Protecting Yourself From Indoor Air Pollution

The word 'pollution' usually invokes images of smoggy city-skylines and industrial power stations, but what about the pollution we don't see?

The air we breathe inside our homes may actually contain pollutants of its own. Invisible, but no less hazardous - accounting for an estimated one-third of our nation's health bill.

The good news is that with some simple precautions, you can ensure the air in your home stays clean. Before we find out how to prevent indoor air pollution, let's take a quick look at what it is and what causes it.

Indoor air pollution is the accumulation of hazardous airborne substances within a building or structure, sometimes to toxic levels. It is mostly caused by inadequate ventilation, malfunctioning appliances, and various chemicals within the home. Indoor air pollutants can have a wide range of health effects. From headaches and fatigue, to asthma and other respiratory problems. In the most severe cases, the can even cause death.
Common indoor air pollutants:

    Radon - a byproduct of decomposing radium found in the ground beneath buildings. Radon gas seeps through cracks in walls and foundations. It's the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers.

    Carbon Monoxide - comes from fuel-burning appliances such as gas stoves and water-heaters that are not properly installed and ventilated. This gas interferes with the delivery of oxygen throughout the body.

    Dusts and Mold - an abundance of dust or mold build-up is usually due to inadequate ventilation. These types of particles can trigger wheezing and shortness of breath, and contribute to the epidemic of asthma, as well as pulmonary disease.

    Volatile Organic Compounds - compounds found in household cleaners, pesticides, paints/lacquers/varnishes, equipment, and building materials that evaporate into the air. These can cause adverse reactions and damage the central nervous system.
The Global Scale of Indoor Pollution

On a worldwide level, the human health impact is staggering. According to the World Health Organization, nearly 2 million people die every year from an illness directly attributed to their indoor environment. Half of pneumonia related deaths in young children are caused by inhalation of particle matter found indoors.

The health risks of indoor air pollution are greater for people living in the poorer developing countries of the world. It's estimated that about 3 billion people worldwide still use open fuel sources, or burn biomass to cook and heat their homes. In their homes, the concentration of hazardous particles can be 100 times more than the standards established for safe air.

This doesn't mean that indoor air pollution is of no concern for a modern residential home. The American Medical Association has estimated that over thirty percent of our national health bill may be attributable to indoor air pollution. If you're wondering about the quality of the air in your home, you are not alone. Many people are testing to see if pollutants are present, and making improvements to their homes to minimize pollutant buildup.
Making Sure Your Home Stays Free of Pollution

The biggest things you can do to make your home environment less susceptible to pollution is control it at the source, and ventilate your home adequately. You can also test your home to see if pollutants have built up to dangerous levels.

Test Your Air

If you want to know if the air quality in your home has been compromised, you can have it tested. Do-it-yourself test kits for radon and mold are commonly available and inexpensive. You can also have a sample of your home's air analyzed in a laboratory for a full range of harmful compounds. This usually costs between 60-100 dollars but is well worth the investment for the piece of mind.
Stop Pollution at the Source

Obviously, any burning of open fuel source should be done in a well ventilated area, and not inside a home. You may also want to check to ensure that home appliances are properly installed and in working order, and ensure that any duct-work and ventilation equipment associated with those appliances is installed correctly.

Changing central a/c and heating filters regularly is a best practice for keeping the air in your home healthy. Make sure that the filter is installed correctly (follow manufacturer instructions) so that polluted air does not get continually re-cycled throughout the home.

A home should be cleaned and vacuumed regularly to avoid the buildup of dust and dander. Particles in carpets and on surfaces actually become airborne when moved, extremely large amounts of this kind of particle matter in the home should be avoided.

Second-hand smoke should also be avoided at all costs. Smoking indoors effects everyone who lives there, and is probably the quickest way to pollute your home's air. Either smoke outside or in some kind of detached unit that is separate from your residence.

Ventilate Your Home

Ventilating your home is important for many reasons. Not only does it directly expel particles in the air that may be building up to unhealthy levels, but can also help regulate humidity making the air less prone to certain pollutants. Higher levels of humidity and moist air can contribute to mold problems, specifically. Buildings that are well-insulated typically have trouble ventilating and are more prone to indoor air problems.

One way to ventilate is through the opening of adjacent windows. This will allow for some level of air to enter and exit the home. You want to force older polluted air out, and draw in fresh air from outside. Use ceiling fans or box fans to assist with the air flow and you should get a good amount of air exchange, but you still may find that there are areas of the home that are hard to ventilate this way.

The other way to ventilate is through some type of mechanical ventilation system. These systems are usually permanently installed in a home or building. They consist of powerful exhaust fans that pull air from every part of the home, and push it through attic vents and back outside. Many know them as a whole house fan or whole house system. These systems can completely exchange the air in your house in less than a minute, so they're a very effective means of ventilation. Because they ventilate so well, they regulate moisture and humidity and help prevent the formation and spread of mold. Without a system like this, a building is left to rely mostly on cracks in walls and windows to get what little ventilation it can.

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