Air Pollution in Your Home
We’ve covered why it’s critical to clean up your foods and personal-care products. Now it’s time to examine the chemicals in your home. A growing body of scientific evidence has indicated that the air within homes and buildings can be more seriously polluted than the outdoor air in even the largest and most industrialized cities.
At no other time in history have there been so many toxins and pollutants in our environment, particularly the home. The home is the No. 1 source for toxic chemicals.
According to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), Common toxic chemicals found in the home are three times more likely to cause cancer than airborne pollutants. The EPA has also reported that nearly every American has 30 cancer-causing chemicals detectable in their fatty tissue.
This is another great reason to clean up toxic chemical products at home. It’s part of your preventive-medicine strategy.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the air within our homes can be five to 10 times more heavily polluted than outdoor air, even in the largest industrial cities. This is critical because individuals in Western industrialized cities spend up to 90% of their time indoors. One of the primary sources of this indoor air pollution is chemical cleaners, which also happen to be one of the easiest areas to fix.
Since the 1970s, there has been a disturbing increase in the number of toxic chemicals that go into the making of household products. The vast majority of these chemicals have never been tested for toxicity. According to the Household Toxins Institute, of the approximately 87,000 chemicals now in common use, only 1,350 have been tested for carcinogenicity or other health effects. That’s less than 2% of the total 87,000. Interestingly, the steady increase of toxic chemicals used today directly coincides with a steady increase in childhood illnesses and asthma. Childhood asthma has increased more than 40% since 1980, according to the EPA, and asthma deaths in children and young persons have increased 118% since 1980. One study concluded that the majority of the 400,000 annual emergency room visits for severe asthma attacks are brought on by poor indoor air quality.
With today’s energy-efficient homes and building materials, many times indoor air quality is forgotten. From the wall-to-wall carpet on your floor to the paint on your walls, or the particle board in your furniture or cabinets, to the vinyl or polyvinyl chloride, or the candles you light to the heavily fragranced laundry detergent and dryer sheets, and more, houses continually off-gas toxic fumes for years. The “new carpet,” “paint” or “car” smell is all chemical off-gassing of volatile organic compounds or (VOCs) that creates a serious indoor air pollution problem in homes, offices, and cars.
Wall-to-wall carpeting is great but it is very tough to keep clean and traps dirt, pollen, dust, mites, mold, mildew, and more inside. If you are an allergy sufferer I recommend hardwood floors and getting an electrostatic furnace filter. Not only is it a better filtration system but you can simply reuse it by washing it monthly which reduces landfill waste and saves you money on replacements. If you love carpeting consider getting some throw rugs that can be easily cleaned on a regular basis.
Moisture and mold can also heavily affect indoor air quality. Allergens, dust, mold spores, fungi, pet dander, dust mites, pollen, candle smoke and soot, and the like can be efficiently spread through a home via heating and air conditioning ducts. With today’s energy-efficient homes, these contaminants become “locked inside” unless you are actively filtering it or circulating fresh outdoor air with indoor air.
Short-term air pollution indicators are irritations of the eyes, nose, throat, headaches, fatigue, memory problems, depression, hyperactivity, and dizziness. Long-term health effects of indoor air pollution problems can show up years later in the form of respiratory diseases, heart disease, and cancer. Symptoms of other diseases such as asthma, hypersensitivity, and pneumonitis, and humidifier fever are all aggravated after exposure to some air pollutants. If you are suffering from these symptoms you can have someone come to your home and test for indoor air pollution. The sample will usually be sent to a lab to uncover what is exactly in the air you and your family are breathing.
Home Indoor Air Filter Solutions
For continuous indoor air, filtration consider the electrostatic filter previously mentioned. If this won’t work for your client, have them explore the option of stand-alone systems like the medical-grade HEPA (High-Efficiency Particulate Air) filters. HEPA filters, by definition, remove at least 99.97% of airborne particles 0.3 micrometers (µm) in diameter. HEPA filters are designed to target much smaller pollutants and particles than membrane filters.
If you don’t have serious allergies or breathing problems, another natural solution for the home could be houseplants. In the mid-1980s, Dr. B.C. Wolverton and fellow researchers at NASA conducted several studies to determine whether plants could halt indoor pollution and provide a natural way to deal with the problem. They determined that foliage plants in a sealed Plexiglas test chamber — housed in pots containing a commercial, nonsterile potting soil mixture — could reduce air concentrations of VOCs like formaldehyde, trichloroethylene, and benzene, as well as carbon monoxide. Photosynthesis plays a role, Wolverton noted, with its “continuous exchange of gaseous substances between plant leaves and the surrounding atmosphere.” This was promising news, as formaldehyde, in particular, is particularly noxious, and it’s commonly found in foam insulation, plywood, particleboard, paneling, floor coverings, carpet backing, grocery bags, and paper towels, he noted.
