Unless you live in a big city or heavy industrial area, or, unless you’re an asthma or allergy sufferer, you probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the air you breathe. Especially the air inside your home! But maybe you should.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tells us that your risk of exposure to pollutants can be over 100 times greater indoors than outside. What’s more, some experts estimate that as much as 50% of all illnesses are either created or aggravated by poor indoor air quality.
And here are some of the consequences: Athsma sufferers make over 200,000 trips to the Emergency Room each year from incidents that directly result from exposure to dust mites, animal dander, cat saliva, mold and other airborne catalysts. Worse, radon, a known cancer-causing gas emitted from the soil, is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States . Additional problems like headaches, nausea, lethargy, and other serious illnesses can be traced to indoor pollution in America ‘s homes and public places.
The fact is, if you’re experiencing common discomforts like headaches, itchy eyes, a runny nose or a persistent cough, sure, you might just have a cold. But you might also be a victim of indoor air pollution.
Thankfully there are some things you can do, and this section of our site is devoted to helping you take some simple preventative measures that could radically improve the quality of your life.
- Should I be concerned about indoor air pollution?
- Isn’t my indoor air already clean?
- What are the health effects of combustion pollutants?
- How can I reduce my exposure to combustion pollutants?
- What Causes Indoor Air Problems?
- What are the sources of Indoor Air Pollutants?
- What are the health effects of indoor air pollution?
- How can I improve my homes Indoor Air Quality?
- What Types of Air Cleaners are Available?
- Will air cleaners reduce health risks?
YES. Studies have shown that the air in our homes can be even more polluted than the outdoor air in big cities. Because people spend a lot of time indoors, the quality of the air indoors can affect their health. Infants, young children and the elderly are a group shown to be more susceptible to pollutants. People with chronic respiratory or cardiovascular illness or immune system diseases are also more susceptible than others to pollutants.
Many factors determine whether pollutants in your home will affect your health. They include the presence, use, and condition of pollutant sources, the level of pollutants both indoors and out, the amount of ventilation in your home, and your overall health.
Most homes have more than one source of indoor air pollution. For example, pollutants come from tobacco smoke, building materials, decorating products, home furnishings, and activities such as cooking, heating, cooling, and cleaning. Living in areas with high outdoor levels of pollutants usually results in high indoor levels. Combustion pollutants are one category of indoor air pollutants.
Actually, studies show that indoor air can be five times more polluted than outdoor air. Exposure to indoor air pollutants has increased in recent years, due to factors like these:
- Today’s homes are better insulated and more tightly sealed than ever before, sealing in humidity, smoke, dust and other pollutants.
- Use of synthetic building materials and furnishings and household cleaners has increased.
- The Environmental Protection Agency ranks indoor air pollution among the top five environmental risks to public health.
The health effects of combustion pollutants range from headaches and breathing difficulties to death. The health effects may show up immediately after exposure or occur after being exposed to the pollutants for a long time. The effects depend upon the type and amount of pollutants and the length of time of exposure to them. They also depend upon several factors related to the exposed person. These include the age and any existing health problems. There are still some questions about the level of pollutants or the period of exposure needed to produce specific health effects. Further studies to better define the release of pollutants from combustion appliances and their health effects are needed.
The sections below discuss health problems associated with some common combustion pollutants. These pollutants include carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, particles, and sulfur dioxide. Even if you are healthy, high levels of carbon monoxide can kill you within a short time. The health effects of the other pollutants are generally more subtle and are more likely to affect susceptible people. It is always a good idea to reduce exposure to combustion pollutants by using and maintaining combustion appliances properly.
- Carbon Monoxide: Each year, according to CPSC, there are more than 200 carbon monoxide deaths related to the use of all types of combustion appliances in the home. Exposure to carbon monoxide reduces the blood’s ability to carry oxygen. Often a person or an entire family may not recognize that carbon monoxide is poisoning them. The chemical is odorless and some of the symptoms are similar to common illnesses. This is particularly dangerous because carbon monoxide’s deadly effects will not be recognized until it is too late to take action against them.Carbon monoxide exposures especially affect unborn babies, infants, and people with anemia or a history of heart disease. Breathing low levels of the chemical can cause fatigue and increase chest pain in people with chronic heart disease. Breathing higher levels of carbon monoxide causes symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, and weakness in healthy people. Carbon monoxide also causes sleepiness, nausea, vomiting, confusion, and disorientation. At very high levels it causes loss of consciousness and death.
- Nitrogen Dioxide: Breathing high levels of nitrogen dioxide causes irritation of the respiratory tract and causes shortness of breath. Compared to healthy people, children, and individuals with respiratory illnesses such as asthma, may be more susceptible to the effects of nitrogen dioxide.
