Our homes are our havens, so it’s important to keep them as clean and healthy as possible. Unfortunately, for the majority of us, the air we breathe inside is often more polluted than the air outside—which is bad news considering that most of us spend about 90 percent of our time indoors. Indoor air pollutants can cause a number of unpleasant health problems—nausea, asthma, even lung cancer—and can come from a variety of sources. Want to breathe easier? Check out these four sources of indoor air pollution, evaluate your home, then make some simple changes. (And while you’re at it, try spending a little extra time outside. Fresh air does a body good!)
The Problem: More than 70 percent of all floors in the U.S. are covered in carpet. While carpet has the benefits of being warm and cozy underfoot, this traditional method of flooring pollutes indoor air in a variety of ways. When new, carpet can emit dozens of chemicals, including suspected carcinogen styrene, 4-PC (4-phenylcyclohexene), toulene, formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Carpet’s effect on indoor air quality worsens with time. Carpet acts as a magnet for all sorts of airborne pollutants over time, attracting and trapping things such as dead skin cells, dust mites, mold, mildew and any toxins that we track into our homes off the street with our shoes.
The Solution: If your home already has carpet, you can take some easy steps to minimize its effect on your home’s indoor air quality. Remove shoes upon entering your home so that you don’t track in pollutants from outside. Vacuuming can stir up pockets of pollutants, so open the windows when you vacuum to help ventilate. HEPA vacuums and HEPA air cleaners would be a good investment if you’re unwilling to let your carpet go as they capture and filter particulates quite well.
The Problem: Conventional household cleaners contain an arsenal of chemicals that can have serious negative effects on indoor air quality—and our health. According to various studies, chemicals in everyday cleaners can trigger or worsen asthma, increase blood pressure, cause headaches, irritate the respiratory system, induce nausea and more. When we use these cleaners in our home, the chemicals become airborne and can remain suspended in the air for days after use.
The Solution: Avoiding air pollutants from conventional cleaners is easy—simply make your own cleaners using nontoxic ingredients, many of which can be found in your pantry. For a list of recipes for easy homemade cleaners, see “The Easy-Breezy, Breathing-Easy Cleaning Arsenal.”
The Problem: New furniture, often made with plywood and fiberboard, can release formaldehyde—a toxin that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently declared a carcinogen. Formaldehyde is commonly used as a resin in composite wood products and synthetic fabrics and has been linked to a number of rare cancers. Many pieces of furniture are also finished in chemical-based sealers, and upholstered furniture may contain foam seat cushion derived from petroleum products, both of which can emit VOCs into your home.
The Solution: To avoid formaldehyde-laden furniture, use Columbia Forest Product’s PureBond Fabricator Network to source formaldehyde-free furniture and cabinets. For more eco-friendly furniture, check out our Furniture resources page.
Fireplaces, Stoves and Other Heat Sources
The Problem: Fireplaces and wood-burning stoves are hotbeds of indoor air pollutants. Wood smoke contains a number of chemicals, including nitrogen oxide, formaldehyde, dioxin, benzene and toluene, and without proper chimney installation and ventilation, these chemicals can back-draft into your home. Burning wood also releases particulate matter, which can lodge in the lungs and trigger asthma attacks. Gas stoves can also emit carbon monoxide and other air pollutants.
The Solution: Have fireplaces, flues, furnaces and other heating systems inspected and maintained annually. Make certain that the doors on your wood-burning stove fit tightly and that any exhaust systems are properly vented to the outside. Install carbon-monoxide alarms as well.
Susan Melgren is the Web Editor of Mother Earth Living. Find her on Google+.