Senior citizens have their share of concerns these days, but perhaps the single most important issue they face is health care. With the baby boomer generation reaching retirement age and sweeping changes being proposed for pensions, retirement funding, and health care services, now more than ever senior citizens need to educate themselves on the unique factors affecting their health. One such consideration is indoor air quality (IAQ). Although air quality sometimes takes a back seat to other potential health hazards, experts contend that seniors should be especially concerned about the air they breathe. This article will examine five of the biggest influences on indoor air quality for seniors.
The subjects discussed below are not ranked in order of importance. Some factors will affect seniors more than others depending on the specifics of each individual situation. In fact, smoking is commonly regarded as the number one air quality issue for seniors. The health effects of tobacco smoke are of course well documented. The five concerns below are air quality issues that may be less understood by seniors and the general public. Always contact your regular health care provider if you feel that you are experiencing symptoms from poor IAQ.
One of the indoor air quality issues receiving the most press these days is mold. For instance, in 2009 tenants in a senior’s complex in Miami brought a class action suit against their building owner, alleging that mold infestations had caused major health complications. Similar court cases have appeared throughout the nation.
Mold growth in high concentrations can cause severe health effects in the elderly. Mold infestations release spores (tiny, unseen particles of mold) into the air. So-called “black mold” or “toxic mold” (the scientific name is Stachybotrys) can release into the air microscopic mycotoxins attached to spores, which can be inhaled. When the mycotoxins enter a person’s lungs they can cause several life-threatening conditions, including lung bleeding and asthma attacks. When a high concentration of non-toxic molds exists, their spores can cause flu-like symptoms and allergic reactions, with symptoms including: running nose, itchy throat, eye irritation, coughing, wheezing, headaches, sinus pressure, and fever.
Seniors are especially susceptible to the influence of mold spores. Not only does the immune system weaken as people age, but the respiratory system, including the lungs, loses strength as lung tissue atrophies. Seniors are less capable of fighting off unwanted airborne contaminants because the systems that help to prevent infections—the cough reflex, mucus lining, and antibodies—lose their strength with age.
American senior citizens are at an increased risk for asbestos exposure and asbestos-related illnesses such as mesothelioma. Asbestos was banned as a building material decades ago, but between 1930 and 1970 asbestos was everywhere, especially in large industrial workplaces. Many seniors became exposed to asbestos during their working years, in construction, shipyards, and manufacturing careers. World War II and the Vietnam War led many of today’s seniors into the military, where asbestos exposure was particularly rampant. Because of the lengthy latency period of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases, many people begin to feel the symptoms when they are into their 60s and 70s. The average age of mesothelioma patients in the U.S. is 65.
When tiny asbestos fibers are inhaled, they can enter the esophagus and lungs, clogging cells and preventing normal respiratory functions. Breathing can become harder, or impossible. Lung and throat cancer can develop. The heart either enlarges to account for the slowed efficiency of the lungs, or gives out do to the added pressure. Some treatments are available, including surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy, but there is no known cure to mesothelioma.
3. Lead paint
Like asbestos, lead-based products were commonly used as building materials before being banned in America in the 1970s. Lead was used in paint, adhesives, and other staining or coating substances. If lead-based paint stays intact and in good repair there is little risk of lead exposure. However, like all paints, lead-based paint will dry, flake, chip, peel, and crack over time. Dust and tiny paint chips can fall to the ground or become airborne. Once inhaled the lead enters the bloodstream, causing a number of serious health effects. Most people hear about the dangers of lead-based paint related to children. It is true that children under the age of 6 are particularly prone to lead poisoning, as they tend to breathe air that’s closer to the ground. Toddlers can accumulate lead dust on their fingers, which end up in their mouths. Lead exposure in children can damage the nervous system, decrease intelligence and physical ability, impair hearing, and cause behavior disorders.
Seniors can also be at risk for lead poisoning. Like their exposure to asbestos, it’s more likely that today’s seniors came into regular contact with lead-based paint in their daily lives in the early 20th century. According to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, lead poisoning in adults can cause “reproductive problems in men and women, high blood pressure, kidney and digestive problems, nerve disorders, memory and concentration problems, and muscle or joint pain.” Many seniors are already suffering from the effects of lead poisoning which they contracted in their youth.
Volatile Orgainic Compounds (VOCs) are gaseous substances in the air that evaporate from chemical liquids or solids. The list of known VOCs is long, but according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, VOCs are common byproducts of “paints and lacquers, paint strippers, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials and furnishings, office equipment such as copiers and printers, correction fluids and carbonless copy paper, graphics and craft materials including glues and adhesives, permanent markers, and photographic solutions.” The prevalence of VOCs in the air puts every age group at risk.
Senior citizens may be in more danger than other groups because of two main factors. First of all, they spend more of their time indoors than other demographics. The average American spends about 90% of his or her time indoors. When the effects of age set in, mobility becomes an issue. Older people spend even more time inside, where VOCs are at their highest concentration. Secondly, like lead paint and asbestos, many VOCs were regulated by governmental agencies in the 1970s and 1980s. Before then, gas compounds from common household products were more common and even worse for health and safety than they are nowadays. Today’s seniors are at risk of developing long-term illnesses from VOCs they were exposed to many years ago.
People young and old suffer from allergens in the air. Allergens are considered to be any form of allergic reaction-causing airborne agent, although they are commonly associated with pollen and dust. Taken alone, allergens are not nearly as dangerous as asbestos or Stachybotrys mold. However, many seniors will find treating allergies to be difficult. Antihistamines can react negatively with other prescription drugs that seniors commonly take for heart, joint, and muscle health. Seniors, because of their weaker immune systems and respiratory systems, have a harder time fighting off allergens. Natural bodily reactions, such as sneezing and coughing, may be more difficult for seniors, leading to increased irritation and risk of infection. Allergens can also trigger asthma attacks, which can be particularly fatal for the elderly.
Allergens, VOCs, lead, asbestos, and mold are all dangerous with prolonged exposure, especially for seniors. People who believe they may be at risk of inhaling potentially harmful airborne elements should seek the advice of a doctor. Additionally, many indoor air quality companies specialize in testing for and removing air contaminants. Seniors should hire indoor environmental specialists to ensure that they can breathe easy in their golden years.