Some studies have shown that children may have more colds and flu when exposed to low levels of nitrogen dioxide. When people with asthma inhale low levels of nitrogen dioxide while exercising, their lung airways can narrow and react more to inhaled materials.
- Particles: Particles suspended in the air can cause eye, nose, throat, and lung irritation. They can increase respiratory symptoms, especially in people with chronic lung disease or heart problems. Certain chemicals attached to particles may cause lung cancer, if they are inhaled. The risk of lung cancer increases with the amount and length of exposure. The health effects from inhaling particles depend upon many factors, including the size of the particle and its chemical make-up.
- Sulfur Dioxide: Sulfur dioxide at low levels of exposure can cause eye, nose, and respiratory tract irritation. At high exposure levels, it causes the lung airways to narrow. This causes wheezing, chest tightness, or breathing problems. People with asthma are particularly susceptible to the effects of sulfur dioxide. They may have symptoms at levels that are much lower than the rest of the population.
- Other Pollutants: Combustion may release other pollutants. They include unburned hydrocarbons and aldehydes. Little is known about the levels of these pollutants in indoor air and the resulting health effects.
Proper selection, installation, inspection and maintenance of your appliances are extremely important in reducing your exposure to these pollutants. Providing good ventilation in your home and correctly using your appliance can also reduce your exposure to these pollutants.
Additionally, there are several different residential carbon monoxide detectors for sale. The CPSC is encouraging the development of detectors that will provide maximum protection. These detectors would warn consumers of harmful carbon monoxide levels in the home. They may soon be widely available to reduce deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning.
- Only buy combustion appliances that have been tested and certified to meet current safety standards. Examples of certifying organizations are Underwriters Laboratories (UL) and the American Gas Association (AGA) Laboratories. Look for a label that clearly shows the certification.
- All currently manufactured vented gas heaters are required by industry safety standards to have a safety shut-off device. This device helps protect you from carbon monoxide poisoning by shutting off an improperly vented heater.
- If you must replace an unvented gas space heater with another, make it a new one. Heaters made after 1982 have a pilot light safety system called an oxygen depletion sensor (ODS). This system shuts off the heater when there is not enough fresh air, before the heater begins producing large amounts of carbon monoxide. Look for the label that tells you that the appliance has this safety system. Older heaters will not have this protection system.
- Consider buying gas appliances that have electronic ignitions rather than pilot lights. These appliances are usually more energy efficient and eliminate the continuous low-level pollutants from pilot lights.
- Buy appliances that are the correct size for the area you want to heat. Using the wrong size heater may produce more pollutants in your home and is not an efficient use of energy.
- Talk to your dealer to determine the type and size of appliance you will need. You may wish to write to the appliance manufacturer or association for more information on the appliance. Some addresses are in the back of this booklet.
Proper Installation: You should have your appliances professionally installed. Professionals should follow the installation directions and applicable building codes. Improperly installed appliances can release dangerous pollutants in your home and may create a fire hazard. Be sure that the installer checks for backdrafting on all vented appliances. A qualified installer knows how to do this.
Inspection and Maintenance:
- Have your combustion appliance regularly inspected and maintained to reduce your exposure to pollutants. Appliances that are not working properly can release harmful and even fatal amounts of pollutants, especially carbon monoxide.
- Have vents inspected when installing or changing vented heating appliances. Some modifications may be required. It is important to clean your vents especially when changing heating systems.
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.
There are many sources of indoor air pollution in any home. These include combustion sources such as oil, gas, kerosene, coal, wood, and tobacco products; building materials and furnishings as diverse as deteriorated, asbestos-containing insulation, wet or damp carpet, and cabinetry or furniture made of certain pressed wood products; products for household cleaning and maintenance, personal care, or hobbies; central heating and cooling systems and humidification devices; and outdoor sources such as radon, pesticides, and outdoor air pollution.
The relative importance of any single source depends on how much of a given pollutant it emits and how hazardous those emissions are. In some cases, factors such as how old the source is and whether it is properly maintained are significant. For example, an improperly adjusted gas stove can emit significantly more carbon monoxide than one that is properly adjusted.
Some sources, such as building materials, furnishings, and household products like air fresheners, release pollutants more or less continuously. Other sources, related to activities carried out in the home, release pollutants intermittently. These include smoking, the use of unvented or malfunctioning stoves, furnaces, or space heaters, the use of solvents in cleaning and hobby activities, the use of paint strippers in redecorating activities, and the use of cleaning products and pesticides in house-keeping. High pollutant concentrations can remain in the air for long periods after some of these activities.
Health effects from indoor air pollutants may be experienced soon after exposure or, possibly, years later.
