Understanding Indoor Air Pollution

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Home Improvement

Indoor air quality can be worse than outdoor air quality due to the accumulation of harmful chemicals and other materials. This is because enclosed areas enable potential pollutants to build up more than open spaces. Indoor air pollution can be up to 10 times worse than outdoor air pollution. Even if you don’t live near a highway, farm or industrial plant, indoor air pollution can come from your home, the land it’s sitting on, and everyday items you can purchase at the store. Since people spend approximately 90 percent of their time indoors, and around 65 percent inside their homes, indoor air pollution is an important issue. Some of the side effects caused by indoor air pollution are little worse than those of the common cold, but long-term exposure can lead to a coma, lung cancer, and death. Therefore, it is important to learn more about the causes of indoor air pollution.
Indoor Air Pollution Meters

There are indoor air pollution meters on the market that claim to measure the levels of pollutants in your home. TerrEssentials’ Home Air Quality Test Kit is one of these meters, which tests for the presence of mold, fungus, bacteria, formaldehyde, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. Alternatively, professionals can do the testing for you.

What Causes Indoor Air Pollution?

The common household contains many potential sources of indoor air pollutants.

Formaldehyde, PCB, and asbestos are commonly found in households and can be harmful to health. PCB was banned from production in the U.S. in 1970 but still persists in wire coatings, sealants, paints, and wood floor finishes. Asbestos, another source of indoor air pollution, has also been banned from widespread use but still lingers in older homes, insulation materials, textured paints, and floor tiles. Indoor air pollutants can be released at high levels in short bursts, like when you use spray paint, or at lower levels over time, like chemicals leaching out of your carpet.

Formaldehyde is extensively used in the production of building materials and household items. It is commonly found in pressed wood products such as cabinets, subflooring, shelving, and furniture. Additionally, it is present in adhesives, permanent-press fabrics, and paints. Other sources of indoor air pollution include radon, environmental tobacco smoke, biological contaminants such as bacteria and mold, combustion, household products like cleaning agents and paints, and pesticides. The level of harm caused by these pollutants depends on individual sensitivity, with the elderly, young, and immunocompromised being more vulnerable. Proper ventilation helps reduce the accumulation of pollutants and their harmful effects. Energy-efficient buildings that are airtight can be particularly problematic. Although indoor air pollution can be a problem in enclosed spaces like homes, research shows that commercial aircraft ventilation systems may reduce the spread of airborne organisms by up to 63%.

Sick Building Syndrome and Other Health Effects

After Hurricane Katrina, many people were housed in government-provided trailers, which caused a range of health problems. The trailers had high levels of formaldehyde, a carcinogen, which was leaching from the composite wood and plywood panels used in the trailers. Similar occurrences happen every day due to indoor air pollution, which can cause immediate, short-lived symptoms or severe problems years later. The symptoms include sore throat, headache, persistent cough, itchy eyes and nose, chronic breathing problems, heart disease, and cancer. Secondhand smoke is responsible for a significant number of lung cancer and heart disease deaths in nonsmoking adults. Exposure to other indoor air pollutants, such as radon, formaldehyde, biological contaminants, combustion gases, and household chemicals, can cause a range of health problems, from irritations to serious illness. You can reduce indoor air pollution by learning more about these pollutants and taking steps to allergy-proof your home.

MCS, SBS, and BRIs

The world of acronyms has another addition: the two BRIs (building-related illnesses) called MCS and SBS. MCS stands for multiple chemical sensitivity, while SBS is an abbreviation for sick building syndrome. Sick building syndrome is a milder condition than MCS and usually goes away within a few hours or days upon leaving the infected building. Symptoms of SBS include headache, fatigue, and muscle pain. On the other hand, MCS is a lifelong condition, and common symptoms may include fatigue, depression, and difficulty concentrating. However, not all doctors accept MCS as a legitimate illness.

Solutions to Indoor Air Pollution

Opening the windows can improve indoor air quality.

If you suspect that your living space has indoor air pollution, there are several solutions that you can implement. If you’re not sure whether your home has a problem, ask yourself the following:

  • Do you experience any of the symptoms listed on the previous page when you’re in your home, but feel better soon after leaving?
  • Do you have many potential sources of indoor air pollution in your home?
  • Is the air in your house poorly ventilated, humid, or smelly and stuffy?

Answering “yes” to these questions doesn’t necessarily mean that you have indoor air pollution, but it’s a good indication. You can try some of the solutions for indoor air pollution listed on this page and see if you notice a difference.

One of the cheapest and most effective ways to reduce indoor air pollution is to attack the problem at its source. Some sources, such as those that contain asbestos, can simply be sealed to prevent exposure. Others, such as pesticides, you may want to eliminate. Some polluting sources, such as a gas-cooking stove or fuel-burning space heater, may not be feasible for you to remove. However, you can minimize your risk by always operating those devices according to the manufacturer’s directions and being sure to ventilate well.

Ventilation is helpful at decreasing all indoor pollutants. Most heating and cooling systems recirculate air rather than bring in fresh air, so you’ll want to open windows and doors when the weather is nice. You can also operate window or attic fans and run bathroom and kitchen fans that exhaust outdoors. You especially want to follow these steps when you’re using items with potentially harmful chemicals such as paints. However, increasing ventilation has one caveat. If you live in a place with high outdoor humidity or high concentrations of outdoor pollutants, increased ventilation may actually worsen indoor air pollution. If the outdoor air you’re pulling in is filtered to remove harmful particles, you have little to worry about. If it’s not, you may want to settle on moderate ventilation rates.

