Many Americans are aware of the dangers of poor air quality from pollution in the outside world. Pollen counts and air quality index readings are reported alongside the temperature and humidity in daily weather forecasts. Warning labels and news stories have long alerted Americans to hazards found in tap water, consumer goods, and food products, some of the common means of ingesting potentially harmful biological and chemical compounds. However, surveys indicate that the general public does not share the same level of awareness with indoor air quality (IAQ). Although many Americans may feel as though the air they breathe when they are indoors is cleaner and safer than the air they breathe outside, research suggests that, in reality, the exact opposite is true. Generally speaking, indoor air contains much higher levels of toxins and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). Chemicals from building products, harmful levels of mold, dust mites, indoor allergens, and other indoor pollutants all contribute to poor IAQ. Polluted indoor air is becoming increasingly damaging to the health of Americans, despite their unfamiliarity with the issue.
According to the American Lung Association, “air pollution indoors can often be two to five times more concentrated than outdoor air, which can have serious health effects, particularly in those with lung disease, like asthma.” The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) goes even further, stating that in certain circumstances the air indoors can be up to 100 times more polluted than outdoor air. Air quality outdoors has several advantages over air quality in closed-door environments. Trees and other leafy plants sequester particle pollutants and convert CO2 to oxygen. Sunlight, rainfall, and wind also help to diffuse airborne pollutants. Indoors, with no natural filters and nowhere to go, poor air stagnates, exacerbating the problem. Although we often think about air pollution coming from car exhaust and industrial waste, one’s own home can be the source of several times as many toxins as those found outside, from household cleaning product fumes to carbon monoxide. The EPA claims that several hundred types of VOCs may exist in household indoor air samples.
Complicating the problem is the fact that most Americans spend 90% of their time indoors, sleeping, working, cooking, shopping, watching television, and surfing the web. When one considers how bad indoor air quality can be, combined with how much time the average American spends indoors, it’s no wonder why the EPA recently ranked indoor air quality as one of the top five environmental health concerns. Of course, children, the elderly, and people already suffering from immune system-related diseases and respiratory problems are more susceptible to the risks of poor indoor air quality. Unfortunately, healthy people can also suffer from the effects of poor IAQ. People who are not usually affected by allergies and asthma can develop breathing problems. Long-term damage can result from repeated exposure to unhealthy indoor air. Nobody, regardless of their age or fitness level, is immune from the influence of the indoor air that they breathe.
One of the many contaminants that can infiltrate a home is mold. Mold can cause flu-like symptoms, eye irritation, and poor respiratory health. When mold grows in a building—usually because of accumulated moisture from a leaky roof or unventilated room—tiny, invisible mold spores are released into the air and breathed in by the building’s inhabitants, thereby wreaking havoc on the occupants’ lung tissue. Pollen and dust particles, like mold, can lead to indoor allergies when trapped inside a room. This is no small matter. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, it is estimated that allergies and asthma strike 60 million Americans each year (one in four Americans), which totals more than the prevalence of diabetes, cancer, coronary heart disease, stroke, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s combined.
Short-term and long-term health effects from mold, dust, and allergens are just part of the problem. Volatile Organic Compounds from inside your home can have a negative impact on the health of those living there by way of IAQ. Chemically treated building materials (wood, varnish, paint, sealant, wax, etc.) as well as household chemicals (cleaning products, fuel, aerosol sprays, cosmetics, disinfectants, etc.) can release toxic fumes into the air. The VOCs present inside buildings can be ingested into the human body through the lungs or skin. The EPA’s warning on VOCs states that chemicals like butane, methyl chloride, formaldehyde, toluene, acetone, toluene, ethanol, 2-propanol, hexanal, pesticides, and fire retardants can lead to “eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches, loss of coordination, nausea; damage to liver, kidney, and central nervous system. Some organics can cause cancer in animals; some are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans.” Additionally, radon exposure can cause lung cancer, and carbon monoxide poisoning, resulting in death.
