Lingering, long-lasting health issues—even mild ones—might not be something you should dismiss or just try to live with. If you have a cold that just doesn’t seem to go away, allergies that act up when you get home, or frequent headaches and fatigue, you may be suffering from the effects of indoor air pollution that result from “sick building syndrome.” According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), people spend as much as 90 percent of their time inside—and health risks from air pollution may be even greater indoors than out.
Paints and lacquers, cleaning supplies, pesticides, heaters and even furniture and carpet can pollute the air in your home. Possible health effects of poor indoor air quality range from an annoying stuffy nose to lung cancer. There’s good news, though: Unlike outdoor pollution, indoor pollution is something you can control. With some simple precautions, you can significantly reduce, or even eliminate, sources of indoor air pollution in your home.
Invisible Toxins, Uninvited Guests and VOCs
Radon is a colorless, odorless, radioactive gas that’s released when uranium in the soil or rock beneath your home naturally breaks down. Radon enters the home through dirt floors, cracks in concrete walls and floors, floor drains and sumps. The EPA estimates that radon causes about 20,000 lung cancer deaths each year in the United States. Testing your home is easy and inexpensive. Kits are available at your local hardware store. If testing reveals a radon problem in your home, hire a trained contractor who will explore your mitigation options.
For more information and to get a $9.95 radon test kit coupon, go to the National Safety Council site.
Carbon Monoxide is invisible, odorless and potentially fatal at high concentrations. At lower concentrations, the gas can cause impaired vision and coordination, headaches, dizziness, confusion, nausea and flu-like symptoms that clear up after you leave the house. To prevent carbon monoxide from polluting your home, keep furnaces, water heaters and gas ranges in good working order with annual professional checkups. Install a carbon-monoxide detector near bedrooms. Never leave a car or lawn mower running in an attached garage or shed.
Biotoxins such as molds, bacteria and dust mites live in your home and can cause allergies, eye irritation, dizziness and asthma. They thrive in moist environments such as wet or damp walls; ceilings, carpets and furniture; and in poorly maintained humidifiers, dehumidifiers and air conditioners. Be sure to clean these areas and appliances frequently. To keep laundry areas and bathrooms dry, install room fans and vent clothes dryers to the outdoors. Frequent dusting and vacuuming with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter can reduce pollen and dust mites. If you’re allergic to dust mites, shield yourself by using allergen-proof mattress covers and pillowcases. You also should wash bedding in hot water (130°F) and avoid room furnishings that accumulate dust.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids, including fresh paint, new carpet, new furniture, wood adhesives, cleaning products, paint thinners, pesticides and dry-cleaning chemicals. According to the EPA, concentrations of many VOCs are up to 10 times higher indoors than outdoors. These airborne chemicals can cause eye irritation; headaches; nausea; and liver, kidney or central nervous system damage. Some VOCs are linked to cancer in humans.
Scrutinize label instructions on high-VOC products, ventilate the area of use and store carefully. Consider natural cleaning products such as lemon juice, boric acid, baking soda and vinegar, and use pump products instead of aerosols.
Pesticides used in the home—and even outdoor lawn and garden products that drift inside or are tracked in—can cause irritation to the eyes, nose and throat; increased cancer risk; and damage to the central nervous system and kidneys. Avoid the use of any chemical or synthetic pesticides by selecting disease-resistant plants and washing their leaves frequently. Keep a healthy lawn by fertilizing naturally and by watering and aerating to eliminate or dramatically reduce the need for chemical pesticides.
This Old House
Older homes have a special set of concerns when it comes to indoor air quality. They may pose health threats from lead and asbestos, which were common building materials just a few decades ago.
Lead can cause convulsions, coma and even death at higher levels and adversely affect the central nervous system, kidneys and blood cells at lower levels. If you live in a home built before 1978 and suspect lead-based paint was used, keep children’s play areas as clean as possible because lead-containing dust can be inhaled. Leave lead-based paint undisturbed if it’s in good condition; do not sand or burn off paint that may contain lead. Paint that is peeling or cracked (especially dangerous for kids because it tastes sweet) must be removed. Don’t do it yourself; hire a professional.
Long-term exposure to asbestos can cause chest and abdominal cancers and lung diseases, and induce lung cancer in smokers. It’s best to leave undamaged asbestos material alone if it’s not likely to be disturbed, but be sure to use trained professionals for remodeling or cleanup measures. Asbestos has not been widely used since the late 1980s.
Household Cleaners You Can't Live With
You can protect yourself and the environment from harmful toxins in household cleaners by reading labels. Unfortunately, claims such as “green,” “nontoxic” and “environmentally friendly” are not regulated, so it’s important to know a few ingredients to avoid.
EDTA and NTA (ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid, nitrilotriacetic acid)
Where it lurks: Phosphate substitutes that are added to detergents, liquid soaps and water softeners to improve cleaning action.
Problems: Not readily biodegradable; susepcted carcinogens. When the chemicals enter lakes or rivers, they may dissolve heavy metals trapped in underwater sediments, allowing them to re-enter the food chain.
More Benign Options: Sodium carbonate (soda ash), sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), sodium citrate (sour salt) and sodium silicate.
Where it lurks: Used in dishwasher and laundry detergents, disinfectants, mildew removers and toilet-bowl cleaners. Also labeled "sodium hypochlorite" or "hypochlorite."
Problems: Poisonous, can burn skin, produces lung- and eye-irritating fumes. In waste water, chlorine reacts with other chemicals to form chlorinated organic compounds, including dioxins, which can be toxic and carcinogenic.
More Benign Options: Sodium percarbonate, an environmentally friendly chemical that decomposes into oxygen, water and natural soda ash in water. Has strong cleaning, bleaching, stain-removing and deodorizing capabilities.
Where it lurks: Common as a solvent ingredient in kitchen and bath cleaners (especially sprays) and liquid soaps. Also labeled ethylene glycol, methoxyethanol, ethoxyethanol and butoxyethanol.
Problems: Manufactured through petrochemical processes from nonrenewable resources. Are toxic. Short-term, high-level exposure can cause serious health effects such as eye, nose, throat and lung irritation; dizziness; headache; and kidney and liver damage.
More Benign Options: Pine oil (a byproduct of paper manufacture) or citrus-based solvents such as d-limonene (created with citrus peels). Use with caution: Even natural cleaners can irritate eyes, nose and skin. Some citrus-based solvents also contain petroleum distillates; read labels carefully.
Sources: Green Seal’s Green Report, U.S. EPA