Aside from ventilation, you can minimize the biological contaminants in your home by maintaining a humidity level of 30 to 50 percent. Higher levels encourage dust mites and mold growth. Keeping carpets clean and dry, and simply maintaining a clean house, also discourage biological contaminants.

If you are concerned about the potential harm that household cleaners can cause, there are two options available to you. Firstly, you can follow the instructions on the label carefully, use the products in well-ventilated areas, and store and dispose of them safely. Secondly, you can select a product that is made with harmless ingredients. If you are unsure, always read the label: if a product does not list its ingredients or has any “warnings,” then it is probably not safe.

The sources of indoor air pollution can come from many different things, but so are the solutions. To learn more about this topic, make sure to check out the links provided on the following page.

If you have considered buying an ionizing air cleaner to eliminate indoor air pollutants, it is recommended that you do some research first. Consumer Reports magazine tested several models and found that not only did they do a poor job of cleaning the air, but they also emit relatively high levels of ozone, which can worsen asthma and cause chest pain and difficulty breathing.

For more information on this subject, be sure to check out the related articles on HowStuffWorks. Additionally, there are many great links available, including the EPA’s Indoor Air Quality page, the National Institutes of Health’s Indoor Air Pollution page, and the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission page.

Sources for this article include the American Lung Association, The Healthy House Institute, MSNBC, Consumer Reports, Environmental Health Perspectives, Treehugger, the Environment News Service, and the World Health Organization.


1. What is indoor air pollution?

Indoor air pollution refers to the presence of harmful contaminants in the air we breathe inside our homes, offices, and other enclosed spaces. These contaminants can come from a variety of sources, including tobacco smoke, household cleaning products, mold, pet dander, and outdoor pollutants that enter our homes through open windows or doors.

2. How does indoor air pollution affect our health?

Exposure to indoor air pollution can have a range of negative health effects, including respiratory problems, headaches, dizziness, fatigue, and even cancer. Children, the elderly, and people with pre-existing health conditions are particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of indoor air pollution.

3. What are some common sources of indoor air pollution?

Common sources of indoor air pollution include tobacco smoke, household cleaning products, pesticides, mold, pet dander, and outdoor pollutants that enter our homes through open windows or doors. Poorly ventilated areas, such as bathrooms and kitchens, can also contribute to indoor air pollution.

4. How can we reduce indoor air pollution?

There are a number of steps we can take to reduce indoor air pollution, including using natural cleaning products, regularly changing air filters, maintaining proper ventilation, and avoiding tobacco smoke indoors. It’s also important to identify and address any sources of mold or other contaminants in our homes.

5. What are some common symptoms of exposure to indoor air pollution?

Common symptoms of exposure to indoor air pollution include coughing, sneezing, wheezing, headaches, dizziness, fatigue, and difficulty breathing. In more severe cases, exposure to indoor air pollution can lead to chronic respiratory problems and even cancer.

6. Can indoor air pollution be worse than outdoor air pollution?

Yes, in some cases indoor air pollution can be worse than outdoor air pollution. This is because indoor spaces are often more tightly sealed than outdoor spaces, which can trap pollutants inside. Additionally, indoor air pollution can come from a variety of sources, including outdoor pollutants that enter our homes through open windows or doors.

7. What are some long-term health effects of exposure to indoor air pollution?

Exposure to indoor air pollution over a long period of time can lead to chronic respiratory problems, such as asthma and bronchitis. It can also increase the risk of developing cancer, particularly lung cancer. Children, the elderly, and people with pre-existing health conditions are particularly vulnerable to the long-term health effects of indoor air pollution.

8. How can we test for indoor air pollution?

There are a variety of methods for testing indoor air pollution, including air quality monitors and professional testing services. Home air quality monitors can be purchased online or at home improvement stores, and can help identify specific pollutants in the air. Professional testing services can provide more detailed information on indoor air quality, and can help identify sources of indoor air pollution.

9. What are some common indoor air pollutants?

Common indoor air pollutants include tobacco smoke, household cleaning products, mold, pet dander, pesticides, and outdoor pollutants that enter our homes through open windows or doors. Other sources of indoor air pollution can include gas appliances, such as stoves and heaters, and building materials that contain chemicals, such as formaldehyde.

10. How does ventilation help reduce indoor air pollution?

Ventilation helps reduce indoor air pollution by bringing in fresh outdoor air and diluting the concentration of pollutants in the air. Proper ventilation can also help remove moisture from the air, which can help prevent the growth of mold and other contaminants. In some cases, mechanical ventilation systems, such as exhaust fans and air purifiers, may be necessary to improve indoor air quality.

11. How can we prevent mold growth in our homes?

To prevent mold growth in our homes, it’s important to keep indoor humidity levels below 60%. This can be achieved by using dehumidifiers and ensuring proper ventilation in areas such as bathrooms and kitchens. It’s also important to promptly address any leaks or water damage in our homes, and to regularly clean and maintain our heating and cooling systems.

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