Indoor Air Pollution

Indoor Air Quality

Story at-a-glance -

  • Poor air quality may lead to respiratory and heart conditions, decreased cognitive function and high blood pressure
  • Air pollution originates from many sources in your home, ranging from furniture and paint, to cooking fish and using air fresheners
  • Using air filters and shower filters, removing air fresheners and scented candles, opening your windows and decorating with plants are just some of the ways you can improve the air quality at work and at home

By Dr. Mercola

Your life depends on the air you breathe. Your body is so dependent on oxygen, you can go only three minutes without air. The quality of air you breathe affects your respiratory system and your overall health.

From several sociological studies, the amount of time the average person living in the U.S. spends inside has remained stable for a few decades.1 The data indicates that people who are employed in the U.S. spend 2 percent of their time outside, 6 percent in transit and 92 percent of their time indoors.

This means your indoor air quality is more important to your long-term health than the air you breathe outside. Interestingly, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states the levels of indoor air pollution can be between two and five times higher inside than they are outside.2

Some indoor pollutants can be as much as 100 times higher than outdoor levels. These differences are related to the type of pollution and the relative lack of air exchange in new energy efficient homes. According to the EPA, poor indoor air quality is one of the top risks to public health.3

What's in the Air You Breathe?

The majority of air pollution is made of particulate matter, most measuring diameters not visible to the naked eye. Gases, droplets, particles and ground-level ozone comprise air pollution, both indoors and outdoors.4

Particulate matter, also called particle pollution, is a mixture of solid and liquid particles suspended in the air. The mixture may contain inorganic and organic materials, such as:5





Liquid droplets





The EPA believes the size of the particle has a direct link to the potential for health risks. Particles 10 micrometers in diameter or smaller can be inhaled, pass through the throat and nose and enter your lungs.

These particles may then trigger respiratory problems, worsen asthma, or may be broken down to pass through your lungs and into your blood where they can damage your heart and other organs.6

Many underestimate the amount of indoor pollution they breathe each day. Even small amounts of particulate pollution have an impact on your health. In fact, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), there is no threshold identified in which no damage to your health is observed.7

Sources of Pollution at Home and at Work

Indoor pollution may come from several different sources, including furniture, cabinetry and pollution drawn inside through your ventilation system. High temperatures and increased humidity can concentrate some pollutants inside.

Materials used to construct the building you spend your time in, and the furnishings you use in the office and at home may release gasses containing volatile organic compounds (VOCs), having both short- and long-term health effects.

The number of different housing products that release VOCs number in the thousands and include:8

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


Sometimes the pollution in the air comes from an unexpected source. Korea's Ministry of Environment released a report that frying mackerel without proper ventilation was the worst cause of indoor air pollution,9 capable of creating 2,400 micrograms of fine dust particles.10 

This amount is several times higher than pollution rated by meteorologists as "very bad." Studies also indicate frying mackerel releases VOCs.11

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Monitoring and Tracking Indoor Air Pollution

The advent of energy efficient homes in the 1980s gave rise to "sick building syndrome," a term coined to describe a common array of illnesses people suffer from working and living in poorly ventilated buildings. Today, architects and builders spend more time and money ensuring proper ventilation.

Some companies use carbon monoxide sensors tied to their ventilation systems. When the amount of carbon monoxide rises too high, the ventilation systems start running. Other companies also use sensors to monitor levels of VOCs.12

You have options for monitoring your air quality at home as well. Radon detectors are available for installation in your basement to monitor and alert you when high levels of cancer-causing radon are seeping into your basement.

Carbon monoxide monitors are inexpensive and will alert you to high levels of carbon monoxide in your home. New technology is also available to monitor fine particulate matter in your home, track trends and even deliver the information straight to your mobile phone.

A science teacher in Pennsylvania was testing such a product in his classroom when he detected spikes in particulate matter that corresponded to a generator on the school rooftop.13 By recognizing the danger and alerting the school, the generator was removed.

Effects of Air Pollution on Your Health

The effects of indoor air pollution on your health may be experienced immediately, or even years later. Several factors weigh into the severity of your reaction, including your age and pre-existing medical conditions.

