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Indoor Air Quality: The Invisible Epidemic Causing Headaches, Fatigue and Depression

December 26, 2011

Story at-a-glance

  • Indoor air quality can be up to <i>five times worse</i> than outdoor air, which can have a very detrimental impact on your health. One study identified a total of 586 different chemical pollutants in the indoor air of 52 homes along the Arizona-Mexico border.
  • Poor indoor air quality can cause or exacerbate a number of common ailments, including asthma, allergies, headaches, memory loss, fatigue and depression. Long-term health effects from exposure to toxic airborne particles include heart disease, respiratory disease, reproductive disorders, sterility and even cancer.
  • Four major sources of indoor air pollution include pressed wood products, carpets, paints, and furnishings treated with flame-retardant chemicals, such as mattresses, upholstery, drapes and curtains.
  • The most effective way to improve your indoor air quality is to control or eliminate as many sources of pollution as you can by using a high-quality air purifier. There are a wide variety of devices on the market, and the technology is constantly being upgraded. At present, air purifiers using Photo Catalytic Oxidation (PCO) seems to be the best technology available.
  • More than 14 additional common-sense strategies are included that can help you improve the air quality in your home or office.

By Dr. Mercola

Most people spend as much as 90 percent of their time indoors. 

But indoor air quality can be up to five times worse than outdoor air, which can have a very detrimental impact on your health.

For example, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), poor indoor air quality can cause or exacerbate:

Long-term effects from exposure to toxic airborne particles include heart disease, respiratory disease, reproductive disorders, sterility and even cancer.

Tips for Healthier Indoor Air

In The Daily Green, the American Lung Association offers 25 tips on how to keep the air in your home healthy. 

Here's a small sampling of them:

Don't Allow Smoking Indoors:  Each year, second hand smoke sends up to 15,000 children to the hospital.

There is no safe level of secondhand smoke; never let anyone smoke inside your home.

Don't Idle the Car in the Garage: Carbon monoxide exposure can lead to weakness, nausea, disorientation, unconsciousness and even death. Fumes from cars or lawnmowers left running in enclosed spaces can endanger your health.

Use Low-VOC Paints:  Paints release VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, for months after application. VOCs can include highly toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde and acetaldehyde.  Use low-VOC or no-VOC paints, varnishes, and waxes.

Clean Your Air Conditioner and Dehumidifier:  Standing water and high humidity encourage the growth of dust mites, mold and mildew. All of these can worsen asthma.  Use a dehumidifier or air conditioner when needed, and clean both regularly.

Beware of Dry Cleaning Chemicals:  Dry cleaning solvents can be toxic to breathe. Let dry cleaned items "air out" outdoors before bringing them inside.

Avoid Toxic Household Products: Hair and nail products, cleaning products, and art and hobby supplies can increase the levels of VOCs in your home. Some of the VOCs in these products have been linked to cancer, headaches, eye and throat irritation and worsened asthma.

To see the rest of their tips, please review the featured Daily Green article.

Do You Know What's in the Air You Breathe?

One 2009 study, in which they used gas chromatography and mass spectrometry to examine the air inside 52 ordinary homes near the Arizona-Mexico border, researchers found that indoor air was FAR more contaminated than previously demonstrated. They identified an astounding 586 chemicals, including the pesticides diazinon, chlorpyrifos and DDT.  Phthalates, endocrine-disrupting chemicals found in a variety of plastics, were also found in very high levels. Even more disturbing was the fact that they detected 120 chemicals they couldn't even identify!

For a listing of the most common indoor air pollutants and toxic particles, please see this previous article.

There's little doubt that most indoor areas have poor air quality. The question is, what to do about it? One of my recommendations used to be to move to an area known to have better air quality, as the more heavily polluted your outdoor air is, the worse it's going to be indoors.

I now believe the best thing you can do is to be proactive about cleaning the air inside your home and office, and being mindful about the chemicals you bring into and use inside your home. I also recommend paying close attention to the materials used in the construction and furnishings of your space as many building materials act as a continuous source of toxic air contaminants.

You may not have much individual control over the air outside, but these are some of the factors you DO have control over, which can help you create as health-promoting an environment as possible.

Four Major Sources of Air Contamination You DO have Control Over

Since environmental health is a concern of mine, I wanted to create the healthiest office possible for my staff, so a few years ago we built the "greenest" building we could. So green, in fact, the building received the prestigious Gold LEED certification. In addition to using air purifiers and lots of live plants, we also paid a great deal of attention to the building materials and furnishings that went into the space.

