What affects indoor air quality?
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), indoor pollution levels can be two to five times greater than outdoor levels. Given that the average American spends up to 90% of his or her time inside, indoor air quality is a public health concern.
"Indoor pollutants can be grouped into three different categories: gaseous, particulate, and biological," explains Elliott Horner, PhD, principal scientist at UL Environment. And, Horner adds, each category has its own risks.
The three categories are:
When pollutants are in the gaseous state, they produce dangerous side effects. Minor ailments can include headaches and eye irritations. But the pollutants can also trigger much more serious consequences such as cancer and even death. The most worrisome gaseous pollutants include:
- Volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Building materials and other household goods emit these chemicals, such as formaldehyde. Common sources are woods, drywall, adhesives, paint, cleaning products, furniture, and even home electronics.
- Radon gas. Occurs naturally in soil, is the second-leading cause of lung cancer and is responsible for between 15,000 and 22,000 deaths a year, according to the National Cancer Institute. Learn about testing your home for radon gas.
- Carbon Monoxide Gas. A clear and odorless gas that is both naturally occurring and a byproduct of manmade combustion. Learn about how to monitor and prevent exposure to carbon monoxide gas.
Ultra-fine liquid or solid particles in the air can get deep into the lungs. They are associated with an increased risk of allergies and asthma attacks. Common particulates are:
- Dust mites.
- Animal dander.
- Diesel exhaust particles that seep in from outdoors.
- Secondhand smoke.
"Biological pollutants almost always involve dampness or water damage," Horner says. Humidity, water line breaks, and flooding are frequent sources. They can cause infections and worsen allergies and asthma, and often produce less-toxic VOCs that still are a cause for concern. Biological pollutants include:
- Bacteria — mostly occupant-related.
- Viruses — all occupant-related.
Maintain a healthy range and clear the air by reducing and controlling humidity at home with some simple tips.
Detecting a problem
You can see many particulate pollutants, such as dust, but detecting the other types requires testing.
"There are several analytical sciences to detect issues in air quality, but they are very expensive," says Horner. "However, there are some clues that the average person can pick up on, too."
Horner suggests paying attention to foul or musty odors; or eye, skin, or respiratory irritations among family members. Commercially available test kits can help you identify potential problems. If you suspect you're dealing with a bigger problem, contact an environmental consultant or your local or state health department for assistance.
Air pollution, moisture, odors, gases, dust and a host of other irritants can affect air quality indoors. Try these tactics to help freshen your home's air so you and your family can breathe easy.
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