Between our homes, our workplaces, our cars, or in stores, we spend about 90% of our time indoors. A lot of concern goes into outdoor air pollution, but we need to be just as concerned about the air we breathe indoors. We need to think about the amount of pollutants per unit of air and the number of times we are exposed to the pollutants. Whatever pollutants are outdoors will make its way indoors, but at a higher concentration. Then there are the pollutants we are exposed to from the furnishings we have in our homes, the cleaning products we use, and other lifestyle habits we have fostered that add to this pollution problem. Indoor air pollution falls into several categories, one being gases (including tobacco products), microbiologicals, particles (which can be from solids or liquids), and pesticides.
Gases, such as tobacco smoke, are extremely hazardous to humans and animals and are a known to be carcinogenic. It contributes to higher rates of upper respiratory infection in children and it exacerbates asthma. Another harmful gas that has been found in homes is radon. Radon is a radioactive gas that seeps into homes from the soil. Radon can cause lung cancer. Mixing radon and tobacco together makes a potent cocktail that increases the chance of lung cancer even more.
Carbon monoxide is another harmful indoor gas that is formed form the burning of fossil fuels through heating and cooking and from cars running in garages. Carbon monoxide interferes with the blood's ability to carry oxygen, thus making this gas fatal if exposed to high doses. Nitrogen oxide is another gas that is a respiratory irritant and this is produced in the homes the same way as carbon monoxide by the burning of fossil fuels.
Then there are the organic gases that come in many household products such as paints, varnishes, cleaning solutions, cosmetics, deodorants, carpeting, and disinfectants. These gases can irritate eyes, noses, and throats, causes headaches, and coordination loss, nausea, dizziness; damage to kidney, liver, and central nervous system. These gases are also named
volatile organic compounds (
VOC's). which are gases that are emitted from solids or liquids. VOC's have been found in furnishings, office equipment such as copiers and printers, pesticides, correction fluids, aerosol sprays, moth repellents, air fresheners, stored fuels, automotive products, and building materials. One of the major building materials used for the last forty years has been polyvinyl chloride plastic or PVC.
Polyvinyl chloride plastic is used, not only in building materials, but in furnishings and electronics. Globally, PVC production totals over 30 million tons per year and since PVC production leads to the production of chlorine, PCV production accounts for a huge energy issue, as well. Chlorine production is one of the most energy-intensive processes, globally. Chlorine production also causes mercury pollution to the environment. Another major issue is that PVC is very difficult to recycle. It does not biodegrade.
The potential hazard in using PVC is the by-product it produces which is organochlorine. This by-product begins with the production of chlorine gas. Flexible vinyl products are found in many homes like roof tiles and vinyl wall coverings. The potential dangers are that it releases phthalates and it also promotes harmful mold growth. Because it is impermeable to moisture, toxic mold may grow beneath the vinyl causing severe health issues.
Not all mold growth comes from flexible vinyl. Mold falls under the category of microbiologicals. This also includes bacteria, mildew, viruses, animal dander, dust mites, and pollen from both indoor and outdoor plants. Moisture and humidity make for a nice setting for these microbiologicals room to thrive. These biologicals cause diseases and infections, exacerbate asthma, allergic reactions, and irritate eyes and respiratory tract.
The three main particles that are of the greatest concern are asbestos, lead and respirable particles. Asbestos is found in insulation, soundproofing, fireproofing, floor and ceiling tiles. Asbestos causes lung cancer called mesothelioma or to asbestosis, which is a permanent scarring of the lungs. Asbestos is found, more commonly, in schools and workplaces.
Lead was used in paint because it covered surfaces well and wore well. As of 1978, lead was removed from paint, but any home or building built prior to 1978 may still have lead paint. Lead paint dust can be breathed in and it impairs the central nervous system. Lead particles inhaled by children can interfere with their cognitive ability.
Then there are respirable particles that enter our homes principally through the combustion of stoves, fireplaces, hot water heaters, and boilers. Cleaning stirs up these particles. Car exhaust and particles from power plants also enter indoors. These fine particles increase the incidence of asthma attacks, respiratory irritation and can lead to heart problems.
Pesticides include herbicides, insecticides, and disinfectants. Although these levels are usually low, it is one more ingredient to be added to the mix of indoor pollutants that can account for our ill-health. One study indicates that 80 % of our exposure to pesticides occurs indoors.
Besides the general health impacts outlined above, there are specific diseases that have been directly correlated to indoor air pollution. One such disease is Legionnaires' disease, which first broke out in 1976 and killed 39 American Legion members at a convention. Legionnaires' disease is a pneumonia caused by breathing in Legionella bacteria. This bacterium can come from contaminated water in ventilation systems, or any other moisture-producing system.
Another specific disease is hypersensitivity pneumonitis, which is a rare lung disease caused by bacteria and mold resulting from air conditioning and humidifying systems. The symptoms of this disease are very similar to viral and bacterial pneumonia. Still another specific disease is humidifier fever with symptoms such as fever, aches, and fatigue. It may be caused by toxic byproducts of bacteria.
