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Surprising Sources of Indoor Air Pollution

Child looking up out of bed covers

The American Lung Association and Seventh Generation are partnering to build awareness about some of the surprising sources of indoor air pollution that can endanger your family’s health, especially children and anyone living with asthma, COPD and other lung diseases. Many people understand that cigarette smoke, pesticides and some building products are sources of indoor air pollution, but did you know that certain ingredients in common household products are sources of indoor air pollution as well? U.S. law does not require cleaning products to disclose ingredients on product packages. We believe that consumers have the right to know what is in their household products so that they can create healthy homes.

Volatile Organic Compounds

Some products or processes emit gases into the air called VOCs, or volatile organic compounds. VOCs are ingredients that can be found in paints, varnishes, cleaning products and air fresheners and contribute to indoor air pollution. Beyond VOCs, there are very volatile organic compounds (VVOCs), which are gases that more easily evaporate into your air and may harm your health. The World Health Organization classifies certain gases including those from propane and butane as VVOCs.


spray cannister

Propane is found in some aerosols, including some hair spray, air fresheners and disinfectant sprays. Propane is odorless, colorless and flammable, and may be listed on your household products as dimethyl methane, n-propane or propyl hydride, if it is listed at all.


A colorless, flammable gas often used in lighters, butane also serves as a propellant in many aerosol sprays, including some air fresheners, hair sprays and disinfectant sprays.


Used to produce wood, paper, plywood and other building images, formaldehyde can evaporate easily and contribute to harmful indoor air pollution, and can cause cancer. In addition, formaldehyde donors, which are present in some cleaning supplies and personal care products, can undergo a chemical reaction under certain conditions and form formaldehyde, which is slowly released over the shelf-life of the product.

Important Ways to Improve Your Air and Your Health

While there are VOCs and VVOCs in many common household products, you can take steps to reduce the risk that they end up in your home.

Make Your Child's Nursery Healthier

baby nursery with crib

Children face special risks from air pollution because their lungs are growing. That's why protecting them from harmful pollution indoors is so important.  When your child is born, you want to be sure that her new home—the nursery—provides her with the healthiest home she can have. Below are some tips to give the babies a healthier start in life.

Preparing the nursery:

  • Use a hard surface flooring in the nursery, such as hard wood or linoleum. Add area rugs that can be cleaned easily. Avoid using wall-to-wall carpet. Carpet can hold many things you don’t want your crawling baby to stir up and breathe. For example, carpets can trap dust, mold, dirt, leftover cleaning products, and harmful gases, like VOCs.
  • Paint and stain with products that have zero-VOCs or low VOCs.  VOCs give off gases that can harm your child’s health. Keep windows open while you paint to cut down on your exposure. In addition, if you have a home built before 1978, know that the paint in the home likely contains lead.  Leave the paint intact and just paint over it. If the paint is flaking or you are remodeling, hire someone who has specialized training to remove lead paint. Stay away while that work is underway.
  • Chose a crib and other furniture made from solid wood or other solid materials. Avoid furniture made from plywood or pressed wood products, as they often contain VOCs such as formaldehyde.  
  • Avoid furniture and other products that contain flame retardant chemicals, including foam, carpet, draperies and upholstery. Those chemicals also escape into the air, where they can join with dust.  Check tags on new products or contact the manufacturer to help pick you products without these chemicals.
  • Install a smoke alarm outside the nursery and carbon monoxide detector on every floor. 

Using the nursery:

  • Make sure fresh air comes in. Ventilation not only removes odors and pollutants, but also brings in air from the outside. Ventilation is essential. Make sure your home ventilation system is working, including an outdoor exhaust in the bathroom.  You may want to open the windows on a healthy air day outside to add to the fresh air exchange.
  • Keep humidity low.  Humidity levels below 50 percent keep dust mites and mold from growing. Air conditioning or a dehumidifier can help, but make sure to clean any drip pans to prevent bacteria from growing.
  • Use safer cleaning products. Check out EPA's Safer Choice Products for cleaning products. Warm water and soap often will do the trick. Baking soda is good for scrubbing. A mix of vinegar and water can clean glass.
  • Damp dust furniture and damp mop the floor.  Stuck with wall-to-wall carpet? Vacuum it regularly with a HEPA vacuum cleaner when the baby is out of the room.
  • Do not use candles or products with fragrances.  Burning candles add harmful pollutants to the room even if the candles consist of “naturally occurring oils.” Avoid fragrances, especially sprays or products designed to mask odors. Chose "fragrance-free" products. 

Never, ever allow smoking indoors or in your car, including e-cigarettes or "vaping" and hookahs. Be sure that your childcare facility also remains smokefree.

Carpets & New Furniture

Chemicals used in some new furniture, as well as new carpets, carpet pads and the adhesives used to install them release VOCs that contribute to indoor air pollution and can harm your health. New carpet installation has also been associated with wheezing and coughing in babies in their first year of life. Before ordering new carpet or furniture:

  • Request that your carpet or new furniture be aired out in the warehouse (in a well-ventilated area) for 72 hours before installation.
  • Install new carpet or furniture while the space is unoccupied.
  • After installation, open a window and let the room ventilate. Get rid of all packaging material – don't let the materials sit in the room and continue to release dangerous gases that could be absorbed into the new carpet or furniture.

Building Materials & Paints

Blue paint being brushed onto wall

Plywood and other pressed-wood products often contain formaldehyde and other VOCs. Paints, adhesives, solvents and polishes also contain VOCs – including formaldehyde, benzene and other toxic chemicals. These products emit their VOCs as they age. During construction or renovation, using several products at the same time may mix different chemical fumes in the same indoor space. Below are a few tips to reduce indoor air pollution:

  • Look for materials with low or no VOCs. Many products can be produced with alternative chemicals that emit less gases, so talk to your contractor or painter for low-VOC products – though be mindful that the definition of “low-VOC” differs depending on the manufacturer and the materials.
  • Have building materials aired out before installation. Similar to new carpet and new furniture, request that building materials are aired out in a well-ventilated area 72 hours before installation.
  • Keep construction areas well ventilated. Read the labels on all products you purchase and follow the manufacturer's advice on ventilation. And remember to open a window and run an exhaust fan if working indoors.
  • Buy just enough paint for the project. And if you have extra, do not leave opened containers of paint or paint thinners indoors.

Cleaning Products

Cleaning is essential to protecting our health in our homes. However, some household cleaning products can release chemicals that impact indoor air quality and lung health. Chemicals like ammonia, bleach, and ingredients, including VOCs, can harm health. Even products advertised as "green" or "natural" may contain ingredients that affect indoor air quality and may cause health problems. Fortunately, you can limit your exposure to those risks.

  • Check out the list of Safer Choice products. Those cleaning and other products meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's requirements for safer household products. Look for products that voluntarily disclose their ingredients and read labels before you buy. Manufacturers are not obligated by U.S. law to list ingredients in household cleaning products. Choose products that do not contain or have reduced amounts of ingredients such ammonia, fragrances and flammable ingredients.
  • Keep the area well ventilated when using household cleaning products.. Open windows and doors. Never use cleaning products in a small, enclosed space.
  • Never mix bleach or any bleach-containing product with any cleaner containing ammonia. The gases created from this combination can lead to chronic breathing problems and even death.

In addition, see our tips on how to create a cleaner and healthier home.

This content was developed in partnership with Seventh Generation.

    Page Last Updated: August 14, 2017

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