The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that approximately 4.3 million people die annually due to indoor air pollution — around 600,000 more than those killed by outdoor air pollution. Considering the fact that Americans spend 90% of their time indoors, this is a concerning statistic. Why is the air in our homes so harmful? In what ways does it affect our health and what can we do to protect ourselves? This article will provide answers to these and other questions.
Why Has Household Air Gotten So Bad?
In the United States, the top-five air quality issues all stem from indoor pollutants, such as dust particles, combustion products, bacteria, viruses, moisture excess, radon, pesticides, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Contrary to popular belief, many of these contaminants originate indoors. The EPA has reported that indoor air can be anywhere from two to five times more contaminated than outdoor air. As pollutants get trapped in homes, they make the air stale, damp, stuffy, malodorous, and unpleasant to breathe — but what’s worse is that they even affect the safety of the air.
Common Indoor Air Contaminants
- Dust: Dust is an accumulation of dead skin cells, carpet fiber, and dirt. It builds up when a homeowner neglects to change their HVAC filters, which can lead to poor ventilation. While it might seem harmless, those living in a dusty home are subject to dust mites and allergies.
- Combustion products: Every home uses combustion products routinely, whether or not they realize it. These consist of common gas-powered appliances like your dryer, water heater, furnace, and so on. If not properly ventilated, these products allow toxic combustion products like CO2 — which is fatal when inhaled — to enter into the home and get trapped in the air.
- Moisture: When moisture accumulates in a home, it becomes subject to a host of moisture-related health hazards, including mold, mildew, and dust mites, all of which can cause allergies and shortness of breath when breathed in.
- Radon: Beneath the surface of your home, you could have radioactive radon gas percolating up through the soil and through the foundation slab, without you even knowing it. Radon is one of the leading causes of lung cancer, and it could be affecting your family if you haven’t taken preventative measures.
- VOCs: In the past few decades, the manufacturing and construction industries have begun to make use of synthetic materials. Some are relatively harmless, but others release byproducts into the air that interact with their surroundings. Pesticides, formaldehyde, and other evaporated substances are commonly emitted from everyday furnishings and building materials. The EPA has warned that, at certain concentrations, these can cause headaches, nausea, and permanent damage to the kidneys, liver, and the central nervous system.
Who Is at Risk From Harmful Effects of Poor Indoor Air?
In truth, everyone is at risk of exposure to indoor contaminants — especially folks who don’t keep up with their home’s HVAC system maintenance schedule. But those who spend more time indoors or have particularly weak immune systems are more susceptible to the adverse long-term effects of pollution.
For example, elderly people who aren’t able to leave the house on their own, as well as young children and mothers who tend to spend the majority of their day at home, are more likely to be affected by poor air quality. In fact, a recent EPA report showed that half of all pneumonia-related deaths among children under the age of five are linked to indoor air contamination. Those with allergies, a chronic respiratory disease, or a cardiovascular condition are also at a higher risk.
Medical researchers believe that poor indoor air quality can even affect an unborn fetus. This is because of oxidative stress and insulin resistance that occurs whenever there is a rise in household air pollutants. Oxidative stress, an imbalance of antioxidants and free radicals in the body, has shown to decrease fertility and has even been linked to low sperm motility and low-quality zygotes while insulin resistance has been tied to polycystic ovarian disease — another contributor to fertility problems.
What Are the Effects of Exposure to Indoor Air Pollutants?
Even brief exposure to poor indoor air quality can lead to some uncomfortable health symptoms. However, some of these symptoms are fairly common, and can be misread as allergies or cold symptoms. Because of this, it’s important to pay close attention to when and where the following symptoms occur:
- Sore throat
- Upper respiratory congestion
- Watery eyes
These symptoms can be especially obvious in people with asthma, chronic bronchitis, and other respiratory illnesses. The frequent presence of irritating air pollutants can exacerbate respiratory issues, causing immediate aggravation and discomfort.
Low-quality indoor air can lead to more than just allergic reactions and headaches over time. While indoor air quality might not seem like an immediate threat, long-term exposure to indoor pollutants can impair judgment and cognition and even have fatal consequences, including heart disease, lung disease, and cancer. Of the 4.3 million who die each year due to poor indoor air quality, 60% of them die from heart-related conditions, and the other 40% die from lung problems. The breakdown is as follows:
- 34% stroke
- 26% CHD (coronary heart disease)
- 22% COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
- 12% pneumonia
- 6% lung cancer
What Can Be Done to Prevent These Problems?
Although this public health crisis is ubiquitous, it’s not inevitable. There are simple preventative measures you can take to protect your family, and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has outlined a few recommended steps to help you get started on improving the air quality of your home:
Focus on improving your home’s ventilation system
Keep your house on a routine HVAC maintenance schedule and be sure to replace your air filters regularly. Your HVAC specialist can install high-efficiency filters upon request, which will be the most effective for filtering out common indoor air contaminants. You can even ask your HVAC service to inspect your system and make sure that it’s designed properly for your house. In all areas that are prone to moisture or in ones that you use combustion products, make sure to have an exhaust fan in place. Such areas might include the bathroom and the kitchen.
Use combustion products with caution
Make sure all furnaces, water heaters, and stoves are operating correctly and are able to ventilate properly. Inspect them regularly to ensure full functionality and strive to reduce how much you use combustion products such as tobacco inside the house. Never leave a vehicle idling in a closed space near the home, such as in the garage.
Detect and prevent radon exposure
Radon detectors and prevention devices are easy to obtain and install. A radon control device usually involves a fan and a PVC pipe that work together to improve the flow of radon and release it into the atmosphere at the roof level so that the pressure doesn’t push it up into your house through the foundation.
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