INSIDE Your Home: The Ugly Invaders Which Can Make You Sick

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By Dr. Mercola

You are immersed in an ocean of air every minute of the day, whether you are running a marathon or asleep in your bedroom. Your health depends on the continuous balance of inspiration and expiration, the delicate exchange of gases between you and Earth's atmosphere.

According to a study by the California EPA, every man, woman and child exchanges between 10,000 and 70,000 liters of air every 24 hours, just to sustain life. With this kind of dependence, I don't have to tell you how important the physical and chemicals properties of your air must be. At that rate, day in and day out, even very minute levels of airborne toxins pose significant health concerns.

And yet, air quality is often overlooked, compared to concerns about what's in your food and water.

There was a time, long ago, when humans spent most of their time outside. But today, of course, this is not the case. The average person spends 90 percent of his time inside buildings, as his needs have evolved from chasing down antelope to tracking investment opportunities on the Internet.

Unfortunately, indoor air is far more polluted than outdoor air. According to the EPA, indoor air contains 2 to 5 times more contaminants—and on occasion, as much as 100 times more. As stated by WebMD , indoor air pollution is one of the most serious environmental threats to your health, yet no agency can regulate it, and few studies have been done about its effects on your health.

This report will provide you with some facts about what can be present in the air inside your home, the health dangers those contaminants pose to you and your children (and your pets), and what you can do about it.

Poor Indoor Air Quality Could be Jeopardizing Your Health

Poor air quality has been linked to both short-term and long-term health problems. The EPA warns that the following conditions can be caused or exacerbated by poor indoor air quality:

  • Asthma, allergies, and other respiratory problems
  • Headaches
  • Eye and skin irritations,
  • Sore throat, colds and flu
  • Memory loss, dizziness, fatigue and depression

Even more concerning, other health effects from highly toxic airborne particles could show up YEARS later, including heart disease, respiratory disease, reproductive disorders, sterility and even cancer.

Those particularly vulnerable to indoor pollutants include infants, elderly, and people who already suffer with heart and lung diseases, asthma, chemical sensitivities, or compromised immune systems. Making matters worse, these are often the people who typically spend the most time indoors. Like adults, children are spending more time indoors than ever before. A recent study shines new light on the severity of the indoor air pollution problem.

Indoor Air Contains More than 500 Chemicals

A shocking 2009 study, published in Environmental Health Sciences, used gas chromatography and mass spectrometry to examine the air inside 52 ordinary homes near the Arizona-Mexico border. Indoor air was found to be FAR more contaminated than previously demonstrated.

Scientists identified 586 chemicals, including the pesticides diazinon, chlorpyrifos and DDT. Phthalates were found in very high levels. Even more disturbing was the fact that they detected 120 chemicals they couldn't even identify.

So, what's in YOUR air?

The long list of common pollutants and toxic particles is summarized in the table below.

Pollutants Sources
Molds Water damage, high humidity regions, and humid areas of homes, like bathrooms and basements; most common molds are Aspergillus, Stachybotrys, and Penicillium; Aspergillus is a primary food for dust mites.
Bioaerosols (Biocontaminants such as airborne bacteria, viruses, etc.) Humans, pets, moist surfaces, humidifiers, ventilation systems, drip pans, cooling coils in air handling units (can cause Legionnaires' disease and "humidifier fever")
Combustion By-products (PAH, CO, CO2, NOx) Unvented kerosene and gas heaters, gas appliances, fireplaces, chimneys and furnaces, tobacco smoke, automobile exhaust from attached garages
Tobacco Smoke (including second-hand smoke) Cigarettes, cigars, pipes can release mixtures of over 4,000 compounds
Formaldehyde Pressed wood products (hardwood, plywood, fiberboard, etc.), urea-formaldehyde foam insulation, mattresses, clothing, nail polish, permanent press textiles, glue and adhesives, stoves, fireplaces, automobile exhaust
Arsenic Pressure-treated wood products used for decks and playground equipment are often treated with arsenic-containing pesticides
Other Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) Paints, solvents, wood preservatives, aerosol sprays, cleaners and disinfectants, copy machines/printers/faxes, carpets, moth repellents, air fresheners, dry cleaned clothes, hobby supplies
Phthalates (plasticizers) Vinyl flooring, food packaging, shower curtains, wall coverings, adhesives, detergents, personal care products, toys, PVC pipe
Pesticides Pest control poisons, garden and lawn chemicals
Asbestos Deteriorating or damaged insulation, fireproofing, or acoustical materials
Heavy Metals (lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, etc.) Paints, cars, tobacco smoke, soil and dust; huge industrial pollutants
Radon (a radioactive gas that comes from uranium) Building materials such as granite, well water, soil, outside air, smoke detectors, certain clocks and watches; radon is second leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S.
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Energy Efficient Buildings Often Have WORSE Air Quality

Inadequate ventilation is by far the largest cause of indoor air pollution, accounting for more than half of the problem, according to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Other lesser, but still significant, factors are bioaerosols, building products, contamination from outside air, and a variety of sources that have yet to be identified.

