Pollution isn't limited to outdoor emissions. According to this guide from 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.
When pollutants are in the gaseous state, they produce dangerous side effects. Minor ailments can include headaches and eye irritations. But the pollutants also can 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, which 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 this fact sheet from the National Cancer Institute.
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
"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
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.
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