Then there are two well-known syndromes associated with indoor air pollution and they are "sick building syndrome" and "multiple chemical sensitivity." Sick building syndrome symptoms are fatigue, lack of concentration, nausea, and respiratory irritation, dry or itchy skin and sensitivity to odors. Multiple chemical sensitivity is more controversial. Most medical associations don't believe it exist at all, but theorists speculate that since it occurs more in women than men, it could be a dysfunction in the immunological or neurological systems brought on by being expose to chemical spills, or low-dose exposures to chemicals from soaps, cosmetics, or newspaper inks. The symptoms are headaches, fatigue, asthma, depression, rashes and muscles and joint pain.
What Can We Do to Reduce Indoor Air Pollution?
With the push for constructing "green buildings," using materials made of PCV vinyl will be the antithesis to providing a cleaner environment. Thus, phasing out PCV building materials is the way to go in order to protect human health and the health of the environment.
As individual dwellers of homes, we can use more environmentally-friendly products that can reduce our exposure to harmful chemicals. Since we know that chlorine bleach is hazardous, oxygen bleach can be a healthier alternative. Oxygen bleach is non-polluting, non-toxic, biodegradable, and made with 100% natural ingredients. Another alternative to using chlorine bleach is hydrogen peroxide, which is a natural bleach alternative that is safe to use around the house. Another natural household cleanser is lemon juice. Lemon juice can also remove stains from white clothes. For stubborn stains, making a paste of lemon juice and cream of tartar will work and it also can remove rust stains. Milk can remove ink stains on clothes and borax removes stains from clothes, as well.
Instead of using commercial air fresheners, which contains formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, simmering natural ingredients on the stove will do the trick without the chemicals. Using ingredients such as lemons, or mint, or cloves and cinnamon sticks can be a better alternative.
To remove mold or mildew, conventional products contain bleach and other corrosive chemicals such as formaldehyde, a healthy alternative is tree oil (found in health food stores). It can be mixed with water and put in a spray bottle which can be sprayed on mold and mildew.
The traditional solution to unclogging drains is to use dangerous drain cleaners, which contains lye, hydrochloric acid, and trichloroethane. These chemicals are very hazardous. Lye is very caustic and hydrochloric acid and trichloroethane can cause kidney and liver damage. A healthier alternative is to use baking soda and boiling water. This application can be followed by a dose of vinegar. If this doesn't work, using a plumber's snake will work.
Furniture polish has toxins and is highly flammable. A safer alternative is mayonnaise, a soft cloth and some elbow grease. Cool tea is also a great polisher.
Oven cleaners have very caustic chemicals and the fumes are very difficult to breathe. An alternative is to use baking soda and hot water. A paste of baking soda and water can be applied to tough stains and left overnight.
Black tea kills dust mites, which contribute to allergy suffering. Borax cleans toilets, Vinegar, water and a little liquid soap cleans windows and mirrors. Baking soda and dishwashing soap can be made as a soft scrub for tubs and sinks. There are a myriad of natural products that are available and have less health risks associated with them, but it is important to do some research on these products and always read the ingredients. Rule of thumb, if you can not pronounce the ingredient, it is a good idea to avoid using that product. Sometimes there is no choice but to use hazardous materials, therefore reading the labels and following the directions will make it safer to use. When forced to use toxic substances, proper ventilation is key to keeping indoor air pollution to a minimum.
More Facts about Indoor Air Pollution:
• Dishwashers, washing machines and showers strip chemicals from the water and emit these chemicals into the air.
• Permanent-press clothing and drapes release high levels of potentially toxic vapors.
• Wall-to-wall carpeting release a potentially toxic gas called 4-phenylclclohexene, or 4-PC. Also carpeting serves as a reservoir for other toxics such as pesticides and chemicals used for dry-clean clothing.
Potential Hazards in the Work Place:
• According to the General Accounting Office, half of the schools in the United States have some sort of indoor air pollution. This is due to poor ventilation, crowded buildings, and inadequate cleaning of filters, poor maintenance of ventilation equipment.
• Younger populations in schools generally bring in biological pollutants such as pet dander, bacteria, and viruses.
• Schools also have the potential for other pollutants such as markers, paint, adhesives, art materials, chalk dust, floor wax, and emissions from copying and duplicating machines.
• Asbestos is still found in schools as a fire retardant for pipes, boilers, wall and ceiling tiles, as well as floor tiles.
How to Reduce Our Risk:
• Do not smoke indoors
• Make sure all heating appliances are running efficiently
• Install a hood over the stove
• Repair any leaky roofs, foundations or wall to avoid biological contaminants
• Remove any carpeting that has gotten wet
• Vacuum regularly
• Ventilate your attic
• Empty drip pans under the refrigerator
• If installing new carpet, roll in outdoors to air it out
• Keep food areas clean on order to not attract roaches
• Buy limited quantities of cleaners, disinfectants, and pesticides and use with proper ventilation
• Don't idle your vehicle in your garage