Immediate effects: Immediate effects may show up after a single exposure or repeated exposures. These include irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, headaches, dizziness, and fatigue. Such immediate effects are usually short-term and treatable. Sometimes the treatment is simply eliminating the person’s exposure to the source of the pollution, if it can be identified. Symptoms of some diseases, including asthma, hypersensitivity pneumonitis, and humidifier fever, may also show up soon after exposure to some indoor air pollutants.
The likelihood of immediate reactions to indoor air pollutants depends on several factors. Age and preexisting medical conditions are two important influences. In other cases, whether a person reacts to a pollutant depends on individual sensitivity, which varies tremendously from person to person. Some people can become sensitized to biological pollutants after repeated exposures, and it appears that some people can become sensitized to chemical pollutants as well.
Certain immediate effects are similar to those from colds or other viral diseases, so it is often difficult to determine if the symptoms are a result of exposure to indoor air pollution. For this reason, it is important to pay attention to the time and place symptoms occur. If the symptoms fade or go away when a person is away from home, for example, an effort should be made to identify indoor air sources that may be possible causes. Some effects may be made worse by an inadequate supply of outdoor air or from the heating, cooling, or humidity conditions prevalent in the home.
Long-term effects: Other health effects may show up either years after exposure has occurred or only after long or repeated periods of exposure. These effects, which include some respiratory diseases, heart disease, and cancer, can be severely debilitating or fatal. It is prudent to try to improve the indoor air quality in your home even if symptoms are not noticeable.
While pollutants commonly found in indoor air are responsible for many harmful effects, there is considerable uncertainty about what concentrations or periods of exposure are necessary to produce specific health problems. People also react very differently to exposure to indoor air pollutants. Further research is needed to better understand which health effects occur after exposure to the average pollutant concentrations found in homes and which occurs from the higher concentrations that occur for short periods of time.
There are three basic strategies to improve indoor air quality
- Source Control
- Improved Ventilation
- Air cleaners
Source Control: Usually the most effective way to improve indoor air quality is to eliminate individual sources of pollution or to reduce their emissions. Some sources, like those that contain asbestos, can be sealed or enclosed; others, like gas stoves, can be adjusted to decrease the amount of emissions. In many cases, source control is also a more cost-efficient approach to protecting indoor air quality than increasing ventilation because increasing ventilation can increase energy costs.
Ventilation Improvements: Another approach to lowering the concentrations of indoor air pollutants in your home is to increase the amount of outdoor air coming indoors. Most home heating and cooling systems, including forced air heating systems, do not mechanically bring fresh air into the house. Opening windows and doors, operating window or attic fans, when the weather permits, or running a window air conditioner with the vent control open increases the outdoor ventilation rate. Local bathroom or kitchen fans that exhaust outdoors remove contaminants directly from the room where the fan is located and also increase the outdoor air ventilation rate.
It is particularly important to take as many of these steps as possible while you are involved in short-term activities that can generate high levels of pollutants – for example, painting, paint stripping, heating with kerosene heaters, cooking, or engaging in maintenance and hobby activities such as welding, soldering, or sanding. You might also choose to do some of these activities outdoors, if you can and if weather permits. Advanced designs of new homes are starting to feature mechanical systems that bring outdoor air into the home. Some of these designs include energy-efficient heat recovery ventilators (also known as air-to-air heat exchangers). For more information about air-to-air heat exchangers, contact the Conservation and Renewable Energy Inquiry and Referral Service (CAREIRS), PO Box 3048 , Merrifield , VA 22116 .
Air Cleaners: There are many types and sizes of air cleaners on the market, ranging from relatively inexpensive table-top models to sophisticated and expensive whole-house systems. Some air cleaners are highly effective at particle removal, while others, including most table-top models, are much less so. Air cleaners are generally not designed to remove gaseous pollutants.
The effectiveness of an air cleaner depends on how well it collects pollutants from indoor air (expressed as a percentage efficiency rate) and how much air it draws through the cleaning or filtering element (expressed in cubic feet per minute). A very efficient collector with a low air-circulation rate will not be effective, nor will a cleaner with a high air-circulation rate but a less efficient collector. The long-term performance of any air cleaner depends on maintaining it according to the manufacturer’s directions.
Another important factor in determining the effectiveness of an air cleaner is the strength of the pollutant source. Table-top air cleaners, in particular, may not remove satisfactory amounts of pollutants from strong nearby sources. People with a sensitivity to particular sources may find that air cleaners are helpful only in conjunction with concerted efforts to remove the source.
