Did you know that as many as 6 out of 10 homes and buildings are actually hazardous to human health? The EPA posits that most people spend about 90 percent of their time indoors, where air pollution levels are typically two to five times higher than outdoors. The primary contributors to poor indoor air quality are furnishings and building materials, which release hundreds of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air.
Being proactive about what products and chemicals are coming into your home is a great first step toward improving your indoor air quality. Choosing greener, more natural and environmentally-friendly options when it comes to paints, furniture or cleaners can go go a long way in making your home a healthier space.
Technology can also be crucial when it comes to reducing harmful contaminants in your home. Air purifiers that use premium-grade filtration and innovative, science-based methods to keep air and surfaces clean, for example, are great ways to reduce the need for chemicals, harsh cleansers and artificial fragrances in your cleaning routine.
Here are some of the most common indoor health hazards that can negatively impact your indoor air quality – are they in your home?
If your home was built between 1920 and 1978, you may be exposed to asbestos, a heat-resistant fibrous silicate mineral that can be woven into fabrics, and is used in fire-resistant and insulating materials. Asbestos fibers can be released from damaged asbestos-containing materials such as ceiling tiles, floor tiles, pipe insulation, and many others. Exposure to asbestos may increase a person’s risk for lung disease including cancer.
PVC plastic requires large amounts of toxic additives to make it stable and usable. These additives are released during the use (and disposal) of PVC products, resulting in elevated human exposures to phthalates, lead, cadmium, tin and other toxic chemicals.
Yet another consequence of an older home: many homes built in the U.S. before 1978 contain lead paint, which causes lead poisoning in nearly 900,000 American children each year.
Long-term exposure to tobacco smoke increases your risk for lung cancer, respiratory infections, other lung problems, and possibly heart disease.
The EPA reports that “most paints give off volatile organic compounds (VOCs) — chemicals that evaporate in the air — that could lead to [indoor air quality] problems. Eye and throat or lung irritation, headaches, dizziness, and vision problems are among the immediate symptoms that some people have experienced soon after exposure to some chemicals.”
The EPA also reports that in addition to environmental tobacco smoke, “other sources of combustion products are unvented kerosene and gas space heaters, woodstoves, fireplaces, and gas stoves. The major pollutants released are carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and particles.”
Mold & mildew
The CDC defines mold as “a fungal growth that forms and spreads on various kinds of damp or decaying organic matter. Inhaling or touching mold or mold spores can cause a person who was not previously allergic to mold to become allergic to mold. For people with known allergies, molds can trigger asthma symptoms such as shortness of breath, wheezing, or cough. Irritation can also occur in non-allergenic (non-sensitized) people.”
Formaldehyde is widely used to manufacture building materials and numerous household products. Its most significant use in homes is as an adhesive resin in pressed wood products. Texas A&M reports that “persons have been known to develop allergic reactions to formaldehyde through skin contact with solutions of formaldehyde or durable-press clothing containing formaldehyde. Others have developed asthmatic reactions and skin rashes from exposure to formaldehyde.”
The EPA says sources of pesticides include products used to kill household pests (insecticides, termiticides, and disinfectants), as well as products used on lawns and gardens that drift or are tracked inside the house. Symptoms of pesticide exposure may include headache, dizziness, muscular weakness, and nausea. Chronic exposure to some pesticides can result in damage to the liver, kidneys, endocrine and nervous systems.
Many cleaning supplies or household products can irritate the eyes or the throat or cause headaches or other health problems. Some products release dangerous chemicals, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Other harmful ingredients include ammonia and bleach. Even natural fragrances such as citrus can react to produce dangerous pollutants indoors.
According to Bob Vila’s eponymous website, although you can’t see, smell or taste radon, “…this highly radioactive gas can move up through the ground and into your home through cracks and holes in the foundation. It is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the US.”
Dirty shower heads
Scientists at the University of Colorado say the slime that builds up inside a shower head is a breeding ground for bugs linked to lots of diseases. Tests found 30% of shower heads contained Mycobacterium avium, a bug linked to lung disease and one related to the germ that causes TB.
The American Lung Association reports that “chemicals used in some new carpets, carpet pads and the adhesives used to install them can harm your health. Some of these chemicals and glues are made with volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which emit odors and pollutants. New carpet installation also has been associated with wheezing and coughing in babies in their first year of life.”
Chemical emissions are at their highest when a product is brand new. Pressed wood and wood composite materials are manufactured using glues that often contain VOCs; particle-board furniture, crib mattresses, carpet, upholstery that’s been treated to be stain-resistant and new fabrics in general are usually the biggest culprits.
Growing evidence points to the fact that fragrances and other personal care products – such as deodorants and hairsprays – may worsen allergies and lung-related conditions. Your skin is your largest organ, absorbing up to 60% of what you put on it. According to The Huffington Post: “…even more shocking is the fact that 80% of the ingredients used in daily personal care products have never been tested for safety. The laws governing the cosmetics industry date back to 1938 … and haven’t shifted since.”
It’s not so much that our beloved pets are the problem; it’s their dander. Pet dander is composed of tiny, microscopic flecks of skin shed by cats, dogs, rodents, birds and other animals with fur or feathers. These bits of skin can cause reactions in people who are specifically allergic to these triggers. Additionally, proteins found in saliva, urine and feces from cats, dogs and other pets can cause allergic reactions in some people.
Per The National Institute of Health: “The Consumer Product Safety Commission, which regulates cleaning supplies, air fresheners, and laundry products, currently does not require manufacturers to disclose any ingredients on the label, including fragrances in these products. A single fragrance in a product can contain a mixture of hundreds of chemicals, some of which react with ozone in ambient air to form dangerous secondary pollutants, including formaldehyde.”