As someone often suffering from the ill effects of toxic indoor air quality, I have become a fresh air enthusiast. After a year of inhaling what seemed to be indoor poison coming from my heating and cooling vents, I headed to the mountains for a large dose of fresh air.
I managed to avoid the same indoor air quality hazards for sometime but then moved to a rural area where it was unfortunately impossible to avoid breathing the air coming from the neighbors’ units. In that building we experienced all manner of toxic chemicals due to an unhealthy shared-ventilation design. The only options were to try to seal the vents, use baseboard heating rather than forced air, use window fans for cooling rather than shared AC vents while praying that the neighbors would avoid the toxic room fresheners, perfumes, scented powders, insecticides, pesticides, ozone, fumigants, laundry soap, cleaning products and cigarette smoke which could often be detected in our home. In this case, seeking pure air in a rural environment backfired such that inhabitants unexpectedly began to suffer from the ill effects of indoor air pollution.
America’s dirtiest cities have been identified as a major source of lung contaminants including smog generated on the Los Angeles freeway as well as the “tainted” air in the Central Valley California where a combination of farm waste, soil from chemical/pesticide-laden farmlands, industrial emissions, vehicle exhaust and dust particles forms a perpetual haze around the region. But what if the indoor quality of the air in your home or office was equal to the intense smog of Los Angeles, known to be a cause of asthma, allergies and other health problems?
Indoor Air Pollutants May Be the Problem
According to a study by the EPA, we breathe up to 70,000 liters of air every 24 hours.The quality of the air we breathe is very important for our health. We spend a large percentage of our day indoors and even the smallest levels of airborne toxins can cause health problems. Unfortunately, researchers now estimate that the air quality in our homes could be up to five times worse than outdoor air in highly polluted cities. Indoor air pollution has been known to cause headaches, flu symptoms and neurological problems. A 2009 study documented 586 in-house chemicals and documented a rise in indoor air pollution. Some of the common causes of indoor air pollution include:
• Radon – Radioactive gas which can seep through cracks in the floor and walls and known to be a leading cause of lung cancer.
• Secondary Smoke Inhalation – Risk of lung cancer.
• Carbon Monoxide – Colorless odorless gas. Symptoms include headaches and severe fatigue.
• Volatile Organic Compounds – VOCs are commonly found in cleaning supplies, air fresheners, deodorizers, pesticides, carpets, carpet cleaners, paints and building materials. They can cause sinus congestion, headaches, fatigue and more. Lemon and pine scented products are a source of concern when they react with ozone to create formaldehyde which can be damaging to the lungs.
• Ozone – Commonly emitted from supposed indoor air purifiers. Hazardous for health according to the EPA. Can cause lung damage, chest pain, coughing, shortness of
breath and throat irritation as well as weakening the immune system.
• Dryer Vents – More than 600 volatile organic compounds found to be emitted from dryer vents from commonly used laundry products. Some carcinogenic. Others may cause respiratory, neurological, endocrine and immune system damage to the entire bodily system. Fabric softeners often contain a toxic blend of chemicals and mix in with the carbon monoxide emitted by dryer exhaust exposing users to a cloud of chemicals which are emitted into the surrounding environment (Air Quality, Atmosphere and Health, 2011).
• Perfumes and Scented Soaps – Research on work-related exposure to scented soap and perfumes likened it to secondary smoke inhalation, with researchers noting that the fragrance industry is largely unregulated and manufacturers are not required to list chemical ingredients on product labels. Research also revealed an increase in allergic reactions including rashes. Perfumes are a complex mixture of vegetable and animal extracts. Petroleum-based fragrances can be neurotoxic and can cause multiple chemical sensitivities.
Tips to Improve Your Indoor Air Quality
• Use simple, natural household products such as baking soda, lemon juice, vinegar and fragrance free dish soap for all of your cleaning needs.
• Dry clothes naturally on clothes lines or indoor drying racks aided by an old-fashioned window fan.
• Vacuum regularly. HEPA filter vacuums are recommended to get rid of the very fine toxic particles which could be making you sick.
• Change furnace filters regularly.
• Choose hardwood floors rather than toxic carpeting.
• Use cross-ventilation to bring fresh air into occupied buildings for as many hours as possible each day.
• Remove shoes when entering the house to prevent tracking in toxic substances.
• Fill your home with indoor house plants. NASA scientists recommend indoor plants as absorbing harmful gasses due to their ability to act as a natural cleanser for indoor air. Recommend as a remedy for “sick building syndrome,” plants that may be helpful in removing formaldehyde, benzene and carbon monoxide from the air include butterfly palm, lady palm, bamboo palm, rubber plant, philodendron, boston fern and peace lily. A little bit of attention to improving our indoor air quality can result in enormous benefits for health and the environment. Take time to ensure that everyone can enjoy an unpolluted air quality every day at home and in the workplace.
Simi Summer, PhD is an organic advocate, independent researcher, educator, and free lance writer. She is a strong proponent of organic consumer education and informed consumer choices.