An Unfiltered Look at Indoor and Outdoor Air Pollution
When we think of pollution, smokestacks and hazy skies are common images – but we spend the vast majority of our lives indoors, and understanding what makes up the air you breathe is vital to ensuring long-term healthy living
There is no doubt that the majority of individuals today understand that global air pollution is a serious matter. The images that we’ve all seen of billowing smoke stacks on the horizon and belching trucks on the highway have cemented indelible images into our collective minds. Many adults today grew up using products that were subsequently banned once it was determined that they harmed the Earth’s ozone layer. Luckily, significant findings over the past twenty five years have led to a much cleaner style of living among most developed nations. Car emissions are lower, fuel economy is higher, and harmful products have largely been eliminated from store shelves. The ultimate goal has been to protect the delicate natural balance that exists between man and earth. Though the focus on outdoor air pollution has been encouraging these past few decades, there simply isn’t as much of an emphasis on the impact of indoor air pollution. We will explore the types of air pollutants that are common today – both indoor and outdoor, as well as the risks and abatement methods that can help to improve the quality of the air inside a home or office building.
What are the Major Drivers of Outdoor Air Pollution Today?
Outdoor air pollution is actually a much more clear-cut issue than indoor air pollution. Why? The answer is simple – the majority of pollutants come from a small assortment of triggers. For instance, recent studies have shown that the transportation industry is in some way responsible for more than 50% of the carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide emissions in the US. And, nearly 25% of dangerous hydrocarbons that are released into the air are a direct result of the transportation industry. When we manufacture cars and trucks, harmful chemicals and substances are used that pollute the environment. Then, these same vehicles released staggering amounts of hydrocarbons into the air through the process of burning gasoline or diesel fuels. Even when cars are no longer on the road they create environmental concerns that can trigger additional air pollution. Old cars and trucks contain caustic elements that must be disposed of properly – yet rarely are.
What are the health risks associated with these airborne pollutants?
The majority of the outside air pollutants that we deal with on a daily basis are: particulate matter, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxides, carcinogenic airborne toxins and greenhouse gases. Others, like pollen and mold spores, are of concern for those who have allergies or asthma, but they are rarely linked to serious diseases or life-threatening conditions. Those with asthma are highly susceptible to any form of pollution, so care must be taken to be aware of airborne pollutant levels at all times.
- Particulate Matter, or PM, is the primary component of smog. PM is small enough to penetrate into human and animal lungs, where it can cause all kinds of respiratory concerns. Exhaust fumes from diesel trucks drives a significant amount of particulate matter in the air – and new regulations are helping to curb these emissions through a variety of methods – like urea injection systems, diesel exhaust fluid additives, and better wire mesh screens that can capture finer particulates.
- Hydrocarbons are a major contributor to ground level ozone, a component of smog that is beneficial only when situated at the upper end of the atmosphere. Ozone at ground level takes the form of an irritating gas that can impact lung capacity in nearly any individual, and may cause coughing or a choking sensation among those with compromised respiratory systems.
- Nitrogen oxides, or NOx, are also responsible for causing some of the ground level ozone that is found across the nation. NOx is an irritant that causes difficulties in breathing and can further harm individuals by contributing to respiratory infections like the flu or pneumonia. Sulfur dioxide is another pollutant that is commonly seen alongside NOx, as it is a byproduct of the burning of diesel fuel. Asthmatics and young children are especially at risk of the effects of sulfur dioxide.
- General hazardous air pollutants have been linked to a variety of serious illnesses, including various cancers and birth defects. The EPA estimates that nearly half of all cancer cases that are caused by outdoor air pollution are the result of exposure to toxins emitted by cars and trucks. Acetaldehyde, 1,3-butadiene, and benzene are three of the major culprits when it comes to vehicle-based air pollution.
How Can You Ensure That You Aren’t Exposed to Harmful Outside Air?