Over the past few years, there has been some publicity suggesting that houseplants have been shown to reduce levels of some chemicals in laboratory experiments. There is currently no evidence, however, that a reasonable number of houseplants remove significant quantities of pollutants in homes and offices. Indoor houseplants should not be over-watered because overly damp soil may promote the growth of microorganisms which can affect allergic individuals.
At present, EPA does not recommend using air cleaners to reduce levels of radon and its decay products. The effectiveness of these devices is uncertain because they only partially remove the radon decay products and do not diminish the amount of radon entering the home. EPA plans to do additional research on whether air cleaners are, or could become, a reliable means of reducing the health risk from radon.
Air cleaners are usually classified by the method employed to remove particles of various sizes from the air. There are three general types of air cleaners on the market: mechanical filters, electronic air cleaners, and ion generators. (Note: Because they may reduce some pollutants present in indoor air through condensation, absorption, and other mechanisms, devices such as air conditioners, humidifiers, and dehumidifiers may technically be considered air cleaners. However, this publication includes only those devices specifically designed and marketed as air cleaners.)
Mechanical filters may be installed in ducts in homes with central heating and/or air-conditioning or may be used in portable devices which contain a fan to force air through the filter. Mechanical filters used for air cleaning are of two major types.
1. Flat or panel filters generally consist either of a low packing density of coarse glass fibers, animal hair, vegetable fibers, or synthetic fibers often coated with a viscous substance (e.g., oil) to act as an adhesive for particulate material, or slit and expanded aluminum. (A flat filter in use in many homes is the typical furnace filter installed in central heating and/or air-conditioning systems.) Flat filters may efficiently collect large particles, but remove only a small percentage of respirable size particles.
Flat filters may also be made of “electret” media, consisting of a permanently-charged plastic film or fiber. Particles in the air are attracted to the charged material.
2. Pleated or extended surface filters generally attain greater efficiency for capture of respirable size particles than flat filters. Their greater surface area allows the use of smaller fibers and an increase in packing density of the filter without a large drop in air flow rate.
Electronic air cleaners use an electrical field to trap charged particles. Like mechanical filters, they may be installed in central heating and/or air-conditioning system ducts or may be portable units with fans. Electronic air cleaners are usually electrostatic precipitators or charged-media filters. In electrostatic precipitators, particles are collected on a series of flat plates. In charged-media filter devices, which are less common, the particles are collected on the fibers in a filter. In most electrostatic precipitators and some charged-media filters, the particles are deliberately ionized (charged) before the collection process, resulting in a higher collection efficiency.
Ion generators also use static charges to remove particles from indoor air. These devices come in portable units only. They act by charging the particles in a room, so they are attracted to walls, floors, table tops, draperies, occupants, etc. In some cases, these devices contain a collector to attract the charged particles back to the unit.
(Note: The latter two types of devices may produce ozone, either as a byproduct of use or intentionally. Concerns about ozone production are discussed in more depth later.) See also “Ozone Generators that are Sold as Air Cleaners: An Assessment of Effectiveness and Health Consequences”.
Some newer systems on the market are referred to as “hybrid” devices. They contain two or more of the particle removal devices discussed above. For example, one or more types of mechanical filters may be combined with an electrostatic precipitator or an ion generator.
In addition to particle removal devices, air cleaners may also contain adsorbents and/or reactive materials to facilitate removal of gaseous materials from indoor air. Air cleaners which do not contain these types of materials will not remove gaseous pollutants. The potential effectiveness of air cleaners containing these materials in reducing levels of gaseous pollutants in indoor air is.
Air cleaners may reduce the health effects from some particles – small solid or liquid substances suspended in air, such as dust or light spray mists.
Some air cleaners, under the right conditions, can effectively remove certain respirable-size particles (for example, tobacco smoke particles). These invisible particles are of concern because they can be inhaled deeply into the lungs. Removing such particles may reduce associated health effects in exposed people. These effects may range from eye and lung irritation to more serious effects such as cancer and decreased lung function.
Some controversy exists about whether air cleaners can reduce the allergic reactions produced by larger particles such as pollen, house dust allergens, some molds, and animal dander. Most of these particles are found where they settle on surfaces in the home, rather than in the air. They cannot be removed by an air cleaner unless disturbed and re-suspended in the air.
Air cleaners that do not contain special media, such as activated carbon or alumina, will not remove gaseous pollutants, including radon, or reduce their associated health effects. Whether air cleaners that contain these media are effective in reducing health risks from gaseous pollutants cannot be adequately assessed at this time. In addition, the effectiveness of air cleaners in reducing the health risks from radon progeny (decay products) cannot be adequately evaluated at present. The removal of gaseous pollutants and radon and its progeny is not addressed further in this fact sheet. Health effects from these pollutants may be serious, however, and they are of concern in indoor air.
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