Air quality in a building is largely the result of an ongoing competition between the pollutants and the ventilation system. Other contributing factors include temperature, humidity, and microbial contamination.

Our efforts to make buildings more energy efficient and airtight have had an unexpected negative effect—increased air contamination resulting from decreased air exchange. Tightly caulked and sealed buildings without adequate ventilation systems trap pollutants inside the building.

Your Child Is Even MORE Vulnerable than You to Damage from Airborne Toxins

You may not be aware that the concentration of pollutants in air varies with its distance from the floor. Many contaminants are heavier than air, so they concentrate closer to the floor—such as heavy metals and pesticides.

Dust inside homes has been shown to collect pesticide residues.

These heavy toxic residues can also be tracked in on your shoes and on the paws of your pets, where infants and toddlers have direct contact with them for extended periods of time. There is less air mixing near the floor, even with a window open for ventilation, and this is precisely where your infant or toddler spends most of his time.

This means the air your toddler breathes is likely more toxic than yours!

Children are also more susceptible to damage by indoor air pollution due to the physiological differences between them and adults:

  • Children more often breathe through their mouths, rather than their noses, which affords less opportunity for particulates to be filtered out by nasal cilia in the upper respiratory tract. Young children are obligatory mouth breathers.
  • Children receive proportionately larger doses of inhaled toxins, due to their smaller size and higher ventilator rate.
  • Children are more active than adults, and volume of inhaled air increases with activity due to increased heart and respiratory rate. Toxins enter your child's blood faster than they enter yours.
  • Children's immune systems are less mature than adults, so they are more prone to inflammatory and allergic reactions.
  • Children have a higher cumulative risk from toxins over their life spans.

Recent studies have revealed that air pollution has more serious negative consequences for infants and children than we could have imagined. And maternal exposure to air pollution has profound impacts on the brain of a developing fetus.

Common Air Pollutants Can Damage Your Baby's Developing Brain

Prenatal exposure to airborne toxins is associated with genetic abnormalities at birth that may increase cancer risk, smaller newborn head size, lower birth weight, developmental delays, and a higher risk for childhood asthma.

A study in 2009 published in Pediatrics revealed very disturbing findings.

In New York City, 249 pregnant women were fitted with backpack air monitors during their last months of pregnancy. When their children turned 5, they were given IQ tests prior to starting school. Children whose mothers were exposed to the most air pollution before birth scored 4 to 5 points lower in IQ, which is enough to impair school performance.

The study suggests prenatal exposure to air pollution has detrimental effects on your child's developing brain, which is exactly what three recent studies have shown us about prenatal exposure to pesticides.

Clearly, this is a MAJOR health issue that must be addressed.

Now that you understand the depth and breadth of the indoor air pollution problem, the remainder of this report will focus on what you can do to remove these ugly invaders from your air supply.

Air Purification Requires a Multi-Faceted Approach

The most effective way to improve your indoor air quality is to control or eliminate as many sources of pollution as you can. The first step to take is free—open some windows. Of course, this can only take you so far, but it's an important and simple first step.

Since it is impossible to eliminate ALL air contaminants, one of the best things you can do is incorporate a high-quality air purifier.

There are countless devices on the market, which function in a number of different ways. The air purifier industry is very competitive. My recommendations for air purifiers have changed over the years, along with the changing technologies and newly emerging research. What I recommended ten years ago is very different than what I recommend today, because there are now better alternatives.

One thing that's clear is that effective air cleaning requires a multi-pronged approach that incorporates a variety of different air cleaning processes/technologies. One of the main problems in the past was that each type of purifier was good at removing some types of pollutants, but not others. There was no one-stop device that did it all.

Air pollutants fall into three main categories, each requiring a different approach:

  1. Biological particles (molds, bacteria, spores, viruses, parasites, animal dander, pollen, etc.)
  2. Non-biological particles (smoke, dust, heavy metals, radioactive isotopes, etc.)
  3. Gases (fumes from things like adhesives, petroleum products, pesticides, paint, and cleaning products; radon, carbon monoxide, etc.)

There are so many varieties of contaminants generated by today's toxic world that air purification manufacturers have been in a race to keep up with them.

Modern air purification devices work using the following four primary technologies:

Technology Types of Pollutants How It Works
Filtration Particles and biologicals Mechanical or electrostatic, these physically trap particles in a filter (HEPA is example)
Photo Catalytic Oxidation (PCO) Particles, gases, biologicals Destroys pollutants using a UV lamp and a catalyst that reacts with the UV light
Negative Ionization Particles and biologicals Disperses charged particles into the air to attract to nearby objects, or to each other, thereby settling faster
Ozone Biologicals Activated oxygen assists with the breakdown of biologicals

Finding ONE air purifier that does it all is like trying to find one magic vitamin that would meet ALL of your physiological needs. 

