It’s easy to think that we’re safe from pollution indoors. After all, we don’t see smoke stacks releasing dark plumes of smoke indoors, so how bad could it be? But, sometimes the air we’re breathing in our homes or other buildings can be worse than the air outside. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), indoor air pollution is among the top five environmental health risks.
Poor indoor air quality can cause anything from headaches and fatigue to more serious diseases like mesothelioma. We can all make minor adjustments to help improve the quality of the air we’re breathing and help eliminate some of the discomfort and serious health risks contaminated air can cause.
Sources of Indoor Air Pollution
There are various sources for how our air becomes polluted, including building materials, household products, and gases that can seep in. In some cases, the effects can be realized fairly quickly, like irritation of the eyes or dizziness shortly after entering the building. But sometimes these hazards can impact the body slowly over time and result in much more serious issues years later, such as lung cancer or mesothelioma.
Many of our homes and buildings were built with some hazardous building materials or products. Asbestos, a durable mineral, was very popular in construction until its use became more strictly regulated. Despite a decline in its use, it’s still legal in the United States and can be found in numerous older buildings and houses.
Asbestos has been used in many different materials and products, including roofing shingles, insulation, cement, and caulk. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to tell an asbestos-containing material with the naked eye, and its dangerous fibers are microscopic, making it incredibly easy to be exposed without even realizing. Asbestos is technically safe until it becomes damaged, but any homeowners or building managers considering renovations should use extra caution.
Damage will cause the asbestos fibers to contaminate the air, and no level of exposure is considered safe. It can take anywhere from 20 – 50 years for the exposure’s consequences to surface. Though exposure can result in mesothelioma, a rare cancer that affects the lining of the lungs, the symptoms can often be mistaken for common ailments like the flu. Patients diagnosed with mesothelioma face a rather dire prognosis, so prevention is very important.
Lead is another material that remains a possible pollutant in our homes. Similar to asbestos, there’s really no safe level of exposure because it is extremely toxic. Lead can potentially affect every system in the human body.
Though lead-based paint was banned in 1978, it still remains an issue in many older homes. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates there are still at least four million homes today where children are being exposed to high levels of lead. Though in many cases lead is a danger from ingestion, old materials containing the toxin can be worn down and create a dangerous dust.
Like asbestos, the lead in paint isn’t an immediate threat if it’s in good shape. But when it’s on surfaces like doors and window sills that get a lot of wear-and-tear over time, exposure becomes a bigger risk. It’s important to be aware of any old lead paint in the home to avoid home improvement projects that might sand, scrape, or burn the material and release its particles into the air. Lead particles can also be tracked inside from contaminated soil.
Lead exposure can cause a multitude of health problems. Experts say exposure can even lead to permanent damage, making it especially dangerous to children during their developmental years. It can affect behavior and motor skills, lower IQ, and even cause seizures in some cases. For adults, lead exposure can cause decreased kidney function, cardiovascular problems, reproductive problems and premature birth for pregnant women.
Carbon monoxide and radon are just two examples of gases that can greatly impact indoor air quality. Both are odorless, colorless and tasteless, which makes their presence that much more dangerous.
Radon forms naturally in the environment when various radioactive elements break down in rocks, soil or groundwater. The gas can then seep into our homes and buildings through any cracks or gaps in the structure. When radon is inhaled, radioactive particles can become trapped in our lungs and over time develop into lung cancer. Radon is the number one cause of lung cancer for nonsmokers and the second overall leading cause in the United States.
Carbon monoxide is found in the fumes from fuels, including our cars, stoves, gas grills, and fireplaces. Over time, the gas can build up indoors and poison whoever breathes it in. Carbon monoxide poisoning can cause ailments from headaches and nausea to chest pain and even death before any symptoms start to show.
Ways to Improve Indoor Air Quality
It’s possible to make some simple adjustments to improve indoor air quality and help avoid exposure to these dangerous toxins. The following easy steps can help ensure you keep breathing safe, clean air at home.
Create better ventilation: Smelly or stuffy air, dirty central heating and cooling equipment and condensation on the windows can all be signs of poor ventilation. For most, our heating and cooling systems at home don’t bring in fresh air from outside. Simply by opening our windows and doors, the air can be better circulated and replaced with fresh. Bathroom and kitchen fans that exhaust outdoors can also help remove contaminants directly from the room and create a better ventilation rate.
Take precaution during home improvement: Whether you’re painting the walls or sanding down furniture, it’s important to remember the potential pollutants these activities can release into the air. Open windows and doors to allow fresh, outdoor air to help filter out the contaminants. If a project can be done outside instead of in the home, this will eliminate the risk of these pollutants lingering in the indoor air.
Use air cleaners: The EPA recommends using various air cleaning devices to filter our air. They can be anything from air purifiers and table-top systems to the more expensive entire home system that can be added to the ductwork of the main central heating and cooling system. Depending on the type of system, different air filters can work to remove particle contaminants, like dust mites, molds and bacteria, or gaseous pollutants. Most of these systems have their limitations, however, and often work best in conjunction with other methods.
Have professionals test for toxins: The best ways to reduce our health risks is to stay on top of the potential threats. All homes should be tested for radon. If high levels are present, a qualified radon mitigation contractor can put a reduction system in place to fix the problem quickly and fairly inexpensively. Since most older homes likely contain asbestos, it’s a good idea to have a qualified asbestos inspector determine where asbestos is present and if any materials containing the mineral pose a threat. The inspector can recommend next steps if it needs to be sealed or removed.
By taking these steps to improve our indoor air quality, we can greatly reduce our risk of a wide array of health problems. With cleaner air, we can all breathe easier.