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Let's Talk About Indoor Pollutants

What's the link between indoor air quality and health?


indoor pollutants

Indoor pollutants like radon or mold can be hard to detect.

Jack Hollingsworth/Getty Images

Are indoor pollutants a real problem, or is this just another hippie health scare?

Unfortunately, indoor air can be far more polluted than outdoor air, according to the EPA, and air quality and health are inextricably linked. Radon, a radioactive gas often found indoors, is responsible for more lung cancer deaths -- about 20,000 people in the U.S. each year -- than any other cause after smoking. Asthma affects some 23 million people, including over six million children, and is responsible for almost two million emergency-room visits each year. These and many other serious health problems are directly attributed to indoor air quality.

It smells OK to me, so I should be fine in here.

Don’t be so sure. Radon, for example, is an odorless, invisible gas that seeps indoors from basements, concrete floors and other sources. Carbon monoxide, another silent killer, is also odorless and colorless. Mold can hide behind drywall and inside crawl spaces. Other potential indoor pollutants, like asbestos and pesticides, are similarly hard to detect by non-professionals.

How can I find out if I'm breathing indoor pollutants?

A simple home radon test kit will set you back less than $25 -- cheap, compared to the cost of lung cancer treatments. Radon test kits can be ordered online or bought at most larger hardware stores. Your home's smoke detectors should also have carbon monoxide sensors; if they don't, replace them with some that detect both smoke and carbon monoxide. Other pollutants, like mold or formaldehyde, may require the services of a professional home auditor.

Where are all these indoor pollutants coming from?

Indoor pollutants come from dozens of sources. Carbon monoxide, for example, is usually the result of heat combustion produced by furnaces, space heaters, cigarettes or auto exhaust that enters a building. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can come from paints, copier toners, carpet adhesives, disinfectants and ordinary household items like shower curtains and scented air fresheners. Asbestos is often found in the ceiling tiles, floor tiles and insulation of older buildings. And radon is a naturally occurring gas that seeps up from the ground.

Fortunately, I live and work in new buildings.

New buildings aren’t safe from indoor air pollution -- in fact, many newer buildings contain hundreds of products that off-gas high amounts of VOCs and other chemicals. New carpet and carpet adhesives, fresh paints and varnishes, new furniture and paneling systems made with particleboard, and fabric used in upholstery and drapery can all contribute to what’s often called "sick building syndrome," where occupants' illnesses can be blamed on the building itself.

Cracking a window should help, right?

Yes, if you’re one of the lucky few who work in an office with windows that open. But chances are your windows won’t open, or are closed for weeks at a time during hot or cold weather. In most cases, the three best ways to improve indoor air quality are by removing the source of any pollutants, properly ventilating the building, and filtering the building's air supply.

That sounds expensive. Is it costly to improve indoor air quality?

Not always, depending on the problem and its source. Simple measures like prohibiting engine idling near a building’s air intake vents, or just opening a window in good weather, don’t cost a thing. New buildings might just need a temporary increase in ventilation to allow new carpet and other items to off-gas high levels of VOCs and other pollutants. Asbestos removal and mold clean-up, however, can be expensive and time-consuming.

Won't an air purifier clear the air?

Some air purifiers are effective at removing pollutants like smoke, but almost none are effective at removing dangerous gases like radon and carbon monoxide. The cost and difficulty of improving indoor air quality is one reason many people are taking a serious look at green architecture, which views indoor air quality as one of the most important factors of green building design.
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