By Dr. Mercola
The air you're breathing inside your home can be five times more polluted than the air outside. A combination of carpet, chemicals, air fresheners, plastics and furnishings contribute to the chemical soup you breathe indoors.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, you spend at least 10 hours each day inside your home and another eight hours at your work environment.1 That's at least 75 percent of your day spent indoors and often longer for many people.
Poor air quality has been linked to a number of different illnesses and diseases. The air you breathe inside is as important as the quality of the outdoor air in the city you live. Without too much effort, you can reduce the indoor pollution at home and contribute to better air quality at work.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the health effects you experience from indoor air pollution may be experienced immediately or several years later.2 Understanding and controlling this pollution can reduce your risks and improve your overall health.
Indoor Air Five Times Worse
According to the EPA, the indoor levels of many different pollutants can be between two and five times higher indoors, and some pollutants can be as much as 100 times greater than outdoor levels.3 Poor indoor air quality is one of the top risks to public health according to the EPA.
Contributors to the rise in poor indoor air quality include the rising cost of heating and air conditioning, as well as the chemicals used to treat your furniture, carpets and home. With better building techniques, many new homes are more airtight.
While this may have reduced your heating costs, it has also likely increased the amount of pollution remaining in your home.
Some newer homes include instruction manuals teaching the homeowner to properly ventilate the home and reduce indoor pollution.4 These airtight homes have lower utility costs but hold an increased health risk for the occupants when not ventilated correctly.
What's in the Air at Home?
The pollution in your home originates from several sources that release gasses or particles into the air. High temperature and humidity levels can increase the concentration of some air pollutants.
Combustion sources for heating, such as oil, gas, kerosene, coal or wood, or smoking tobacco products are a source of carcinogens and particulate matter, increasing the risk of acquired lung conditions or worsening asthma.
Building materials and home furnishings release gasses containing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that have both short- and long-term health effects. Concentrations of these chemicals are often up to 10 times higher indoors than they are outdoors.5
The number of products that release VOCs number in the thousands. Some of those products include:6
✓ Paints, paint strippers and solvents
✓ Wood preservatives
✓ Aerosol sprays
✓ Cleaners and disinfectants
✓ Moth repellents and air fresheners
✓ Stored fuels and car products
✓ Dry-cleaned clothing
✓ Building materials
✓ Copier and printer fluids
✓ Correction fluid
✓ Hobby supplies
✓ Wood glue
✓ Permanent markers
✓ Graphic and craft materials
✓ Pressed-wood products made with MDF board
✓ Household cleaning products
The relative importance of any one of these sources will depend upon how much pollution it releases and how hazardous that particular pollutant is to your health.
Also of significance is how old the source is and whether it is properly maintained. For instance, gas stoves and furnaces can release more carbon monoxide when they are not properly adjusted.7
Living in an apartment does not give you any significant advantage. Apartments have the same indoor challenges that single-family homes have, with building materials, furnishings and using household products. The occupants in your building are another compounding factor.
They may use products releasing significant amounts of pollutants into a shared ventilation system, exposing you to chemicals that don't originate in your unit.
In many cases, you can take action by increasing the ventilation in your unit, unblocking an air supply or removing the source of the pollution. However, in some cases only the building owner or manager can remedy the issue.
Obtain a loose leaf version of the EPA and NIOSH's Building Air Quality: A Guide for Building Owners and Facility Managers by calling (202) 512-1800 or faxing (202) 512-2250.
Health Risks Linked to Home Air Pollution
Breathing polluted air holds more risks than worsening your asthma or triggering dermatitis.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) over 3 billion people worldwide continue to use wood-burning stoves or open fire pits to heat their homes or cook. This increases the particulate matter in the home and raises the risk of lung and heart diseases.8
According to the American Lung Association some of the common contaminants of the air you breathe at home include:9
✓ Bacteria and viruses
✓ Building and paint products
✓ Carbon monoxide
✓ Cleaning supplies
✓ Household chemicals
✓ Dust mites and dust
✓ Pet dander
✓ Residential wood burning
✓ Tobacco smoke
Each of these different pollutants carries specific health risks and warnings. For instance, carbon monoxide may be released from poorly maintained appliances, stoves and furnaces. Breathing carbon monoxide can result in the following symptoms:
✓ Impaired coordination and vision
Many of these symptoms are similar to the flu or food poisoning, but they disappear after you are out of the building for a couple of hours and the carbon monoxide clears your system.10
Other health problems associated with long-term exposure to indoor air pollution include certain types of cancer, heart disease, stroke and some respiratory diseases.11 Short-term exposure can result in irritation of your eyes, nose, throat or skin, headaches, dizziness or fatigue that resolve when you leave the building.
