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Since we spend about 90% of our time indoors, the quality of the air we breathe matters. More....

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- by Pamela Salois, an Eco-consultant in Brooklyn, CT and edited by Bet Zimmerman

Poor indoor air quality is among the top five environmental risks to public health, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  Levels of air pollution inside  a house can be two to five times, and sometimes more than 100 times higher than outdoor air pollution levels.  Since we spend about 90 percent of our time indoors, that’s a problem.  Some of the causes of indoor air pollution are surprising.   Fortunately, there are simple things you can do to improve air quality in your home, school or workplace.

potential sources of indoor air pollution. Photo by Bet Zimmerman.
Levels of air pollution inside a house can be two to 100 times higher than outdoor air pollution. Many common household products can impact indoor air quality. Photo by Bet Zimmerman

Toxins that can affect air quality can be divided into four categories- airborne, biological, gas or chemical. Airborne particles like pollen or dust mites are tiny.  The problem is their small size, which makes it possible for them to be drawn deeply into your lungs.  Biological toxins such as bacteria and viruses can glom onto airborne particles, increasing the likelihood of lung infections.  Gases like radon can seep through openings in building foundations.  Chemical toxins can be found in many household products.  The most well known causes of indoor air pollution are carbon monoxide, radon, second hand smoke, mold, mildew, dust mites and pet dander.  Let’s look at some lesser known sources.

It’s not surprising that formaldehyde is classified as a probable human carcinogen by the EPA.  Exposure to airborne formaldehyde can cause respiratory problems or make existing problems worse.  What is surprising is the number of products that can contain formaldehyde.  It can be found in paint, carpeting, paneling, pressboard furniture, many different types of building materials and even in personal care products.  Low-level emissions may be released into the air for years.  Be aware of this when  purchasing products for your home.  Choose carpets made of natural fibers.  Select paints with low or no “VOCs” (Volatile Organic Compounds.)  Consider the many different types of earth-friendly cabinets, countertops and flooring materials that are increasingly available.

Indoor air quality can also be impacted by cleaners, air fresheners and plastic.  Polyvinylchloride, or PVC, bearing the #3 recycling code, is considered toxic from both an environmental and human health standpoint.  It contains chemicals that carry health risks if inhaled or ingested.  Many shower curtains and toys are made from PVC.  Household cleaners in every form, from dish soap and laundry detergent to furniture polish and bathroom cleaners, may also contain hazardous chemicals.  The easiest way to reduce your exposure is by reading labels.  Avoid products that are labeled with the words “harmful,” “danger,” “caution” or “warning.”  Companies using non-toxic natural ingredients are eager to highlight this.  Air fresheners and candles are commonly made from petroleum distillates and other toxic chemicals.  Beeswax and soy candles are a better option.

Chlorine is another offender.  The terms “sodium hypochlorite” or “hypochlorite” are aliases for chlorine.  Breathing chlorine fumes can irritate the lungs.  It is also highly corrosive and can damage skin, eyes and other membranes.  Mixing it with other cleaning agents like ammonia can generate deadly fumes. 

Good ventilation is key to  healthy indoor air quality.  Consider cleaning ductwork before running heating or air conditioning systems.  Regular use, maintenance and cleaning of exhaust fans in the bathroom and over the stove will help ventilate the air and keep humidity at a healthy level.  High humidity intensifies the effects of toxins and encourages mold and mildew growth.  Run the bathroom fan for several minutes after finishing a shower to reduce humidity.   

Non-eco friendly dry cleaners typically use an effective but nasty solvent called  perchloroethylene, or “perc.”  Perc can enter the body through the respiratory system or skin; less often, it is ingested via contaminated food or water.  Like many other chlorinated hydrocarbons, perc can accumulate in the body’s fatty tissue.  It can cause nervous system, liver or kidney damage as well as several types of cancer and reproductive harm.  Take clothes brought home from the drycleaner out of the bag and air them outside for a few hours to reduce your exposure to solvent fumes.

Since pound for pound, children eat, drink and breathe more than adults, they receive proportionally more toxins found in food, water and air.  Because their immune systems are still developing, they are a greater risk. Children also play on the floor, touch any surface they can get their hands on and put lots of things in their mouths, including their fingers.  There has been an unprecedented rise in rates of childhood asthma, developmental and learning disabilities, and reproduction dysfunction.  Many people are concerned that environmental toxins are contributing to this problem.

Using less toxic products means that fewer of these products are manufactured, discharged down the drain or thrown in the trash.   Increased awareness of toxins in your environment and increased demand for nontoxic products can benefit both personal and planetary health.   

Pam Salois is an Independent, Authorized Green Irene Eco-Consultant.  See her website at
www.greenirene.com/PamWindhamCT, or contact her at Pam.WindhamCT@greenirene.com

Originally published in the Villager newspapers on July 17, 2009

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