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Indoor Air Quality

While you are most likely familiar with the role pollution plays in outdoor air quality, indoor air quality can also be compromised by unwanted and harmful materials. Indoor air pollution is one of the top 5 health risks Americans face, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Indoor pollutants can cause health risks including breathing and intestinal issues.

Sources
There are two types of indoor air pollution: particulate matter and gaseous pollutants.
Particulate matter includes dust, ashes and pollen. There are also airborne particulates released by animals, mites and bugs, and mold.

Some gaseous pollutants come from combustion that takes place within the home. This includes cooking appliances, vehicle exhaust from attached garages and smoke. Any appliance that burns oil, gas, kerosene, coal or wood will emit gaseous pollutants.  Other gaseous pollutants are produced by building materials, foam in furnishings, and chemicals such as paints, adhesives and cleaning products.

Poor ventilation adds to the risk of indoor air pollution by not allowing clean air to flow into the building and trapping polluted air inside. Indoor air pollution tends to be worst when there are high temperatures and high humidity.

Pollutants
There are many substances which can be considered pollutants in your home or office, although some receive more attention than others in the media and from professionals. Asbestos, lead, carbon monoxide, radon and second-hand smoke are among the most dangerous pollutants. For more information on specific indoor air pollutants, the EPA offers a Reference Guide to Major Indoor Air Pollutants in the Home on its website.

Radon, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide are gases that can be harmful to humans and animals in certain quantities. Molds, pollen and other allergens can be found in almost every environment, but can be deadly to people who suffer adverse reactions or to those who have asthma.

Asbestos, found in insulation and other older building materials, is known to cause certain cancers. Lead, which is often found in paint, can cause brain damage. Second-hand smoke from cigarettes or other tobacco products contains thousands of chemicals and almost everyone suffers an adverse reaction to at least one of them when exposed. Other volatile organic compounds can also pollute air indoors, and put the residents at risk.

Adverse Effects
The adverse health effects caused by indoor air pollution can occur quickly or appear years after exposure. In both cases, those who spend the most time indoors are the most susceptible to adverse effects. Many times these people are young, elderly or chronically ill. People who suffer from asthma, hypersensitivity pneumonitis or respiratory diseases should be particularly cautious about extended exposure.

Immediate symptoms of exposure to pollutants can cause the same symptoms as a common airborne allergy in addition to headaches, dizziness, nausea and fatigue. These effects can usually be reversed simply by stopping exposure to the irritant. Long term effects of indoor air pollution include chronic respiratory and cardiovascular issues and even some types of cancer. Other types of indoor pollutants can even lead to brain damage.

Radon and tobacco smoke are the 2 most concerning indoor pollutants, according to the EPA. Radon is odorless and colorless, but it is radioactive and very dangerous. It can cause both short-term illness and long term damage. The EPA offers a publication called Protecting People and Families from Radon which gives more information on radon poisoning.

Prevention and Treatment
The way to control the indoor air quality varies greatly by the pollutant and its source. The EPA provides a comprehensive list of source-specific controls for indoor pollutants. In most cases, the best way to is to remove the source of the pollutant. Removal of dangerous irritants such as asbestos and lead should be done by a professional to limit exposure and to ensure proper handling.

Some pollutants, such as carbon dioxide, cannot be removed entirely. Through improved ventilation, however, the levels of these irritants can be diluted with clean outdoor air and the concentration indoors can be greatly reduced. In some cases, a combination of improved ventilation and lessening exposure can reduce the adverse health effects.

For some pollutants, the only way to lessen the exposure is through the installation of an electronic air cleaner. While the EPA does not certify or promote any particular brand or type of air cleaner, the organization does offer a Guide to Air Cleaners in the Home on its website and as a printed pamphlet.

Additional Resources