People who are most susceptible to the effects of indoor and outdoor air pollution include those who have or are:14

Coronary artery disease

Children younger than 14


Pregnant women

Congestive heart failure


Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

Athletes who vigorously exercise

After a single exposure you may experience:15

Worsening asthma

Itchy, watery eyes




Scratchy throat

Runny nose

Many of these reactions appear similar to a cold or allergic reaction. Once the pollutant has been removed or you leave the environment, your physical symptoms usually subside rather quickly. Long-term or chronic health conditions, on the other hand, do not readily resolve simply by removing yourself from an environment filled with indoor air pollution. These conditions include:16,17

Accelerated aging of your lungs

Loss of lung capacity

Decreased lung function




Lung cancer

Shortened life span

High blood pressure18


Heart attack19


Hospitalization for diabetes

Decreased cognitive function, or ability to make better decisions and be more productive20


Several of the long-term effects of exposure to poor indoor air quality are just being discovered through intensive research delving into the problems associated with exposure to particulate matter. The links to increased hospitalizations, high blood pressure and decrease in cognitive skills are newly discovered challenges facing those who consistently breathe poor air quality.

Can You Make a Difference?

The good news is that you can make a significant difference in the air quality both at home and at work, no matter the age of the building. According to research led by scientists from the University of Illinois, improvements to older buildings, producing better air quality, resulted in fewer reports of headaches and respiratory problems, and less psychological stress.21

Here are several changes you can make to your own home, or suggest be made to your employer's building. Most are very cost-effective in the short run and may help significantly reduce your healthcare costs in the long run. You may want to discuss with your employer their potential return on investment from changes with possible increased productivity and reduced insurance costs.

Monitor the air quality

While there is no safe threshold for particulate matter and air pollution, monitoring the levels in your home and work place may help identify contaminants and may give you an indication of the effect your changes make on indoor air quality.

Filter your air

Commercially purchased air filters may change measurements of health, include lowering the amount of C-reactive protein and other measurements of inflammation and blood vessel function.22 Not all filters work with the same efficiency to remove pollutants from your home, and no one filter can remove all pollutants. See this article for an explanation of the different types of air filters to meet your specific needs.

Filter your water

You may already filter your drinking water, but do you filter the water from your shower? President Obama's Cancer Panel recommends you use filters for your drinking water and shower to filter chlorine.

During a 10-minute shower you can absorb 100 times more chlorine than you would drinking 1 gallon of water. Chlorine becomes airborne during a shower, combined with high humidity levels in the bathroom, increases the amount of chlorine you inhale.

Shop for a filter with NSF/ANSI 177: Shower Filtration Systems-Aesthetic Effects. These filters are tested by a third party to effectively remove chlorine.23,24

Decorate with plants

Houseplants are functional and decorative. They brighten your space and purify your air. Research also demonstrates that greenery in your environment improves your mental and emotional health. These are the top 10 plants to improve air quality:25 aloe, English ivy, rubber tree, peace lily, snake plant, bamboo palm, philodendron, spider plant, red-edge dracaena, and golden pothos.

Remove harsh cleaning products and scented chemicals

Most over-the-counter and grocery store cleaning products contain chemicals that contribute to poor indoor air quality. Air fresheners and scented candles can contain VOCs that pollute the air in your home. The American Lung Association (ALA) recommends reducing the amount of VOCs in your home by reading labels and purchasing products low in chemicals. Soap and water, or vinegar and baking soda can serve as inexpensive alternatives.26

Open the windows

One of the easiest ways to reduce the pollutants in your home is to open the windows. Because most newer homes are energy efficient and have little leakage, even opening a window 15 minutes a day can improve the quality of the air you breathe.

Service your appliances

A poorly maintained furnace, space heater, hot water heater, water softener, natural gas heater or stove and other fuel-burning appliances may leak carbon dioxide or nitrogen dioxide. Have your appliances serviced per the manufacturer's recommendations to reduce potential indoor air pollution.27

+ Sources and References