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Improve Indoor Air Quality

by Deborah Mitchell
The Challenge

Indoor air quality in your home, workplace, school, church, and other indoor environments can be two to five times worse than outside air, and in some cases, as much as one hundred times worse. Such poor indoor air quality poses health challenges for people of all ages.

Americans spend about 90 percent of their time indoors, and 65 percent of that time at home. Thus poor indoor air quality can have a significant impact on people's lives, especially those who are most vulnerable: infants and children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those who have chronic illnesses. Many factors contribute to unhealthy indoor air quality, including the following:

  • Most buildings — including homes, office complexes, and schools — are being built or refurbished to be air-tight. The majority of modern offices, for example, have windows that do not open, and homes are being constructed more tightly to help conserve energy. At the same time, however, steps need to be taken to ensure the indoor air is safe.
  • Inadequate ventilation can heighten the level of indoor pollutants by failing to dilute emissions from indoor sources and not transporting indoor pollutants to the outside air.
  • High humidity (e.g., in damp basements) and/or high temperatures can increase the concentrations of some pollutants, such as biological contaminants (e.g., bacteria, molds, mildew). Central heating/cooling systems can become breeding grounds for these contaminants and distribute them throughout the house.
  • Many household products, furnishings, and appliances contain and/or emit toxic substances such as carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, and benzene from combustion sources (e.g., wood, gas, oil, coal, and/or kerosene-burning devices), furniture made of certain woods, some building materials, household items (e.g., air fresheners, cleaning solutions), hobby products (e.g., glues, solvents, paints), pesticides, and tobacco smoke.
  • Malfunctioning home appliances, such as furnaces, space heaters, or improperly adjusted gas stoves, and unvented dryers and stoves also can contribute pollutants.

Exposure to indoor air pollutants can have immediate or long-term health impacts. Immediate effects can include eye, throat, and nose irritation; headache, dizziness, nausea, and fatigue. Illnesses that may occur after long or repeated exposure include respiratory diseases, heart disease, cancer, and chemical sensitivities. Exposure to secondhand smoke, for example, has been linked to disease and death in children (including sudden infant death syndrome) and nonsmoking adults. Homes, workplaces, and the car are the main exposure sites for secondhand smoke, according to the American Cancer Society. 

You can take steps today to help protect the indoor air quality for you and your family, your coworkers, and others in your community.

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Better indoor air quality for your home, work place, and community is possible if you take the following actions:

  • Introduce toxin-consuming plants to your home, office, and other indoor environments. Certain plants, including philodendron, spider plants, golden pothos, peace lilies, bamboo palms, mums, and English ivy remove dangerous toxins (e.g., formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, benzene, and others) from the air, according to research conducted by NASA and other institutions.
  • Use natural household cleaning products and reduce exposure to potentially toxic airborne substances.
  • Use natural pest control techniques indoors whenever possible. Banish pesticides from your garden and lawn as well, as these toxins can easily be transported into the house on shoes and clothing and by air.
  • Store partially used pesticides and household cleaning products properly (read the labels) and properly dispose toxic products that are old or that you do not plan to use again.
  • Regularly clean the vents in your kitchen, bathroom, and dryer, and make sure they operate properly.
  • Do not smoke or allow smoking in your home, and avoid indoor areas where smoking takes place.
  • Avoid or reduce biological contaminants by maintaining humidifiers, dehumidifiers, and air conditioners; emptying water trays in dehumidifiers, air conditioners, and refrigerators frequently; drying or removing any water-damaged carpets or furniture; and routinely cleaning bedding and items used by pets.
  • Prevent carbon monoxide exposure by keeping gas appliances properly adjusted and vented, having your central heating system inspected and cleaned yearly, and never idling your car inside an attached garage.
  • Change filters on central cooling and heating systems and air cleaners according to the manufacturer's directions.
  • Reduce exposure to formaldehyde (a human carcinogen), found in pressed wood products, durable press drapes, glues, and tobacco smoke by avoiding these products when possible, increasing ventilation in indoor areas after new sources of formaldehyde are introduced, and placing philodendron, golden pothos, and spider plants in the affected spaces.
  • Test your home for radon. Radon can seep into the house from contaminated earth and rock under the home, or from well water and/or building materials. Easy, do-it-yourself kits can be purchased at hardware and other retail outlets. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers a free guide to radon.
  • If you know or suspect you have lead paint and/or asbestos in your home, office, or school, leave undamaged areas alone, and have professionals handle control and cleanup.
  • If you or your coworkers are experiencing health problems that you suspect are caused by poor indoor air quality, talk to your supervisor or union representative, as well as your personal physician and the company physician or health and safety official. Also contact your state or local health department to report and discuss the situation.

Helping keep the air you breathe safer and cleaner is a challenge you can face with confidence if you take these important steps. You'll breathe a little easier for it.

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