Indoor Air Quality In Our Homes

Posted by mpolkabla On August - 12 - 2012

If you are like most people, you certainly want to take good care of your health and the health of your family…

In fact, you probably make personal choices relative to your health every day, by eating healthy foods, getting enough exercise, and even visiting the doctor regularly for checkups.   Most of us also care about our environment, want to live in a “safe” community, and try our very best to protect ourselves and our families from accidents and illness.  But is the environment in your home an acceptable and environmentally healthy place to be?  In fact, some very serious health problems for you and your children may actually start in your home.

Is the air quality in your home healthy?

Here’s an interesting fact…  According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), when time at work and home are combined, people in the United States spend an average of about 85-90 percent of their time indoors!  And did you also know (according to the EPA) that the average air quality is often 2 to 100 times more polluted indoors than it is outdoors…  even inside our own homes?

Allergies, asthma, and reactions to even low levels of indoor chemicals are just a few of the health problems that may be caused or made worse by the air you breathe in your own home.  As I discussed in my previous article last month in the Cedar Street Times “Controlling Mold and Moisture in our Buildings”, moisture problems in our homes and buildings can lead to mold to grow and can often make our allergies or asthma worse.  In fact, it is widely understood that all molds are potentially “allergenic” and some even produce biological chemicals called mycotoxins, which may be extremely harmful to our health.

Microscopic images of dust mites are common “allergens” present within our homes.

There are also many household products and chemicals which we routinely use in our homes that may be dangerous to breath.  Just pick up any one of your common household cleaning products and read the product label.   You will find a listing of the chemical ingredients next to statements like… “may cause respiratory problems” or “vapors harmful, use in a well ventilated area”.   Even kitchen ovens, home furnaces and portable heaters may contribute to poor indoor air quality by producing harmful gases such as carbon monoxide or ozone gas…  especially if they are not used or maintained properly.

What causes indoor air problems in homes?

Indoor pollution sources that release gases or particles into the air are the primary cause of indoor air quality problems in homes.  Inadequate ventilation can increase indoor pollutant levels by not bringing in enough outdoor air to dilute emissions from indoor sources and by not carrying indoor air pollutants out of the home. High temperature and humidity levels can also increase concentrations of some pollutants through increased chemical vapor emissions caused by elevated temperatures and moisture.  For example, when a number of common wood building materials (such as plywood and particle board-based materials) are exposed to elevated moisture, the result is a measured increased in the release of the toxic airborne chemical contaminant urea formaldehyde.

Complicating this problem in our homes is the fact that residential Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) systems (by design) only re-circulate the air within our homes and do not typically bring in outside air except through penetrations such as open windows and doors.  These conditions similarly allow indoor contaminants to build up to (sometimes) unhealthy levels.

Indoor Air Quality- Should you be concerned?

It is not always easy to tell if you have poor indoor air quality. You can usually smell damp “musty” odors from mold growth, or other chemical odors from sources such as paint vapors or common household chemicals, but you may not be able to see or smell many other indoor air quality pollutants, which might be extremely hazardous to your health.   In fact, many families are actually poisoned each year from toxic gases generated indoors.  For example, carbon monoxide is a deadly gas you can’t smell or see.  It is generated from common household appliances like gas heaters, gas furnaces, kitchen stoves and gas-powered dryers. When they are hooked up incorrectly or not properly maintained, carbon monoxide and other unspent gas vapors can escape into your home where you may breathe it.  Automobile exhaust is also another source of carbon monoxide poisoning and can become a real problem if we run our vehicles in garages attached to our homes or live in locations where nearby vehicle exhaust can come in to our homes through open windows and doors.

Many products used in the construction of our homes can also make our indoor air quality unhealthy. Harmful chemicals known as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are emitted by a wide array of products used in the construction of our homes and buildings.  Such products commonly include paints and lacquers, glues and adhesives, epoxy coatings (from both roofing materials and floor coverings), pesticides, as well as wood based building materials and furnishings.  These chemicals can cause headaches, burning eyes, sore throat, dizziness, or tiredness in some people.  VOCs are released from products into the home both during use and while stored.  One such example is “that new carpet smell” that some of us, in fact, “like” and others react to adversely making them violently sick!  The common VOC released by new carpeting in fact, is the chemical and indoor air contaminant known (and widely studied) as 4-polycyclohexane which has been linked to a serious adverse health effect known as “hypersensitivity pneumonitis”.

There are a variety of hazardous household chemicals which can cause indoor air quality problems in our homes!

Older homes can also have indoor air quality problems, especially those houses built prior to 1978 where paint and coating materials typically contained lead additives.  Exposures to dust from lead based paint a very serious health concern (especially for children) and will be discussed in greater detail in a future Green Page article.

Radon is another gas that can get into some homes, usually from the ground underneath it.  Although different parts of the country have varying levels of this naturally occurring gas, radon has been linked to lung cancer, among other related health problems.  Hobbies and projects that involve sanding, painting, soldering, and welding may also make the indoor air harmful.

