Pop quiz: which is more polluted, indoor air or outdoor air? Ten times out of 10, indoor air in your house, office or apartment is going to be worse than the air outside. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency ranks indoor air pollution as one of the top five greatest risks to public health. That’s a real concern, especially when you consider that we spend 90 percent of our time indoors—even more when the weather turns colder.
“Everybody should look at their home as an environment due to the amount of time spent there and the fact that it’s the nucleus of family activities,” says Thom May, section chief for heath systems protection in the Delaware Division of Public Health.
Here are some indoor air pollutants and their sources:
1) Radon: Comes from the ground beneath your home and well water. It causes about 21,000 lung cancer deaths each year, according to the EPA.
2) Tobacco smoke: Pretty obvious where this one comes from: smoking. Tobacco smoke is the leading cause of lung cancer and a major contributor to heart disease. It is also responsible for developmental problems, lower respiratory and ear infections in children.
3) Formaldehyde: Comes from pressed wood products such as plywood, particleboard and wall paneling as well as furniture made from these products. Other sources include tobacco smoke, textiles, glues and combustion processes. Formaldehyde can cause eye, nose and throat irritation as well as severe allergic reactions. It may also cause cancer.
4) Perchloroethylene or Perc Off-gases from dry-cleaned garments: Has been designated toxic and a possible carcinogen by the EPA.
5) Mold and mildew: Come from wet or damp carpeting, building materials or poorly maintained humidity levels. Molds and mildew can aggravate allergies as well as produce mycotoxins, aka fungus.
6) Fragrances: Come from household cleaning and personal care products. Artificial fragrances are a potpourri of potentially hazardous chemicals, some of which are derived from petroleum. To protect trade secrets, manufacturers are allowed to withhold ingredients. Fragrances can cause eye, nose and throat irritation, even cancer.
Fortunately, there’s a lot you can do to decrease air pollution in your home.
1) Eliminate the offender. Removing the offending source is always the best solution. Install a radon mitigation system to bring excessive levels to within acceptable limits. Switch to fragrance-free personal care products. Make cleaning solutions from items found in the kitchen. Use cedar chips and satchels of lavender to freshen the air and repel moths.
2) Ventilate. Opening the windows for at least 15 minutes will decrease the levels of many pollutants in your home as indoor air levels are more concentrated. This is especially important when you’re engaging in activities that can generate high levels of pollutants, like painting or even cooking.
3) Clean the air. Placing HEPA filters in the rooms where you spend the most time is a good way to improve air quality. But keep in mind most are not designed to remove gas pollutants, just particles. Moreover, not all filters are created equal. The effectiveness of a HEPA filter depends on its percentage efficiency rate, the measure of how well it collects pollutants from indoor air and how much air it pulls into its filter.
4) Another air filter: the houseplant. Granted, their effectiveness in decreasing gas pollutants has only been demonstrated in the lab—NASA conducted the tests—but results are promising and what decor couldn’t benefit from the addition of a few beautiful plants? Some hearty possibilities include garden mums, spider plant, dracaena, ficus, peace lily, Boston fern, snake plant, bamboo palm and aloe vera.