Wolverton suggested that philodendrons and aloe vera were the most effective plants for removing formaldehyde; philodendrons and golden pothos were effective in removing benzene and carbon monoxide, and spider plants were effective in removing formaldehyde and carbon monoxide.
In 1989, NASA and the Associated Landscape Contractors of America followed up with a large-scale report, which concluded that “when plants and potting soil are constantly exposed to air containing such toxic chemicals as benzene, their capacity to continuously clean the air improves.” Wolverton ultimately concluded that “low-light-requiring houseplants, along with activated carbon plant filters, have demonstrated the potential for improving indoor air quality by removing trace organic pollutants from the air in energy-efficient buildings…Maximizing air exposure to the plant root-soil area should be considered when placing plants in buildings for best air filtration. Activated carbon filters containing fans have the capacity for rapidly filtering large volumes of polluted air and should be considered an integral part of any plan using houseplants for solving indoor air pollution problems.”
Search the Internet, and you’ll find a flurry of stories that herald NASA’s discoveries. But scientists have not been able to replicate these findings.
Of all the benefits espoused to indoor plants, the issue of air purification is most certainly the most dubious and questionable; the toxins cited are most undesirable. There seems to be a lot of evidence suggesting that, as part of the photosynthetic process, plants remove carbon dioxide and replace it with oxygen. However, the amount that is generated by a group of plants that is not fully photosynthetically active (in indoor conditions) might be cause for some thoughtful consideration to all.
The EPA has also weighed in, stating: “Recent reports in the media and promotions by the decorative houseplant industry characterize plants as ‘nature’s clean air machine,’ claiming that National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) research shows plants remove indoor air pollutants. While it is true that plants remove carbon dioxide from the air, and the ability of plants to remove certain other pollutants from water is the basis for some pollution control methods, the ability of plants to control indoor air pollution is less well established. Most research to date used small chambers without any air exchange, which makes extrapolation to real-world environments extremely uncertain. The only available study of the use of plants to control indoor air pollutants in an actual building could not determine any benefit from the use of plants. As a practical means of pollution control, the plant removal mechanisms appear to be inconsequential compared to common ventilation and air exchange rates. In other words, the ability of plants to actually improve indoor air quality is limited in comparison
with the provision of adequate ventilation. While decorative foliage plants may be aesthetically pleasing, it should be noted that over damp planter soil conditions may actually promote the growth of unhealthy microorganisms.”
So, what’s the bottom line for those of us who practice organic gardening? Plants certainly can’t hurt your environment. As the EPA cautions, don’t allow soil to become too damp, or you risk mold and fungal development. Also recognize that plants serve another important function: They reduce stress. Multiple studies conclude that by cheering up our living and work areas, plants help us cope with fatigue and tension while improving our mood. Can’t argue with that!
If you do want to add a few plants around the house here are a few recommendations.
- Spider plants and peace lilies are recommended for removing carbon dioxide
- Ficus and aloe vera are recommended to remove formaldehyde and benzene
These pollutants are from paint, varnish, adhesives, insulation, pressed wood, and particleboard.
A final tip on how to keep your air fresh and clean, open the windows and turn on the fans! This is a great way to freshen up stale air and let the light in!
Other Contributors to Indoor Air Pollution
Synthetic carpeting, rugs, carpet padding, and backing can emit chemical fumes for up to five years. Some of the worst chemicals are used in synthetic carpeting manufacturing, including stain repellents (Teflon, Scotchgard) and fire retardants. The most common flame retardants are polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), which are persistent organic pollutants (POPs). When this chemical is absorbed into the human or animal system, PBDEs build up in fatty tissue and can cause reproductive damage and birth defects. In fact, most mattresses contain PBDEs. When it’s time to buy a new mattress, choose organic cotton or an all-natural mattress. If the sales guy offers to finish your mattress (or any piece of new furniture) with any stain repellents, just say no. If you are a parent, steer clear of children’s pajamas that contain fire-retardant chemicals. Fire retardants are commonly found in household furnishings like couches, chairs, electrical equipment, computers, and televisions, so it’s critical to reduce your exposure to them as much as possible.
Older carpeting may be more chemically stable, but it, too, can contribute to indoor air pollution. Carpeting traps contaminated dust particles, chemicals, synthetic solvents, and pesticides brought into the home. Every time someone walks across the carpet or vacuums, the carpet re-releases these contaminants into the air. If you or anyone in your family has asthma, or if you have young children and want to prevent the onset of asthma, consider removing wall-to-wall carpeting. It’s a haven for dust mites and can trigger allergies and asthma. If you like the warmth carpeting offers, opt for natural-fiber throw rugs made of wool, organic cotton, or natural grass, among multiple other options on the market.
These can easily be thrown in the washing machine and kept clean. Some alternatives to carpeting are hardwood floors that are finished with low- or no-VOC finishes and stains, cork, real linoleum, marble, stone, ceramic, concrete, and tile.
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