon gas to enter the home. This website is where you can look up the area you live in to see how prevalent high levels of radon are in the area you live in. http://www.city-data.com/radon-zones/index.html
But elevated levels of radon can be found in any state and in any home. Sometimes your next-door neighbor can have a vastly different radon reading than your home does.
Home Testing for Radon
Because radon can be found outdoors in low levels, everyone is exposed to it at some point. But it’s much more dangerous inside your home, where the gas becomes more concentrated to significantly higher levels.
An at-home kit, which you can get on Amazon or in most local hardware stores, can be used to test for radon in your home. Make sure it is labeled as “Meets EPA Requirements” though. You collect a sample, send it in for analysis, and then you are sent the results.
Reducing Radon Levels
If the radon levels in your home exceed healthy levels, you should definitely take steps to correct it. But don’t panic as it is not hard to reduce radon levels.
You can install a removal system that allows radon gas from beneath the home to be immediately vented outside. Radon removal can eliminate up to 99 percent of radon from the home, according to the EPA. These devices, called soil-suction radon reduction systems, should always be installed and supervised by a certified radon mitigation specialist or radon remediation service.
Radon reduction systems work well. Some radon reduction systems can reduce radon levels in your home by up to 99%. The cost of fixing a home generally ranges anywhere from $800 to $2500 (with an average cost of $1200). Your costs will vary depending on the size and design of your home and which radon reduction methods are needed.
You or the radon remediation specialist can also seal off any cracks in your home — in the floors, foundation, or walls — to keep radon gas from seeping through the cracks and into the air you breathe indoors. Re-testing should be done at regular intervals to ensure that the radon mitigation has been successful.
Mold and other Biotoxins
Mold is a serious enough problem to warrant its own chapter, which is why the next chapter is specifically dedicated to it. In fact whole books have been written on the subject.
High humidity, dampness, leaky pipes, water damage and even overwatering plants — any form of water build up encourages mold to form. The best way to deal with mold is to prevent it from forming.
It’s estimated that indoor air pollutants, including mold and mycotoxins may be greatly contributing to illnesses and allergies. Typically we think of smog, smoke, and outdoor pollution as detrimental to our health, but indoor air quality may be an even bigger risk to your health. Many of those who are affected are unaware that a toxic home or workplace is contributing to their symptoms.
What To Do to ensure Good Air Quality
- Firstly, I would recommend not living near any major power plants, industrial boilers, cement manufacturing, secondary lead smelting, major highways or airports. When you do exercise outside, stay as far as you can from heavily trafficked roads. If the air quality in your area is generally bad, stay inside with windows closed.
- Keep your house well vented. If you live in an area with low pollution levels, air your house out often by opening your windows and doors where you can. But also make sure the humidity in your home stays low.
- Keep your house clean and rapidly repair any leaks.
- Avoid use of any toxic furnishings, carpets/pads/glues and flooring and replace out any you have as feasible. We recommend green carpets, green flooring and leather furnishings where possible.
- Ventilate when cooking.
- Keep your appliances, furnaces and fireplaces well maintained.
- I also highly recommend using a high quality HEPA air cleaner that also filters out chemicals, minimally use this in your bedroom at night.
- Don’t allow smoking indoors.
- Avoid use of any pesticides or disinfectants indoors as well as toxic cleaners and air fresheners. See chapters on alternatives you can use that are nontoxic and work just as well.
- By controlling the relative humidity level in a home, the growth of some sources of biologicals can be minimized. A relative humidity of 30-50 percent is generally recommended for homes. Standing water, water-damaged materials or wet surfaces also serve as a breeding ground for molds, mildews, bacteria and insects. House dust mites, the source of one of the most powerful biological allergens, grow in damp, warm environments.
- Indoor live plants also improve air quality. Certain types are particularly good for cleaning air such as peace lilies, ferns, palms, and spider plants.
- Test for radon if you live or work in an area with more prevalence or have any slightest suspicion that there may be a problem.
- If you live or work in an older facility (built prior to 1990), get it checked for asbestos and lead pipes or paint. If found, use a professional service to handle it.