Indoor Air Can Cause Health Problems
Are you worried about the air you breathe? Don't think you're safe just because you're
inside. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that the air in homes and other
buildings can be more seriously polluted than the outdoor air.
Indoor air pollution can cause big health problems. People who may be exposed to indoor
air pollutants for the longest periods are often those most at risk to the effects
of indoor air pollution. This includes children, older adults, and people with chronic
Most indoor air pollution comes from sources that release gases or particles into
the air. Things like building materials and air fresheners give off pollution continuously.
Other sources like tobacco smoke and wood-burning stoves also cause indoor pollution.
Although some indoor air pollutants have been around for years, they often were weakened
by outdoor air seeping into the home. Today's more energy-efficient homes don't allow
as much outdoor air to enter.
Indoor air hazards
Ozone generators are sold as air cleaners and make ozone gas on purpose. But, high
concentrations of ozone react with organic material inside and outside the body. When
inhaled, ozone can damage the lungs. This can cause chest pain, coughing, shortness
of breath, and throat irritation. It can make chronic lung diseases like asthma worse
and increase the risk for lung infections.
The EPA says that research does not support claims that ozone from these devices removes
dust, pollen, and chemicals from the air. No federal agency has approved these devices
as air cleaners. The official number found on ozone generator packaging is only the
identification of the facility that made the product. It is not an approval number.
Other common sources of indoor pollution include:
These include mold, mildew, cockroaches, and dust mites.
Carbon monoxide (CO)
CO and other pollutants are released from fuel-burning stoves, heaters, and other
appliances. CO is an odorless, colorless gas. It blocks the movement of oxygen in
the body. Depending on how much is breathed in, CO can affect coordination, make heart
conditions worse, and cause extreme tiredness, headache, confusion, nausea, and dizziness.
Very high levels can cause death. Older adults, babies, and people with heart and
lung diseases are even more sensitive to elevated CO levels.
This is a product of natural gas and kerosene combustion. Like CO, it is odorless
and colorless. It irritates the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, and throat and
causes shortness of breath in high concentrations. Long-term exposure to nitrogen
dioxide can damage the lungs and may lead to chronic bronchitis. Exposure to low levels
may worsen symptoms in people who have asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,
and increase other respiratory infections.
This gas is a product of burning kerosene in a space heater. It is very irritating
to the eyes and upper respiratory tract.
Radon is a radioactive gas that seeps from the soil and rocks beneath your home. Radon
can enter a home through cracks in the foundation, walls, drains, and other openings.
Exposure to radon in the home is the second leading cause of lung cancer. Smoking
is the first. Smokers and former smokers exposed to radon may have a much higher risk
of death from lung cancer.
Cigarette smoke contains trace amounts of about 4,000 chemicals, including 200 known
poisons like formaldehyde and carbon monoxide, and 43 carcinogens.
These are other common household air pollutants:
Particulates like dust and pollen.
Formaldehyde, a common preservative and adhesive in furniture, carpets, drapes,
particleboard, and plywood paneling. Breathing formaldehyde fumes can cause coughing,
irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, rashes, headaches, and dizziness.
Household products like personal care products, pesticides, household cleaners,
solvents, and chemicals used for hobbies. Exposure to these products can cause
dizziness, nausea, allergic reactions, irritation of eyes, skin, and lungs, and
cancer. Certain cleaning products can produce poisonous fumes. Never mix chlorine
bleach and ammonia.
Remodeling hazards like new carpeting and paint. These can give off fumes that
irritate the eyes, nose, and throat.
Asbestos, from insulation, floor tiles, spackling compounds, cement, and heating
equipment. These products can be a problem indoors only if the material that
contains the asbestos is disturbed and becomes airborne. This also happens when
the product falls apart with age. Asbestos fibers are light, flexible, and small
enough to stay airborne. Because of this, fibers can be breathed in, causing
scarring of lung tissue and lung cancer.
Lead, which was common in paint made before 1978.
Pesticides. Exposure to these can occur through normal use of sprays, strips
filled with pesticides, and foggers (also called "bombs"). Exposure can
also occur from contaminated dusts after use, especially for children who may
be in close contact with contaminated surfaces. Symptoms can include headache,
dizziness, muscular weakness, and nausea. Some pesticides may cause cancer.
