According to the EPA, our indoor environment is two to five times more toxic than our outdoor environment, and in some cases, the air measurements indoors have been found to be 100 times more polluted.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer and the World Health Organization have concluded that 80% of all cancers are attributed to environmental rather than genetic factors, including exposure to carcinogenic chemicals, many of which are found in household cleaning products.
The World Health Organization (WHO) agrees, reporting that almost 3% of the global burden of disease is due to indoor air pollution. We spend as much as 90% of our lives indoors nowadays and researchers are investigating our exposure to indoor pollutants as contributing causes to rising incidence of autism, allergies and toxin load.
Sources of Indoor Air Pollution
Inadequate ventilation is a primary cause of indoor air pollution and is why pollutants rise in homes during the winter. In highly urbanized and industrial areas, lack of air conditioning and high levels of humidity can increase concentrations of pollutants inside.
Other sources include gases from cooking and heating, chemicals from candles and household cleansers, mold and mildew and a host of toxins from building materials.
Radon is a noxious gas that arises from the soil and bedrock beneath homes and may be in building materials. It may contain radium or uranium.
Radon exposure is the second-leading cause of the development of lung cancer, contributing to 15,000-21,000 deaths each year.
Tobacco smoke contains 200 known poisons and 43 compounds proven to cause cancer. Second-hand smoke causes 3000 deaths due to lung cancer, 35,000-50,000 deaths due to cardiovascular disease, 15,000-300,000 cases of respiratory infections in infants and worsens asthma in 1 million sufferers.
Mold, mildew and viruses thrive indoors and must be treated. In the event of mold in your home, call in professionals who use green methods to take care of the problem. This is a serious problem and may even require you to move.
Cooking and Heating
Poorly ventilated or maladjusted coal, gas, kerosene, oil or wood sources of cooking and heating give off carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and many other chemicals and gases.
Carbon monoxide disrupts oxygen levels and cause many symptoms. It can worsen cardiovascular disease and high levels lead to death.
Nitrogen dioxide can irritate the eyes and respiratory tract. It also lowers resistance to infection.
The average home contains about 10 gallons of synthetic chemical products.
Indoor use of pesticides, cleansers, paints and varnishes and air fresheners (including candles and incense) distribute toxins throughout the home.
Cleansers contain ethylene-based glycol ethers and terpenes. Ethers are toxic directly and terpenes interact with ozone to create a poisonous compound.
The foam in your furniture and your carpet backing emits many harmful chemicals continuously. VOC’s are the volatile organic chemicals that are found in carpets and the glue that hold them in place. VOC’s exist in levels 2 to 5 times higher indoors than out. Volatile organic compounds are linked to cancer and heart and lung disease.
Air fresheners emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) continuously, such as nitrogen dioxide. Some contain paradicholorbenzene, a toxin commonly found in mothballs.
Formaldehyde and PCB’s are emitted from many household products such as wire coatings, adhesives, sealants and wood finishes. It is also found in many permanent-press fabrics.
Formaldehyde causes dizziness, fatigue, headaches, nausea and rashes. It also irritates mucous membranes of the eyes and respiratory tract and cause breathing difficulties. Formaldehyde impairs the nervous system.
Phthalates are an endocrine-disrupting chemical found in many plastics and cosmetics. They are linked to lowered sperm count and breast development in boys and premature sexual development in girls.
Flame retardants contain polybrominated diphenyl ethers–PBDEs. PBDEs have a variety of negative health effects, and worse, they stockpile in the body. Flame retardants are used in computer and TV casings, circuitry, mattresses and upholstery.
PDBEs are also found in treated plastics and fabrics and are released in dust particles and gases. Their levels are increasing at alarming levels in people and affect animals all over the globe. Research is still in its preliminary stages but in mice, PDBEs affect behavior, learning and memory. Rats exposed to PDBEs give birth to pups with impaired reproductive capabilities. Thyroid function is also compromised by PDBEs.
