Air pollution is a term that likely conjures images of industrial smokestacks and billowing plumes rising into the atmosphere. Those are certainly examples of air pollution but the oft forgotten truth is that the worst air quality you experience every day is most likely to be located right in your living room. Trapped, stagnant air and poor ventilation combine to create a toxic cloud inside the home. Here’s 10 facts everyone should know about indoor air pollutants and how to protect themselves and their family from the potential health dangers.
1. IAQ is a Top 5 Health Risk
The United States EPA ranks indoor air quality as a top five environmental risk to public health. EPA studies found indoor air pollutants were generally 2 to 5 times greater than outdoor pollution levels. In some cases, indoor air pollution was 100x greater.  There are many reasons to why this is the case, including poor ventilation, the burning of toxic candles, use of air fresheners, chemical laden household cleaners, and more.
2. Your Furniture May be the Most Dangerous Culprit
Furniture purchased prior to 2006 contained toxic PBDEs — chemicals used as flame retardants. These flame retardants have the possibility of sending toxins into the air. Even after 2006, flame retardants continue to be used. Chlorinated tris (a known carcinogen banned from children’s pajamas in 1977) was reintroduced, and new flame retardant chemicals appear to create the same dangers. Inhalation has been noted as the primary route to exposure.
3. Air Fresheners are Poison
The NRDC determined most air fresheners contain phthalates, noxious chemicals known to disrupt hormone function in babies and children, interfere with reproductive development, and aggravate respiratory ailments such as asthma.  A recent study found the terpenes released by air fresheners interact with ozone to form compounds like formaldehyde and acetone at concentrations which can cause respiratory sensitivity and airflow limitation. 
4. Candles are No Better than Air Fresheners
Candles can be nice but it’s important to pay attention to what you’re buying. Most candles, especially the scented ones made with paraffin wax, contain benzene and toluene, two known carcinogens. These candles also contain hydrocarbons called alkanes and alkenes (chemicals found in car exhaust). When you burn toxic candles in your home, you’re releasing toxic chemicals, don’t do it! If you purchase candles, choose soy- or beeswax-based varieties scented only with pure essential oils.
5. Inkjet Printers Release Fertility-Robbing Chemicals
Did you ever think your inkjet printer could be a source of air pollution? Printing inks, like those used in home printers, contain glymes. These industrial chemicals have been linked to developmental and reproductive damage. The EPA has expressed concern about their safety, especially in regards to repeat long-term exposure.  It may be better to have your photos printed at the store.
6. The Air Quality in Schools is Among the Worst
Schools accommodate up to 4x more occupants, aka students, than a standard office building with the same amount of floor space. What makes this alarming is that children breathe more air relative to their body weight than adults. In closed spaces with a lot of huffing and puffing, many germs, allergens, and other nasties quickly spread. The EPA specifically identifies air quality in schools as a point of concern.
7. Poor Quality Air Exacerbates Asthma
Since the early 1980s, the occurrence of asthma has been on the rise for everyone — all races, classes, and ages. Simply put, asthma is a silent epidemic that has a disastrous effect on quality of life. In 1999, about 20 million Americans suffered from asthma, or about 1 in 14.  In 2011, the number had increased to around 25 million Americans, or 1 in 12. 
8. The Elderly Suffer Most
Many elderly spend the majority of their day inside, whether in their own homes or in care centers. Some estimates suggest the average time spent indoors is 19-20 hours a day. A Portuguese study found that elderly patients in elderly care centers faced exposure to high concentrations of fungus which could negatively affect their respiratory health. 
9. Indoor Air Contaminants Damage More than Respiratory Health
The range of indoor air pollutants includes VOCs, phthalates, PBDEs, mold, pollen, pet dander, radon, and more. Most of these qualify as fine or ultra-fine particulate matter that are easily inhaled and can pass into the bloodstream, and even cross the blood-brain barrier. Dry eyes, headaches, nasal congestion, fatigue, and even nausea are common symptoms. Serious problems such as asthma, lung infections, or even lung cancer have been linked to exposure. Particles which enter the bloodstream have been associated with stroke and depression in adults, and children have shown increased systemic inflammation, immune dysfunction, and neural distress. 
10. Wood Smoke Slows Immune Response
There’s no denying that campfire is cozy and inviting but make it a special treat. Research shows that regular inhalation of wood smoke limits immune activity and function.  While this is a greater concern for many individuals who depend on wood burning for cooking and heat, anyone who burns wood indoors should be aware of the potential health risks. Many of the particles in wood smoke collect and gather in dust long after the fire is extinguished. There may be no aroma as comforting as that of the home fire, but it’s one which should be enjoyed sparingly.
Improving Your Indoor Air Quality
Since an indoor space can contain chemicals, mold, dust, or even industrially-created chemicals such as phthalates, PBDEs, and other VOCs, it’s especially important to be vigilant about purifying the air in your home. The best strategies are:
- Improve ventilation — don’t let the concentration of pollutants build up.
- Clean the air using air filters — a HEPA filter or Guardian Air REME are excellent options.
- Dust with a damp cloth to remove particulate matter — don’t just spread it around, clean it up.
- Remove sources of air contaminants — buy organic furniture not treated with chemicals and avoid harsh chemical air fresheners and cleaning products.
- Get outside regularly — the fresh air and sunlight will do wonders!
Have you struggled with indoor air quality? What did you do to improve it? Share your thoughts and experiences with us.
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- Natural Resources Defense Council. New Study: Common Air Fresheners Contain Chemicals That May Affect Human Reproductive Development. NRDC Press Release.
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- Tang S1, Zhao H2. Glymes as Versatile Solvents for Chemical Reactions and Processes: from the Laboratory to Industry. RSC Adv. 2014;4(22):11251-11287.
- NCEH. Asthma at a Glance. National Center for Environmental Health (NCEH), U.S. CDC, 1999.
- American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology. Asthma Statistics. AAAAI Fact Sheet.
- Aguiar L1, Mendes A, Pereira C, Neves P, Mendes D, Teixeira JP. Biological air contamination in elderly care centers: geria project. J Toxicol Environ Health A. 2014;77(14-16):944-58. doi: 10.1080/15287394.2014.911135.
- Calderón-Garcidueñas L1, Calderón-Garcidueñas A2, Torres-Jardón R3, et al. Air pollution and your brain: what do you need to know right now. Prim Health Care Res Dev. 2014 Sep 26:1-17.
- Rylance J1, Fullerton DG, Scriven J, et al. Household Air Pollution Causes Dose-dependent Inflammation and Altered Phagocytosis in Human Macrophages. Am J Respir Cell Mol Biol. 2014 Sep 25.