Common Sources of Indoor Air Pollution

While air pollution calls to mind factories and plumes of car exhaust, common household substances affect the air we breathe as well. Indoor air pollution, caused by carpets, household chemicals or even furniture or building materials, may have detrimental health effects, especially for those with health risks like asthma or even allergies. The best way to cut down on potentially harmful indoor air pollution is to first become aware of it and then either open the windows for some fresh air when necessary or swap out the common offenders for their more eco-friendly counterparts.

Indoor air quality can be up to 5 times worse than the air outdoors.* Many objects throughout our homes and workplaces can contribute to poor indoor air quality by releasing gases, particles, debris and other contaminants into the air.

Homes are equally susceptible to becoming contaminated by outdoor air pollution as well. By learning about the common sources of indoor air pollution, it is possible to create a healthier home and work environment.


Types of Pollutants

Indoor air pollutants can generally be grouped into volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and particulate matter. The former refers to chemicals that readily evaporate into a gaseous state, mixing with the other gases normally found in the air. Particulate matter, consisting of tiny solid particles or liquid droplets that are suspended in the air, itself encompasses pollutants of varied composition and sources. They include the particles found in building materials, by-products of different manufacturing processes, and the smoke resulting from the burning of tobacco, wood, or coal. Additionally, chemical reactions that take place when high concentrations of VOCs are present can elevate the concentration of fine particles in the air. Depending on the materials used in building and furnishing a home, as well as the cleaning, decorating, and cosmetic products found there, people can face a variety of health risks stemming from indoor air pollution.


Common Sources of Household Pollutants

1. Household Cleaning Products

Common household cleaning products are effective on stubborn stains, built-up grease, grime, mold and mildew. The chemicals present in many conventional cleaning products work wonders in cleaning homes and offices. But they leave a harmful impact on the environment after being released into the air and the waterways. In fact, indoor air pollution levels in our homes can be two to five times higher than outdoor levels! In some cases, indoor air quality can be much worse. Many household cleaning products are the main source of this indoor air pollution- which can be harmful to your family.

The constant use of hazardous cleaners can make the situation worse and could lead to serious health issues such as asthma, respiratory disorders or even cancer. Ammonia and bleach are common over-the-counter cleaning chemicals, but they release harmful gasses which can lead to chronic breathing problems or even death if mixed. Carefully checking the product label will help you determine the safest cleaning products for your home.


2. Dust and Pet Dander

Pet dander is composed of tiny, even microscopic, flecks of skin shed by cats, dogs, rodents, birds and other animals with fur or feathers. These bits of skin can cause reactions in people who are specifically allergic to these triggers.

Dust is one of those things that seems to materialize out of nowhere no matter how often you clean. Dust mites and pet dander can be found on a lot of surfaces in your home: fabric furniture, carpets and rugs, window curtains and blinds, and bedding. When these surfaces are disturbed, it can send these allergens into the air.


3. Harmful Off-Gassing Chemicals

Off-gassing happens when chemicals contained in an item are released into the air. Furniture, clothing and many other products used in households are exposed to noxious chemicals during their manufacturing process. These chemicals can be absorbed by various types of surfaces, especially porous materials, and many are classified as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These substances are notorious for causing irritation and allergic reactions in humans, and have also been associated with more severe health conditions after prolonged exposure.

Products containing VOCs release them through a process called “off gassing” or “out gassing”, and concentrations can increase quickly in enclosed spaces. New furniture, clothing and devices contain a larger concentration of VOCs, since they have not had the time to release them. As a result, off-gassing tends to be higher in new constructions, after purchasing furniture, or after a major renovation.


4. Pollution from Cooking and Heating

Where there’s smoke, there’s air pollution, even indoors. The fireplace and cooking food are all sources that add indoor air pollutants to your home. Wood stoves and fireplaces emit smoke, fine particles and quite a few chemicals into the air, such as carbon monoxide. Gas fireplaces and stoves emit carbon dioxide but far fewer other chemicals in comparison to wood.

Cooking certain foods also emits substances and chemicals into the air, even if you are cooking on an electric stove. At high temperatures, cooking oils, grease, fats and other elements in the food emit fumes into the air. Whenever there is an odor from cooking, gases and fine particles also linger. These all affect indoor air quality. To cut down on such issues, ensure that fireplaces and stoves are properly ventilated. Use the fan on a range hood, especially when cooking with high heat or open windows if possible.


5. Moisture and Mold

Too much moisture lingering in a room for a while could lead to mold, which could aggravate the airways, especially for those with asthma, allergies or respiratory infections. Molds are living things that produce spores. Molds produce spores that float in the air, land on damp surfaces and grow. Inhaling or touching molds can cause hay fever-type symptoms such as sneezing, runny nose, red eyes and skin rashes. Molds can also trigger asthma attacks.


6. Pollen and Outdoor Sources

Windows, doorways and ventilation systems can all provide an entrance for outdoor air pollution to infiltrate a home and become trapped. The range of outdoor pollutants varies drastically. Pollen and other sources of outdoor air pollution sometimes make their way inside, which can be problematic if anyone in your home has allergies. Ensuring that ventilation systems are cleaned and up to date, sealing doors and windows properly and cleaning dust and debris from shoes and clothing before entering your home are some simple ways to help reduce outdoor sources of indoor air pollution.

If you are sensitive to outdoor allergens, keep windows closed when allergens are abundant. If you run an air conditioner, make sure the filters are changed regularly. Run an air cleaner that removes pollen and other allergens, especially in rooms where you spend the most time.



Improving Your Indoor Air

Take steps to help improve your air quality and reduce your IAQ-related health risks at little or no cost by:


1. Controlling the Sources of Pollution

Usually the most effective way to improve indoor air is to eliminate individual sources or reduce their emissions. 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.


2. Changing Filters Regularly

Central heaters and air conditioners have filters to trap dust and other pollutants in the air. Make sure to change or clean the filters regularly, following the instructions on the package.


3. Adjust the Humidity

The humidity inside can affect the concentrations of some indoor air pollutants. Keep indoor humidity between 30 and 50 percent. Use a moisture or humidity gauge, available at most hardware stores, to see if the humidity in your home is at a good level. To increase humidity, use a vaporizer or humidifier. To decrease humidity, open the windows if it is not humid outdoors. If it is warm, turn on the air conditioner or adjust the humidity setting on the humidifier.



Final Thoughts

The more you know about the sources of indoor air pollution the better your chances are of managing and limiting the amount of harmful toxins and pollutants in your everyday living and working spaces. Increasing airflow in the kitchen, sealing gaps in doorways, windows and entryways, regularly cleaning, controlling humidity levels and installing purifiers that automatically purifies and humidifier for a healthier environment can all be valuable steps towards improving your indoor air quality.

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