While there is no possible way to eliminate exposure to all harmful outside air pollutants, there are steps that you can take to minimize the effects of particulate matter, smog, ozone, hydrocarbons, and more. The following steps can help to tame the damaging nature of outside air pollutants:
- Watch the AQI: Keep tabs on the AQI, or Air Quality Index, and you’ll be one step closer to reducing your exposure to air pollution. The American Lung Association has a handy chart on their air quality information page that spells out the various levels of the AQI. You can find daily updates on the AQI for your area by checking online, in newspapers, or on television news sources. The federal government publishes this info each day at www.AIRNow.gov. When the AQI is elevated, try to stay indoors and minimize outside activities.
- Exercise at specific times of the day: While it might seem like a great way to relax after a long day at work, exercising at night can expose the lungs and respiratory system to elevated levels of particulate matter and other harmful substances. Choose an early morning workout instead to expose the body to lower amounts of caustic elements, like ozone.
- Avoid traffic, if possible: Automobile fumes are harmful, period. If you can, travel at off-peak times or modify your schedule to avoid known traffic spots. Close proximity to idling cars and big trucks can literally force extra particulate matter into your lungs. If you are caught in traffic roll up the windows and turn on the air-conditioner, using recirculating mode.
- Be prepared for international travel: If planning a trip overseas, keep in mind that the outside air pollution levels in the US pale in comparison to many of the major international destinations one might visit. Beijing, for example, often experiences pollution levels that are five to ten times higher than some of the most polluted cities in America. Reconsider travel plans to these destinations if you suffer from asthma or respiratory issues, and ensure that you bring along a protective face mask at the least.
There is no doubt that the world as a whole is making a concerted effort to minimize the amount of outside air pollution in the atmosphere. But, as developing nations begin to access newer technologies, drive more vehicles, and assert a greater reliance on modern energy systems, the potential for additional sources of air pollution is real. Understanding how to work around pollution sources is especially important for those living and working in urban areas, but it is also vital to create a strategy around managing another type of pollution – indoor air pollution.
Why is Indoor Air Pollution a Concern? With so much emphasis being placed on preserving our natural environment today, it is understandable that many individuals consider indoor air quality a non-issue. After all – when was the last time you heard a news story about interior air quality? Most news stories and the majority of the “green” movement focuses more on macro elements of the air pollution topic, wherein advice and research is delivered that helps individuals to make cleaner, greener choices in terms of cars, food choices, and more. But when you consider that the average American spends approximately 90% of their time indoors , it becomes even more important to shift some of the focus onto the need for clean, pure indoor air.
Twenty one and a half hours per day are spent indoors by the average American – so let’s take a look at some of the more common indoor air pollutants that may be silently affecting the overall health and wellness of millions of individuals.
What is Polluting Your Indoor Space?
Home or Office HVAC systems: Life before air-conditioning and forced air heat wasn’t nearly as comfortable as what we enjoy today. That said, there are some drawbacks to artificially managing the interior temperature of a home or office building. A forced air unit can blow dust mites, dust, particulates, and allergens, as well as a host of other irritants around the building. Those who use wood burning stoves are also susceptible to an invasion of airborne particulates – as well as the normal smoke and soot that is rendered as a byproduct of burning wood.
New Carpet: Though it may seem like replacing old, soiled carpet can help to sanitize an indoor space, carpet is generally produced using a variety of caustic chemicals, and they tend to emit VOC’s – or volatile organic compounds after being produced. You can smell these VOC’s after the carpet is installed, and the volatile part of the abbreviation should clue you in to the fact that these emissions are harmful.
Lumber and manufactured wood products: Similar to the concerns with new carpeting, manufactured wood products are often constructed using formaldehyde. This substance can emit harmful and carcinogenic fumes that can cause nose, eye, and throat irritation, skin rashes, fatigue, allergic reactions (sometimes severe in certain individuals), and coughing or wheezing episodes.
New Plastic Products or Electronics: From freshly-unboxed television sets to just-opened shower curtains, new plastic products can emit phthalates, which have been correlated with reproductive system concerns and hormonal abnormalities. Generally, plastics that have been created using polyvinyl chloride emit phthalates, while others can put harmful polybrominated diphenyl ethers into the air. These elements have shown to induce neurobehavioral changes during animal studies.
