On average, Americans spend 90% of their time indoors, so indoor air quality is critical to the health of families. In indoor environments, the levels of some pollutants are often two to five times higher than outdoor concentrations.
The air we breathe is filled with lots of things including gases and particles – most are too small to see with the naked eye. Everything we breathe affects our health in different ways. Just as with outdoor air quality, young children, older adults and people with existing lung disease are most at risk of negative health effects from poor indoor air quality, but pollutants can affect anyone.
Health effects from poor indoor air pollutants might include short-term symptoms like headaches, eye, nose, and throat inflammation, coughing and painful breathing, bronchitis, and skin irritation. Extreme side effects can target the central nervous system, cause flares in respiratory diseases such as asthma, emphysema, and cardiovascular disease, and even cause cancer after long term exposures. Poor indoor air can also impact the blood, spleen, liver and reproductive system.
Causes of Indoor Air Pollution
There are several causes of poor indoor air quality. Here are some of the top pollutants, how they impact your health and the steps you can take to protect yourself and your family:
- Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas emitted naturally from the ground that is odorless, tasteless and colorless. Radon can enter a building through cracks in walls, basement floors, foundations, and other openings, and can be present at high levels inside homes, schools and other buildings. Exposure to radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States.
- Particulate matter are small particles suspended in the air. These particles can include things such as dust, tobacco smoke, diesel emissions, pollens, pet dander, mold spores and more. Particulate matter – often written as PM – are so small they go into the lungs all the way to the alveoli and the smallest particles even into the bloodstream.. Once there, they can irritate and corrode the alveoli wall, damaging the lungs and causing lung disease. These pollutants, at high levels, have also been linked to an increased risk of stroke and heart attack.
- Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are gases that are emitted into the air from products or processes. This is called “off-gassing”. VOCs can be found in the air indoors and outdoors. Some of the more common VOCs include benzene, formaldehyde, and toluene. VOCs are released by carpeting, upholstery, paints and glues as examples of indoor sources. Breathing VOCs can irritate the eyes, nose and throat, can cause difficulty breathing, nausea, and can damage the central nervous system and other organs. VOCs can cause cancer.
- Residential combustion. Two thirds of U.S. households burn fuel in their homes. These households burn methane (also called natural gas), wood, propane, heating oil, or other fuel to heat their homes and water, dry their clothes and cook their food. Burning fuel produces emissions, such as carbon monoxide, benzene and others, that are harmful to human health and the environment. Some types of appliances, including cook stoves, release their emissions directly into the home, where they are inhaled by residents. Other appliances such as furnaces and water heaters, when installed and operated as designed, vent most combustion by-products to the outside, where they contribute to air pollution and climate change.
- Allergens also impact the quality of the air. Common indoor allergens include dander from pets, droppings from mice and cockroaches, mold and mildew, and dust.
Steps to Improve Indoor Air Quality
Improving indoor air quality is focused on personal protection, reducing/eliminating the source of pollution, improving ventilation and cleaning the air. Do these 10 things to improve your indoor air quality now.
- Ensure you have working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors installed in your home. Test the detectors and change the batteries annually.
- Open your doors or windows for at least 10 minutes each day. Even in winter, opening your windows will help improve your air. Remember, indoor air quality tends to be more polluted than outdoor air. Opening your windows or doors allows the fresher outdoor air to come inside. This dilutes the pollution inside your home, making it healthier to breathe. This no-cost solution really will help you breathe better.
- Now, if you live near a busy freeway, factory, coal-burning plant, or other source of outdoor air pollution, opening your windows and doors may not be such a good idea. It is also not advised to open your windows and doors on poor air quality days such as when wildfires have been reported affecting the air in your area. Instead, select a portable mechanical HEPA air cleaner appropriate to the size of the room. Polluted air will be brought into the air cleaner, where particulate matter, chemicals, and other pollutants are captured. Clean air is placed back into the room. Using an air cleaner with an additional charcoal filter will assist with neutralizing odors and chemicals in the air are also available. DIY options are also available.
- Test your home for dangerous gases like radon. You can order a low-cost radon test kit from the American Lung Association.
- Keep your home and car smokefree.
- Ensure your furnace filter has a MERV-13 rating. Change your furnace filter regularly.
- Avoid burning in your home, including fireplaces, wood stoves, gas appliances, and candles.
- Avoid chemicals such as air fresheners, sprays and cleaning products or use a healthier option.
- Vacuum your rugs and carpets regularly.
- Dust regularly with a microfiber cloth or damp cloth. Many people don’t realize that dust is made up of dead skin cells, dust mite droppings and dust mite body fragments. With dead skin cells acting as a key component of dust, increased time spent indoors may increase dust in your home.
Learn more about indoor air quality at www.Lung.org/Clean-Air.
Blog last updated: August 31, 2023