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10 Indoor Pollutants
These are the most common household threats to the air quality in your home.
- Photo: Flickr
We spend a large part of our lives indoors yet the idea of indoor air pollution can be easy to dismiss, especially if no one in our home has health problems. The unfortunate catch is that while the effects of many indoor air pollutants can show up soon after exposure, they can also show up years later as cancers, reproductive health problems, and more.
1. Volatile organic compounds. VOCs are chemical compounds that can off-gas, or evaporate easily, in normal temperatures and pressures. Health effects vary from headaches and dizziness to increased cancer risk, depending on the individual and combination of VOCs and the level and length of exposure. We introduce VOCs into our homes through our choices in paints, cleansers, hobby supplies, furniture, cabinetry, stored fuels, dry cleaning, and more.
Anthony Bernheim, indoor air quality expert and principal of Sustainable Design Solutions for HDR Architecture, Inc. in San Francisco, CA, says that air testing in an office building found that chemicals from dry cleaning were in the indoor air and being transmitted to the building from dry-cleaned clothing brought from employees’ homes.
To reduce risks, buy low- or no-VOC products. If you do choose products with VOC emissions, read product labels and obey cautions. Dispose of old or unneeded containers during special community toxic waste collection drives or check with your local government about disposal. Bernheim suggests finding an environmental dry cleaner. As an alternative, remove dry cleaning from its plastic bag; bring it home in the car trunk, and air out clothes for a few days in a well-ventilated area before bringing them inside.
2. Ozone. “Climate change is bringing increased sunlight and warmer temperatures to some areas,” says Bernheim. “Those hot sunny days trigger the formation of ground-level ozone, an odorless gas which can cause respiratory problems.” But there is an added catch: “Open your window and the ozone moves inside. There it causes secondary reactions with emissions from household sources that are different from—and, at times—more harmful than initial concerns.”
To lessen impacts, be aware of local ozone levels if you plan to use certain products. Check the Air Quality Index that calculates levels of ozone and four other major pollutants across the country. Reduce or eliminate VOC sources in your home that may react with ozone.
3. Occupation and location pollutants. Where we work can affect the air in our homes. “Auto body repair, paint shops, industrial plants, manufacturing sites may all contain chemical pollutants that attach to the clothes that we wear,” Bernheim says. “We bring them home on our clothing, walk them into our carpets, and they then release into the indoor air.” Where we live also is a factor. “Those who live near freeways or on a street corner subject to traffic stopping and starting face the added pollutants of diesel, a greenhouse gas, as well as carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and ozone,” Bernheim says.
As a precaution, take a shower after work and/or remove work clothing and shoes before entering your home. Before opening windows, be aware of local air quality (check the Air Quality Index). If you live near a freeway, for instance, opening windows at 8 a.m. may bring in particulate matter, diesel fumes, and carbon emissions from the rush hour.
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