Perfluorinated acids (PFAs) are chemicals that comprise non-stick and stain-resistant coatings in many products. PFAs have been found to cause birth defects, affect the thyroid and damage the liver in lab animals. Scientists suspect PFAs may also be linked to cancer.
Asbestos still lingers in the insulation, paints and floor tiles of many homes.
Formaldehyde is found in pressed wood that is used for shelving and furniture. The largest source of formaldehyde in the home is the resinous glue that holds these wood particles together.
PVC contains dangerous phthalates.
Health Effects of Indoor Toxins
In the short term, indoor air pollution can cause irritated or dry mucous membranes in the eyes, nose, respiratory tract and throat. It may also cause dizziness, fatigue, fever, forgetfulness, headaches, irritability, lethargy and nausea.
Often, the health effects of indoor air pollution are attributed to colds and flu but they can build into asthma, hypersensitivity pneumonitis and Legionnaire’s disease.
Researchers have found that childhood diagnoses of allergies, autism, Asperger’s and Tourette’s syndrome are linked to indoor pollutants such as dust, phthalates, PVC flooring and second-hand smoke.
Other health effects arise over long-term exposure and are harder to link back to pollutants. Multiple chemical sensitivity or MCS is on the rise. Also known as environmental illness or multiple allergy syndrome, this heightened immune reaction is debilitating.
Symptoms of MCS include:
- Burning eyes
- Chronic runny nose
- Digestive problems
- Memory problems
- Muscle and joint pain
- Poor concentration
- Sensitivity to light and noise
- Sinus problems
- Sleep issues
- Sore throat
Solutions to Indoor Air Pollution
The American Lung Association recommends that you eliminate and then ventilate.
Eliminate the Source
Adjust gas stoves and other cooking and heating appliances to decrease emissions.
Clean air conditioner, air ducts and furnace filters regularly.
Buy natural cleansers or save a bundle by making your own: baking soda, citrus, essential oils and vinegar have a host of naturally antiseptic properties.
Make our own air freshener from water and essential oils or simply simmer cinnamon, cloves and/or other herbs. If you’re addicted to candles, avoid petroleum-based ones such as gel and paraffin. Go for beeswax or soy candles.
Baking soda and vinegar are also natural odor-removers.
Wash bedding frequently in very hot water.
Do your best to buy organic cotton products. Cotton is the one of the most sprayed crops in terms of pesticides.
Check out your health and beauty products at the Environmental Working Group’s Skindeep site. You can find the most and least toxin-laden cosmetics and skin-care products here and check out your favorites.
Avoid petroleum-based laundry detergents, bleach and dryer sheets. Baking soda and vinegar can provide a cheap and effective boost to detergents.
Most heating and cooling systems do not bring fresh outdoor air in. Open the windows and doors (even in the winter) to bring in fresh air.
Bathroom and kitchen exhaust fans can help reduce indoor contaminants.
Clean air conditioners, dehumidifiers and humidifiers regularly.
Maintain indoor humidity levels at 30-50%.
Opt for hardwood floors and throw rugs that you can wash.
Eat organic to reduce chemical ingestion.
Throw away any non-stick cooking pans.
If you live in a highly polluted area, use an air filter to bring in outside air.
What About Air Cleaners?
Air cleaners aren’t all that effective in removing many indoor pollutants, especially gases, and they won’t clean up particles that have settled on surfaces—only those in the air.
An air cleaner’s effectiveness depends on how well it draws pollutants and how much air it forces through the filter. Table-top air cleaners aren’t particularly effective.
Air cleaners don’t work well on aerosols and gases and they don’t remove odors.
Ionizing air cleaners have vast differences in effectiveness depending upon their manufacturing processes, and many emit high levels of ozone.
Houseplants are a great natural and effective way to remove pollutants from the home. Broad-leafed green plants work the best.
The top plants for air-cleaning are:
- Areca palm
- Reed palm
- Dwarf date palm
- Boston fern
- Janet Craig dracaena
- English ivy
- Australian sword fern
- Peace Lily
- Rubber plant
- Weeping fig