Your long-awaited new rug has been installed. You’re sitting in your favorite easy chair thinking how great the living room looks when your eyes start burning. Suddenly, that "new carpet" smell is giving you a headache because harmful gases are being released by the carpet, possibly making you feel sick.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the air inside your home can be two to five times more polluted than the air outside, causing you and your family serious health problems. Some of the pollution comes from the home you create, like new carpet and particle-board kitchen cabinets; some comes from what you bring in—like bedding, furniture, and dry-cleaned suits. Pollution can also result from organisms that grow inside your home—like mold, bacteria, and dust mites that crop up if you don’t control moisture or clean properly.
Causes and Effects of Polluted Indoor Air
Some effects from pollutants can manifest themselves immediately, including irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, wheezing, coughing, headaches, dizziness, nausea, loss of coordination, and fatigue. Others can show up after repeated exposure, including damage to the liver, kidney, heart and central nervous system, and even cancer. Those most vulnerable to indoor air contaminants are often children, the elderly, and people with existing health problems. Asthma, a chronic respiratory disease characterized by attacks that can be triggered by things in the air, affects about 20 million Americans, including 6.3 million children.
Asthma rates among Americans increased steadily in recent decades despite big cuts in outdoor air pollution, according to the American Lung Association (ALA). One possible culprit is bad indoor air, says Robert Moffitt of ALA’s Health House Program, which has developed guidelines for creating a healthier indoor environment. "It makes sense," he says. "You’re talking about a very limited space. It takes less pollutants to pollute a small, enclosed area." And when you consider that people spend a good deal of their time inside their homes, it’s easy to see how those contaminants can become a major health hazard.
The trend toward tighter houses for increased energy efficiency has contributed to indoor air pollution over the past 30 years. The tighter the home, the less fresh air leaking in to dilute contaminants inside. Many houses aren’t properly ventilated, causing pollutants to accumulate at unhealthy levels. Others aren’t adequately moisture-proofed and breed mold and mildew. All this can add up to what Moffitt calls the "self-composting house"—a structure rotting away from within due to dampness and chemicals.
Types of pollutants
Biological pollutants include mold, bacteria, viruses, mildew, animal dander, dust mites, pollen, and cockroaches. They can be found in bedding, pillows, carpets, cushions, furniture, damp or wet areas, and poorly maintained air conditioners, humidifiers, and dehumidifiers.
Another major group is known as volatile organic compounds (VOC’s)—chemicals that vaporize, or become a gas at normal room temperatures. VOC’s are emitted by things like paints, paint strippers, varnishes, and waxes, cleaning products, hobby products, pesticides, moth repellants, air fresheners, and dry-cleaned or chemically treated fabrics. They can also be off-gassed by items containing formaldehyde, a widely used industrial chemical found in pressed-wood sub flooring, shelves, cabinets, drawers, decorative wall coverings, and furniture. Formaldehyde may also be present in certain insulation materials and in draperies, permanent press fabrics, and coated paper products.
Other pollutants include tobacco smoke, carbon monoxide, and fuel-burning byproducts, as well as radon, asbestos, and lead, which require special remediation.
Reducing Indoor Pollutants
One way to reduce pollution in your home is to increase the flow of fresh air. This can be done with natural ventilation—via windows and doors—or through mechanical means, including outdoor-vented fans and air-handling systems that continuously refresh indoor air with conditioned outdoor air.
To control the growth of mold and other biologicals in your home, make sure there is no air condensing on the walls or in the attic. Stop moisture from seeping into your walls from the soil and minimize condensation on earth-cooled concrete floors. Keep your carpets dry. Vacuum often.
One of the best ways to keep contaminants out of your house is to leave them outside. Carefully select your household chemicals, building materials, and furnishings. Educate yourself; read the labels; ask for products that don’t emit a lot of volatile organic compounds; buy things that are easy to clean. These days, more and more home products are being made with hazardous emissions in mind, according to Moffitt. "Just be an informed consumer," he says.
It may cost a little more to have clean air in your home—the ALA estimates building a "healthy" house adds 3 to 5 percent to the price of standard construction. But you’ll probably find the extra expenses more than pay for themselves in better health for you and your family.
Credit: Renovate with Tommy Mac