The Stratospheric Misunderstanding of Ozone

Ozone is a great cleaning tool and amply used in commercial industry.

There are major differences between ozone generators and ozone air purifiers, and a great deal of variation within each category. The different ozone technologies are often all presented to the public as "the same," which makes it even more confusing.

It is true that ozone in excessively high levels can cause breathing trouble, but the part that is never mentioned is that you breathe ozone every day—it's a normal part of your air supply, and a normal part of Earth's atmosphere. It is only when ozone levels are excessive that health problems can occur. After all, even water, fire, and sunlight can be harmful in excess.

Unfortunately, like many other commercial examples, ozone has gotten a bad rap from manufacturers who have used negative marketing to their advantage, jumping on the ozone-will-kill-you bandwagon in an attempt to skewer the competition.

When considering an air purifier, it's important to separate the facts from the myths and hidden agendas.

"That Air Guy" gives a great overview of what ozone is and how it's crucial to life on Earth:

"Ozone is a marvel of Nature. In the upper atmosphere ozone protects our planet from harmful ultraviolet radiation. Closer to Earth, ozone purifies and sanitizes the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat. Long used in medical therapies, ozone has shown remarkable antibacterial, anti-viral, and anti-fungal activity.

Ozone is a unique molecule that seeks out and destroys the organic molecules that form much of the indoor pollutants. Whether the pollutants are from biological or chemical sources, ozone rapidly oxidizes them by first reverting itself to O2 (oxygen) and then depositing the third oxygen atom on the offending pollutant. This process very effectively deodorizes, disinfects, and destroys many of the pathogens and fumes that poison indoor air."

Without the Earth's ozone layer, we'd all be toast. Ozone is not only safe—it's necessary!

Ozone levels up to 0.05 ppm are safe, according to the FDA. When it comes to air purifiers, as long as they limit ozone levels in your home to between 0.02 and 0.04 ppm, they offer great health benefits, without any the negative effects.

For an in-depth discussion of ozone, I recommend That Air Guy's ozone site and his air purifier informational site. If you are interested in an extensive reference of scientific articles about ozone's medical uses, refer to this list, compiled by Ed McCabe.

Basic Steps for Improving the Air Quality in Your Home

By implementing the following strategies, you will greatly reduce your indoor air pollutants, thereby reducing your family's toxic load:

  • Increase ventilation by opening a few windows every day for 5 to 10 minutes, preferably on opposite sides of the house.
  • Get some houseplants. Even NASA has found that plants markedly improve the air! Click here for the 10 best pollution-busting houseplants.
  • Take your shoes off as soon as you enter the house, and leave them by the door to prevent tracking in of toxic particles.
  • Discourage tobacco smoking in or around your home.
  • Switch to non-toxic cleaning products (such as baking soda, hydrogen peroxide and vinegar) and safer personal care products. Avoid aerosols. Look for VOC-free cleaners. Avoid commercial air fresheners and scented candles, which can degass literally thousands of different chemicals into your breathing space.
  • Don't hang dry cleaned clothing in your closet immediately. Hang them outside for a day or two. Better yet, see if there's an eco-friendly dry cleaner in your city that uses some of the newer dry cleaning technologies, such as liquid CO2.
  • Vacuum and shampoo/mop carpets, rugs, and floors regularly. Every time a person walks across the floor, a whirlwind of irritants is stirred up.
  • Upgrade your furnace filters. Today, there are more elaborate filters that trap more of the particulates. Have your furnace and air conditioning ductwork and chimney cleaned regularly.
  • Avoid storing paints, adhesives, solvents, and other harsh chemicals in your house or in an attached garage.
  • Avoid using nonstick cookware. I now carry my favorite alternative, ceramic cookware, in my store.
  • Ensure your combustion appliances are properly vented.
  • When building or remodeling, opt for safer and more eco-friendly materials. VOC-free paints are becoming easier to find.
  • Opt for sustainable hardwood flooring instead of carpet. Carpet traps a multitude of particles such as pet dander, heavy metals, and all sorts of allergens. If you choose to install carpet, look for one labeled "VOC-free" to avoid toxic outgassing.
  • Make sure your house has proper drainage and its foundation is sealed properly.
  • The same principles apply to ventilation inside your car—especially if your car is new—and chemicals from plastics, solvents, carpet and audio equipment add to the toxic mix in your car's cabin. That "new car smell" can contain up to 35 times the health limit for VOCs, "making its enjoyment akin to glue-sniffing," as this article reports.

If you are planning an outdoor activity, you might want to check the air quality forecast for the area at a website called, especially if you have respiratory challenges.