Signs of air trouble
These symptoms may be a sign of indoor air hazards. They include:
Unusual and noticeable odors, stale or stuffy air.
Clear lack of air movement.
Dirty or faulty central heating or air conditioning.
Damaged flue pipes or chimneys.
Excessive humidity. A relative humidity of 30% to 50% is generally recommended
for homes. Remove standing water, water-damaged materials, and wet surfaces.
These can serve as a breeding ground for molds, mildews, bacteria, and insects.
Molds and mildew.
Health reaction after remodeling, moving, weatherizing, buying new furniture,
or using household or hobby products.
Feeling healthier outside the home.
How safe is your air?
Never buy more than you need of products that might add to indoor pollution like
cleaning solvents or pesticides.
Follow makers' directions for use, storage, and disposal.
Provide ample ventilation before and after putting in products like pressed-wood
furniture, and carpets or draperies that might give off chemicals.
Don't allow smoking in your house.
Keep moisture under control. Moisture leads to growth of living pollutants and
condensation. Exhaust fans can help.
Personal care products and air fresheners can give off gases. Find items with
little or no aerosol, open windows, and use fans.
Have a professional repair or remove damaged asbestos floor tiles.
A cold mist humidifier or vaporizer can promote the growth of living pollutants.
Use and clean the appliance properly and change water daily.
Bedding should use pillows and mattress covers that block allergens. Wash
regularly in water above 130° F (54° C). Vacuum under beds regularly to
control dust mites.
Dry cleaning can leave gases on clothes. Air them out before taking them
indoors. Consider washing by hand instead.
Air conditioners harbor living allergens. Clean water trays often and change
Paneling or pressed-wood furniture may release formaldehyde gas. Seek brands
like those with phenol resin that give off less formaldehyde, or seal with
Carpets can give off gases when new and host living pollutants when wet. Air
out new carpets before installing. Ask for adhesives that give off low amounts
of gases. Clean and dry water-damaged carpets or remove them. Vacuum to curb
dust mites. Dust mites are an asthma trigger.
New draperies may have a formaldehyde-based finish. Air out before hanging.
Fireplaces create CO and other combustion pollutants. Open the flue during use.
Have the flue and chimney inspected each year.
Gas or kerosene space heaters create CO and combustion pollutants. Never use
them unless they are properly vented. Open doors to the rest of the house, use
an exhaust fan, and open windows slightly.
Household cleaners may give off unsafe or irritating vapors. Use nonaerosol,
Moisture from cooking and washing leads to living pollutants. Use exhaust fans.
Unvented gas stoves and ranges raise the risks of CO and combustion byproducts.
Clean and adjust burners, use exhaust fans, and never use a stove or range to
heat a home.
Engine exhaust carries CO and combustion byproducts. Never run engines in a
Paint and solvents. Air out when using. Reseal containers well. Clean brushes
Pesticides and fertilizers. Consider nonchemical methods. Air out if using indoors.
Fuels. Store labeled, sealed containers made for fuels outside in a well-ventilated
Laundry or utility areas
Unvented clothes dryers promote moisture, living pollutants, and dust. Vent dryers
to the outside. A gas-fired dryer creates CO and combustion byproducts. Clean
lint filters often and provide air for gas combustion.
Ground moisture promotes living allergens. Look for condensation on walls, water
on floors, or sewage leaks. To keep water out, install gutters and downspouts,
don't water near foundations, grade soil away from the house, and waterproof
Asbestos pipe wrap and furnace insulation should be checked routinely for damage
or wear. Have a professional make any repairs.
Fossil-fuel furnaces and water heaters pose risks of CO and combustion pollutants.
Have them inspected yearly, clean around them often, and change filters regularly.
Call your fuel supplier or fire department at once if you suspect a CO or fuel
Test for radon. Have an experienced certified contractor from your state or the
EPA correct radon levels of 4 picocuries per liter or higher.
For more information on indoor air safety, contact the EPA or your state’s environmental