So how can you fix (or prevent) indoor air quality problems?

“Dilution is the Solution to the Pollution”

As an experienced professional in the IAQ field, I have often said (while smiling, of course!)…  That “Dilution is the Solution to the Pollution”!  What this means is that there can be a large benefit from the ventilation and dilution of indoor contaminants as they are emitted or released into the indoor airborne environment.  The same goes for our indoor home (and building) environments…  When temperatures are mild, it is often beneficial (from an indoor air quality standpoint) to open doors and windows in our homes and buildings (if possible).  By doing this, the outside ambient air enters and acts to dilute (and reduce) the levels of the indoor air contaminants which have been released and/or accumulated within the residence.

Other “common sense” practices, which I have professionally found to improve indoor air quality include:

Controlling the sources of pollution: Usually the most effective way to improve indoor air is to eliminate individual sources or reduce their emissions.  The careful selection of building materials and furnishings is a good place to start.  Wherever possible, chose materials and products which are certified to have low VOC content and emitting characteristics and limited your use of chemicals indoors.  One example during construction, is in the choice of plywood sheeting instead of Oriented Strand Board (OSB) sheeting due to the lower emission rates of formaldehyde and other VOCs from the plywood than that of the (less expensive) OSB material.  Interior baseboards made of wood versus MDF (particle board) materials also offer a similar benefit.

Ventilating:  Remember…  Dilution is the Solution to the Pollution!  Increasing the amount of fresh air brought indoors helps reduce pollutants inside. When weather permits, open windows and doors, or run an air conditioner with the vent control open.  Bathroom and kitchen fans that exhaust to the outdoors also increase ventilation and help remove pollutants.

Control Moisture:  As I covered in my previous Green Page article, control the moisture and humidity and you will control the mold in your home!

Use HEPA Air Filters:  Portable air filter machines have been shown to have some limited benefit in removing airborne particles and allergens in a localized manner.  However, a much greater benefit can be achieved in simply replacing and upgrading the filters in your forced air heating system to a high efficiency or HEPA rated filter.   The regular use of HEPA filtered vacuum equipment is also a very simple and cost effective way to effectively remove small (mold spore) size particles from your home on a regular basis.

Indoor Plants???  Many types of indoor plants have been shown to adsorb or reduce some kinds of indoor VOCs.  However, be careful…  by creating an “IAQ Jungle” you are also bringing in a great deal of organic material and moisture along with the plants (within the soil) which could also lead to increased levels of mold and mold spores in our home.

Maintain Ovens and Furnaces:  Keep your furnaces and kitchen stove/ovens in good working order with all exhaust flues sealed and routed appropriately.  If you have any gas appliances it is a good idea to install a carbon monoxide monitor and/or alarm just to be on the “safe” side.

Chose your Pesticide:  Try some of the lesser-toxic pesticide materials now available on the market.  Products which contain substances like cedar extract (to manage ants) or orange extract (to manage termites) can be a good alternative.  Look for the “Green” alternative products available on the market.

Ozone Machines???  Don’t fall for this kind of hype.  Ozone generating machines have been marketed to react with (and remove) VOCs.  However they only cover up the odors associated with some VOCs and may actually create more harm than good.  The EPA classifies ozone as a toxic pollutant and is known as a primary human irritant.  Ozone machines are, therefore, NOT recommended!

Building “Bake-Out”:  Be careful here again!  Some big claims have been made by companies who perform building “Bake-Out” procedures, that VOCs can be removed through a combination of ventilation and increased temperature (about 140 degrees).  Although this claim is somewhat accurate, it is also evident that such VOCs will only redistribute into (and within) other areas and materials.  This is why the EPA no longer endorses this method of treatment for indoor air quality.

So remember…  reducing health risks from indoor air quality contaminants to your family may require some planning as well as taking several steps like those listed above.  If additional help is needed or if health symptoms persist, a qualified environmental professional (such as a Certified Industrial Hygienist) may be needed to assess the situation and provide the necessary testing and expertise to help resolve the problem.

State of California Indoor Air Quality Program

Centers for Disease Control & Prevention

National Library of Medicine: PubMed

US Environmental Protection Agency


Mr. Michael A. Polkabla, CIH, REA is the Owner and President of BioMax Environmental, LLC providing environmental consulting and industrial hygiene related services throughout Northern California and has offices in the SF Bay area as well as here in Pacific Grove.  He is certified in the Comprehensive Practice of Industrial Hygiene by the American Board of Industrial Hygiene and holds the right to the designation “Certified Industrial Hygienist” (CIH) under certification number CP 7104.  Mr. Polkabla is also certified by the California Environmental Protection Agency (Cal/EPA) as a Class I Registered Environmental Assessor (REA) under Cal/EPA certification number 05011.  BioMax Environmental was established in 1996 and provides a wide range of environmental services designed to protect workers, the community, and the environment from physical, chemical and biological hazards.

Contact Information:  email:  Phone:  (831) 264-3414