Four of the most common sources of air contamination from building materials and home furnishings include:

1. Pressed wood products—This faux wood is made of wood leftovers combined together. Pressed wood products include paneling, particle board, fiberboard and insulation. The glue that holds the wood particles in place may use urea-formaldehyde as a resin. The U.S. EPA estimates that this is the largest source of formaldehyde emissions indoors.

Formaldehyde exposure can set off watery eyes, burning eyes and throat, difficulty breathing and asthma attacks. Scientists also know that it can cause cancer in animals. The risk is greater with older pressed wood products, since newer ones are better regulated. To limit your exposure:

Use "exterior-grade" pressed wood products (lower-emitting because they contain phenol resins, not urea resins).

Use air conditioning and dehumidifiers to maintain moderate temperature and reduce humidity levels.

Increase ventilation, particularly after bringing new sources of formaldehyde into the home.

Ask about the formaldehyde content of pressed wood products, including building materials, cabinetry, and furniture before you purchase them.

Use solid wood whenever possible.

2. Chemicals in carpets—Many types of indoor carpeting off-gas VOC's and contain other toxic materials. The glue and dyes used with carpeting are also known to emit VOCs, which can be harmful to your health. Limit or eliminate exposure by carefully selecting non-toxic carpeting, such as those made of wool, or opt for non-toxic flooring like solid wood or bamboo instead.

3. Paint—While paints have gotten a lot less toxic over the past 25 years, most paints still emit harmful vapors, such as VOC's, formaldehyde and benzene, just to name a few. These types of fumes may be harmful to your brain over time, and they're released daily for about 30 days after application. Low levels can continue to leak into the air for as long as a year afterward, so you'll want to make sure you ventilate the area repeatedly.

Another danger is lead-based paint, which can be found in many homes built before 1978. Once the paint begins to peel away, it releases harmful lead particles that can be inhaled. In 1991, the U.S. government declared lead to be the greatest environmental threat to children. Even low concentrations can cause problems with your central nervous system, brain, blood cells and kidneys. It's particularly threatening for fetuses, babies and children, because of potential developmental disorders.

Fortunately, it's getting easier to find high-quality non-toxic paints, also known as "low-VOC" or "no-VOC" paint. Both large paint companies and smaller alternative brands now offer selections of such paints. For a list of distributors and manufacturers, see this link.

4. Mattresses, upholstery, drapes and curtains—These are all common sources of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs); flame retardant chemicals that have been linked to learning and memory problems, lowered sperm counts and poor thyroid functioning in rats and mice. Other animal studies have indicated that PBDEs could be carcinogenic in humans, although that has not yet been confirmed.

Your mattress may be of particular concern, as many contain not only PBDE's, but also toxic antimony, boric acid, and formaldehyde. Shopping for a safe mattress can be tricky, as manufacturers are not required to label or disclose which chemicals their mattresses contain. However, some manufacturers now offer toxin-free mattresses, such as those made of 100% wool, which is naturally fire resistant. There are also mattresses that use a Kevlar, bullet-proof type of material in lieu of chemicals for fire-proofing. These are available in most major mattress stores, and will help you to avoid some of the toxicity.

For more information and guidelines on selecting healthier alternatives, see this helpful article by Healthy Home Plans.

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 first, before using any type of air purifier. You simply must eliminate all fixable sources of the indoor air pollution, otherwise it is like trying to drive your car with your foot on the accelerator and the brake at the same time.

This is particularly true for mold. No air purifier will ever remove the source of the mold, which is typically related to a previous or ongoing intrusion of water into the living space, providing increased humidity levels that molds require.  You simply must repair this before you consider any air purifier to solve your indoor air quality issues.

Once you have eliminated the sources of indoor air pollution, there are a wide variety of devices on the market that function in a number of different ways. My recommendations for air purifiers have changed over the years, along with the changing technologies and newly emerging research. There are so many varieties of contaminants generated by today's toxic world that air purification manufacturers are in a constant race to keep up with them, so it pays to do your homework.

At present, and after much careful review and study, I believe air purifiers using Photo Catalytic Oxidation (PCO) seems to be the best technology available (see chart below).

That said, truly effective air cleaning requires a multi-pronged approach that incorporates a variety of different air cleaning processes/technologies as no one device can remove all types of pollutants. Finding ONE air purifier that does it all is like trying to find one magic vitamin that would meet all your physiological needs. Still, if you can only afford one, newer devices employing PCO technology will remove the widest spectrum of pollutants.

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.)

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

Basic Steps for Improving the Air Quality in Your Home

Aside from being mindful of the building materials and furnishings used during construction or renovation and using an air purification system, there are a number of other things you can do to take charge of your air quality and greatly reduce the amount of indoor air pollutants generated in the first place:

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