Indoor Air Quality Explained

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When we think of air pollution, we often envision dirty vehicle emissions poisoning the air we breathe or power plants and the bellowing of toxic fumes out of their towering smokestacks. Sure, outdoor air pollution causes serious health risks to our society, but if you believe outdoor air pollution is the biggest air quality risk to human health, we need to have a talk about the air inside your home, office, gym, and other indoor spaces.

In today’s technological world, we are spending more and more time inside our homes. Back in 1989, years before the indoor and digital age, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported to the United States Congress that the average American spent approximately 90% of their time indoors. By 2003 when the National Wildlife Foundation (an outdoor life advocate) studied ‘inside’ versus ‘outside’ activities, they reported that the average American child was spending only one half-hour outside each week, which was a 50% drop from the already low rates reported in 1989 EPA report!

Additionally, thanks to many weeks of winter weather – especially like this week with frigid temperatures all across the United States – much of the nation will be spending even more time inside, doing our best to stay warm! Some of us (at least here in the Northeast US) even go as far as to prepare our windows for the winter by taping plastic over the inside to prevent the cold air from coming in, ideally sealing in the warm air. We might not consider the side effects of this behavior, and some might not even know to care, but one issue that comes from sealing our windows for the winter is that we end up spending most of our days breathing the same indoor air. Without testing your air, it’s difficult to know the quality of the air in your home, or to know for sure if your home contains harmful pollutants. Indoor air pollutants can be found in concentrations 2 to 5 times higher than the concentrations of pollutants outdoors, and may include harmful chemicals, by-products from heating or cooking appliances, tobacco or fireplace smoke, pet dander, mold, and dust mites.

Indoor air quality is also influenced by the materials used to build our homes as well as many of the standard household items we have inside. When chemical elements seep into our indoor air from materials around us, our lungs absorb the particles from chemicals into the bloodstream. These chemicals are not meant for human consumption; they can come from a variety of sources – some you may have never thought of – including clothing, furniture, carpet, drapes, products containing plastic, products with treated wood, and the list goes on and on. The process of polluting the air from a product’s chemical make-up is called ‘off-gassing’. In today’s high-tech world, off-gassing is very common due to the popularity of using chemicals in manufacturing processes in order to change the properties of another material. As a scientific society, we’re still relatively new to studying and understanding what the health effects of off-gassing are despite society having used chemicals for manufacturing since before the industrial era began.

Here is a list of some of the many materials known to produce ‘off-gassing’:

  • Particle Board and Plywood: These materials use the chemical formaldehyde, which has been linked to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig’s disease. While formaldehyde does occur naturally in the body, in small amounts, there are goals to completely ban the use of formaldehyde in building products.
  • Air Fresheners: The National Resources Defense Council’s study found that of 14 different indoor air fresheners, 12 of them contained a category of chemical called phthalates, which are known to disrupt humans’ hormone levels and reproductive development. Some of these air fresheners were even labeled as “all-natural” and “unscented”. In this study, the two not found to have any detectable level of phthalates were Febreze Air Effects and Renuzit Subtle Effects.
  • Nail Polish Remover: The National Institutes of Health’s ‘Tox Town’ also studies toxic indoor chemicals. They found that the acetone used in nail polish remover, along with other types of solvents, can not only cause irritation in the nose, throat, lungs and eyes – they can also cause damage to the skin, low blood pressure, abdominal pain, and, in rare cases, seizures, respiratory distress, unconsciousness and even death.
  • Flame Retardants: If you purchased furniture prior to 2006, it most likely contained flame-retardants labeled as PDBEs, or Polybrominated diphenyl ethers. While acute amounts of PDBEs have not shown to be immediately harmful, long term exposure is known to cause reproductive and neurological damage in small children. It can be found in foam stuffing for beds and stuffed playthings for children, and is even used in some electronic devices.
  • Household cleaners: The cleaning compound manufacturing industry continues to grow, and with more and more products on the shelves, testing all of the products for safety is a growing concern. The variety of types of cleaners continues to grow as well, and while some tout an ‘all-natural’ label, the types of chemicals may be damaging to your indoor air quality, especially if you’re using a variety of products around your home. Thanks to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, we have the Household Products Database, an impressively complete list if indoor pollutants. You can find out about the potential dangers of things in your home with the database of household products from the NIH. Also, saferproducts.gov is an additional resource for you to use.

In the developing world, some 3 billion people still use indoor open fires and simple stoves using biomass fuels. Burning biomass fuels (the most popular being wood, others may include plant-based materials like corn, bamboo, hemp or sugarcane) is known to be a major source of indoor air pollution. In fact, according to one study conducted in China, burning biomass fuels directly contributed to an increase in premature deaths. Finding safer ways to cook indoors for those in the developing world will have a large impact on the air quality for almost half of our world’s population.

In addition to developments in technology to avoid the hazards of burning biomass fuels, it’s also important for developers, facility managers, and architects who will be designing the homes and buildings of our future to learn to use materials that will not cause harm to our indoor air quality.

Do you suffer from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)? What about Asthma? Multiple Chemical Sensitivity? If you suffer from any of these three conditions, your indoor air quality will have an even larger impact on your quality of life, as we’ve mentioned in our blog.

Austin Air’s line of medical-grade air purifiers have been used in clinical trials and have been proven to reduce indoor environmental triggers for asthma and COPD sufferers.