Is the Air in Your Home Unhealthy?
If your home has carpeting, if you use cleaning solutions purchased at the grocery store, or you have furniture in your home, it's safe to assume you have some degree of indoor air pollution. The American Lung Association developed these questions to help you determine potential sources of indoor air pollution in your home.12
✓ Does anyone smoke indoors?
✓ Have you had new carpet installed, painted or remodeled recently?
✓ Can you see or smell mold?
✓ Is the humidity in your home regularly above 50 percent?
✓ Are there water leaks in your home?
✓ Are all fuel-burning appliances fully vented to the outside of your home?
✓ Do you have an attached garage where you store gas-burning vehicles, such as lawn mowers, motorcycles and cars?
✓ Do you store paints and solvents in your home or basement?
✓ Do you use air fresheners?
✓ Have you used pesticides recently?
✓ Has your home been tested for radon?
Tips to Keep Indoor Air Pollution Levels Lower
While the number of potential indoor pollutants is large, there are several things you can do to reduce the air pollution in your home and reduce your health risks.
1. Open the Windows
One of the simplest and easiest ways to reduce the pollution count in your home is to open the windows and let a little fresh air in. Because most homes have little air leakage, opening the windows for as little as 15 minutes every day can improve the quality of the air you're breathing.
Installing an attic fan is another way of bringing fresh air into the home and reducing your air conditioning costs. Install kitchen and bathroom fans that vent to the outside to remove contaminants from these rooms.13
2. Consider a Heat Recovery Ventilator (HRV)
Because most of the newer homes are more air-tight and therefore more energy efficient, air exchange with outdoor air is more difficult. Some builders are now installing HRV systems to help prevent condensation and mold growth and improve indoor air quality.14
If you can't afford to install an HRV, open your windows and run the bathroom and kitchen exhaust fans to vent your indoor air to the outside. You don't have to do this for more than 15 to 20 minutes each day and should do it summer and winter at times when the temperature outside is closest to your indoor temperature. You might lose a little in electricity costs, but the improvement to your health is worth it.
3. Decorate With Plants
Houseplants are functional decorations that brighten your space and purify the air. Greenery improves your mental and emotional health as well. Try adding one of these top 10 plants in your home or apartment to improve your air quality and reduce your stress levels.15
✓ English ivy
✓ Rubber tree
✓ Peace lily
✓ Snake plant
✓ Bamboo palm
✓ Spider plant
✓ Red-edge Dracaena
✓ Golden Pothos
4. Service Your Fuel-Burning Appliances
Poorly maintained natural gas heaters and stoves, furnaces, hot water heaters, space heaters, water softeners, and other fuel-burning appliances can leak carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide.16
5. Keep the Humidity Less Than 50 Percent Indoors
Mold grows in damp and humid environments. Use a dehumidifier and air conditioner to keep your humidity under 50 percent. Keep the units cleaned so they aren't a source of pollution.
6. Don't Smoke in the House
Ask smokers to go outside. Second-hand smoke from cigarettes, pipes and cigars contains over 200 known carcinogenic chemicals, endangering your health.
7. Don't Use Scented Candles, Room Fresheners or Hazardous Cleaning Supplies
Candles and air fresheners release VOCs into your home. You might enjoy the scent, but it's not worth the risk to your health. Instead, remove all garbage from your home as often as necessary and keep soiled laundry away from the living areas. Clean with less hazardous supplies, such as white vinegar and baking soda.17
8. Test Your Home for Radon
Radon is a colorless, odorless gas linked to lung cancer. It is trapped under your home during construction and may leak into your air system over time. Radon testing kits are a quick and cheap way to determine if you are at risk.
9. Have Your Air Ducts Cleaned and Change the Filters
The air ducts from your forced air heating and air conditioning units can be a source of pollution in your home. If there is mold growth, a buildup of dust and debris or if the ducts have become home to vermin, it's time to call a professional and have them cleaned.18 Change your furnace filters every three months or earlier if they appear to be dirty.