It can sometimes be difficult to determine if the air inside your home or workplace is toxic. Symptoms of “sick building syndrome” (SBS) or a “building related illness” (BRI) oftentimes overlap with other causes, such as a flu virus. To ascertain with any certainty that your indoor air is polluted and/or the cause of an illness, it is necessary to obtain the services of a professional indoor environmental consultant or indoor industrial hygienist. Tests administered by the technician can detect the presence of mold, asbestos, allergens, toxins, volatile organic compounds, and other potential pollutants. In order to restore a contaminated building to good health, remediation can be preformed to neutralize or remove hazardous material.
Only recently have efforts been made by governmental authorities, public health advocates, and media organizations to spread indoor air quality information to the general public. IAQ awareness still lags behind public knowledge of other health concerns, including outside air pollution, obesity, lung cancer, and diabetes. According to the Florida Department of Health as recently as 2004, “the majority of the population is aware of the health hazards related to outdoor pollutants, but are not aware of the risks associated with poor indoor air quality.” More specifically, results from a 1999 survey conducted by the American Lung Association indicated that 85% of Americans are unaware that poor IAQ can cause serious health effects.
A landmark study of indoor air quality, The Total Exposure Assessment Methodology (TEAM) Study, was conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency between 1979 and 1985, the results of which were published in 1987. The TEAM Study presented a new method of rating indoor air quality by focusing on samples of a person’s exhaled breath readings, blood, urine, and hair, the intention of which was to provide a more complete understanding of the total pollution burden on American citizens from all sources, including air, water, and food. Residents from four distinct areas across the United States (California, New Jersey, North Dakota, and North Carolina) were tested for the presence of toxic and carcinogenetic chemicals. Although samples from some areas contained more chemicals than others, the study showed that IAQ was a consistent factor in high toxicity levels for the average American, regardless of their regional location. Importantly, the TEAM Study suggested that indoor air quality, as opposed to outdoor air quality, has a significantly greater likelihood of affecting a person’s total carcinogen exposure. In other words, living in smog-filled Los Angeles or in rural North Dakota didn’t matter nearly as much as previously believed; Americans acquired most of their VOCs from indoors.
Unfortunately, despite increasing scientific research on VOCs and improved technology to combat the problem of poor IAQ, certain factors have prevented Americans from easily addressing this issue in their daily lives. For instance, we know that the outside air is, generally, cleaner than the air indoors. Therefore, we ought to allow for increased ventilation in homes. Letting the inside air out, and the outside air in, appears to be an obvious remedy. However, anyone who has lived in Phoenix or Fargo knows that opening up the windows is out of the question for much of the year. Additionally, many new homes are built specifically to keep outside air from entering the home. Weatherproofing products, sealants, and additional insulation materials are often added to homes to assist residents in controlling the temperature of their homes. Air-tight construction helps people save money on heating and air conditioning costs. Yet regrettably, those very savings come with a high health risk. Airborne chemicals are locked inside the comfortable—yet impenetrable—indoor climate. Unsuspecting citizens, warned for years of the pollution outdoors, mistakenly shut themselves inside potentially hazardous, air-sealed chambers of their own design.
The good news for people concerned about their indoor air quality is that there are solutions. For instance, high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters can remove harmful particles from the air, with an effective rate of 99.97%. But before either hiring a professional to remediate a property or purchasing filtering devices, homeowners and renters would be wise to avoid air quality issues before they develop. Whenever possible, homeowners ought to keep their homes well ventilated, especially basements, bathrooms, kitchens, and garages, the areas of a home where moisture and chemicals are apt to accumulate. Radon and carbon monoxide detectors can guard against some of the most lethal indoor air quality concerns. Many commercial cleaning agents that utilize harmful chemicals can be replaced with homemade solutions containing baking soda and vinegar.
Even though there are numerous cases of poor indoor air quality leading to sickness, property damage, and even death, taking the right precautions and getting help from professional IAQ experts will insure that you do not end up as one of the ever-increasing statistics associated indoor environmental hazards.