Paint and Related Items: While there is nothing quite as refreshing as a new coat of paint to refurbish a room, there is no denying the fact that indoor air quality becomes downright toxic when you introduce paint and some paint-related accessories to the area. Latex paints generally emit far less of the harmful fumes that are the hallmark of oil-based paints, but they can still release damaging VOCs into the air during the drying process. Spray paint, paint stripper, adhesive remover, and other paint-related products can contain methylene chloride, which has been shown to cause cancer various studies.
Indoor pollutants can also come from several external sources, such as:
- Carbon monoxide fumes from an attached garage
- Cigarette smoke – which contains over 4,000 separate chemicals
- Outdoor air pollutants that make their way inside through open windows or leaky walls
- Residual chemicals from building materials used in the construction of the home – especially noticeable in newer neighborhoods
- Cleaning products – even common household variants like bleach, ammonia-based cleaners, and spray cans
- Photocopiers and all-in-one printers can create ozone-depleting emissions
One of the most harmful indoor air pollutants is Radon gas. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Radon – along with smoking and secondhand smoke, kills thousands of Americans each year. Radon is the #1 cause of lung cancer among non-smokers, and kills more people each year than secondhand smoke. One of the most important indoor air quality management activities that every homeowners should undertake is an immediate test for radon. This is often conducted in a basement area or crawlspace, but Radon can permeate nearly any part of a house. Either purchase a home kit to test for the gas, or hire a competent Radon inspection outfit to provide an accurate diagnosis.
What are the Risks Associated with Indoor Air Pollutants?
The indoor air pollution spectrum in any given home or office can range from minor allergens and dust particulates, to toxic levels of Radon and volatile organic compounds. The risks associated with each irritant must be considered when seeking ways to economically and efficiently manage the quality of indoor air. The following list of common irritants and their respective health risks can help to provide a framework for an abatement plan:
Radon: This indoor air pollutant occupies the first spot on the list – and for good reason. It is incredibly damaging to kids and adults, alike, and causes thousands of cases of lung cancer each year in the US. The most common and pervasive health risk associated with Radon gas is the development of lung cancer. In fact, more people die each year in the US from lung cancer attributed to Radon exposure than those who acquire cancer from secondhand smoke exposure.
Pollen, dust, and dust mites: Though the risks associated with these irritants are largely not life-threatening, those with allergies or asthmatic conditions can experience coughing bouts, more frequent sneezing or wheezing, and general irritation of the sinuses. Those with asthma must take care to reside within as clean an environment as possible, so while these irritants are not as dangerous as some of the others discussed here, they are often easier and less costly to manage. Oftentimes, a simply furnace filter change or air duct cleaning is all that it takes to dramatically reduce the volume of pollen, dust, and dust mites in a home or office setting.
Volatile Organic Compounds: VOCs are emitted from a variety of products that are commonly found throughout the home. For instance, paint, solvents, building materials, and household cleaners can all release VOCs that have been proven to cause long-term harm. One reason why these compounds are so dangerous is that they have a relatively high vapor pressure at standard room temperatures, so they dissipate into the air quite easily. Long-term exposure can sinus issues, headaches, dizziness, nose bleeds, fatigue, allergic reactions, and immune-deficiency concerns.
Particulate Matter: According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 50% of premature deaths among children under 5 are due to pneumonia caused by particulate matter (soot) inhaled from household air pollution. Inefficient and old-world cooking fuels are often to blame for these deaths, which are often seen in developing nations or among the poor residents of developed countries. Women and children are at the greatest risk of particulate matter inhalation as they often spend more time indoors near cooking or heating elements. According to the WHO, more than 4.3 million individuals die each year as a result of indoor air pollution.
Who is at the Greatest Risk of Harm from Indoor Air Pollution?
While indoor air pollution is an important factor to consider whether you’re monitoring your home or office space, it is crucial that specifics subsets of society keep an extra close eye on indoor air pollution. Generally speaking, elderly individuals (those over 65 years of age), young children, women who are pregnant or may become pregnant soon, or those currently suffering from moderate to severe allergies or asthma must ensure that indoor air quality is high.
These vulnerable groups are often saddled with greater sensitivity to dust, dust mites, tobacco smoke, VOCs, and other chemical irritants, than those who fall outside of these demographic descriptors. And, young children are often unable to effectively communicate any persistent health issues and may suffer long-term damage due to the effect that indoor air pollution has on their growth and development. While these groups are at the greatest risk of harm from indoor air pollution, it is incumbent upon all age groups to ensure that indoor air quality is managed appropriately.
How Do You Ensure the Highest Quality Indoor Air?
When it comes to ensuring the absolute cleanest in indoor air, it is vital to take the following six steps:
1. Keep it out in the first place: While this seems elementary, preventing as much outside pollutant as possible from reaching the indoor living or working space is step one. Take the time to place high quality door mats at each entrance point to the home or building, as these will gather up external pollutants like pesticides, allergens, dirt, and dust, and keep them trapped where they can easily be vacuumed up or dusted off outside. A mat encourages visitors to wipe their shoes upon entering, too.
2.Vacuum frequently: Eliminating carpeted floors entirely can help to reduce dust, pet dander, and allergens in a household. But for the vast majority of individuals, carpet is the flooring style of choice in both home and office settings. If carpet is present, ensure frequent vacuuming and always use a vacuum that contains a HEPA filter system. This filtration system ensures that particulates like dust mites, pollen, and pet dander aren’t thrown back into the air. Household dust has been shown to hold significant quantities of lead, so keeping dust to a minimum is critically important. :
3.Keep humidity at appropriate levels: Indoor air humidity should sit somewhere between 30-50%, so invest in an inexpensive tool called a hygrometer to test the humidity level of your interior air and make adjustments appropriately. If it is too dry in the house one can employ a series of room humidifiers or one large, centralized unit. Always change the filters when necessary, as failure to do so can reduce the effectiveness of the humidifier and can promote mold growth – a serious concern when it comes to indoor air quality.
4.Just say no – to smoking: There is no denying the fact that cigarette and cigar smoke is incredibly harmful to those of all ages. Each time a cigarette is smoked, the smoker inhales over 4,000 unique chemicals – many of them recognizable to the average individual. For instance, did you know that cigarettes contain formaldehyde? No one in their right mind would purposefully consume formaldehyde, yet it is tucked away among thousands of other chemicals within each individual cigarette.
5. Test for Radon: Already considered the second-leading cause of lung cancer deaths in America, Radon gas is one toxic substance that, luckily, can be easily abated with the help of a professional Radon mitigation firm. Most companies will install a sub-slab, pressurized air pump system that draws the Radon gas up through a pipe and safely outside of the home or office. The cost of these systems varies widely, but the health benefits are absolutely undeniable. Radon is a killer – and living with it is simply not an option.
6. Clean with Green: The “Green Movement” has spawned all kinds of innovations and new product offerings, but the important products to replace in the home or office right now are generally those that are used in cleaning or air purification. Many household cleaners release VOCs, while the majority of plug-in air fresheners emit toxic chemicals that are not required to appear on “ingredient” labels. Try to slowly switch out all of your laundry, dish, and personal washing products with those that don’t contain volatile chemicals – it can cost a little more than using traditional products, but what kind of price tag can you place on good health?
Indoor air quality is a serious concern that must be addressed by all who value their health and the well-being of their friends and families. Far too many products on the market today are constructed using hazardous materials, and the cleaners and convenience products that we all tend to use may be contributing to poor overall indoor air quality. Keep irritants outside, filter the indoor air, minimize or eliminate the use of caustic cleaners, and ban smoking from the house or office.Indoor air quality is a serious concern that must be addressed by all who value their health and the well-being of their friends and families. Far too many products on the market today are constructed using hazardous materials, and the cleaners and convenience products that we all tend to use may be contributing to poor overall indoor air quality. Keep irritants outside, filter the indoor air, minimize or eliminate the use of caustic cleaners, and ban smoking from the house or office.
For more quality resources regarding indoor and outdoor air quality and ways to improve health and well-being through air quality management, visit one or more of the following sites: