Breath Easy at Home – 13 Sources of Indoor Pollution

Don’t panic, but there’s something lurking in the air you breathe at home.  Invisible to the naked eye it waits patiently to bring harm to you and your family as you breathe it in totally unaware.

Sound like an intro to a horror flick?

Unfortunately, this could be used to accurately describe the threat of environmental toxins present in indoor air.  These pollutants can be traced back to the pets we keep, the materials used to make our homes or even – ironically – the products we use to clean our homes.

While it’s certainly not the immediate danger as say, Jason from the movie Friday the 13th, more studies are giving us a clearer understanding of the negative long-term effects of volatile chemicals we find in the typical modern household or workplace.

Here at Green Scene Gal, we believe that the indoors should be a refuge from pollution, not the cause of it.  So today, I wanted to talk about how these indoor pollutants are effecting your health, and ways you can proactively “clear the air” in your home or workplace…

What Health Consequences?

We spend a significant amount of time indoors.  According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency it’s around 93% for the average American.  You would think with modern home circulating air using filtered HVAC systems we would have exceptionally clean air.

Regrettably, the reverse seems to be true.

Per a 2009 study by the EPA which measured the air quality in a typical household in the United States, researchers found the air contained over 400 chemicals other than nitrogen and oxygen (otherwise known as “air”).  Of the 150 or so chemicals they could actually identify, there were pesticides, hydrocarbons, esters, and countless volatile organic compounds (VOCs) – many of which are known cancer causing agents.

Although the direct link between indoor air and the overall public health is difficult to ascertain, we’re starting to see some disappointing trends that are connecting the dots.   In a 2001-2011 US Government study conducted by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) the population with asthma in the United States increased by 28% – this, despite the fact that indoor smoking trends continued to decline during the same period.

Additionally, a British Medical Journal report released in 2004 stated that perhaps ¾ of cancers are linked to long-term exposure to environmental toxins. They assert that each person may have over 400 toxic chemicals stored in the cells of the body.

Most concerning is the likelihood that children and toddlers may be the most susceptible to these pollutants.  Research from the Harvard School of Health has shown pollution as a risk factor in the development of the diagnosis of cognitive illnesses such as autism and Asperger’s.

Sources of Indoor Pollution

OK, so there’s a strong link between the air we breathe and our health.  So what can you do about it?  The first step is to eliminate the source.  The following is a list of many of the main pollutant-causing offenders in a typical household.

Radon

Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas found when Uranium decomposes.  It is found in many parts of the world and is currently (c. 2016) the 2nd leading cause of cancer in the US.  It can affect human tissue through the emission of the same type of “Alpha” radiation found in Plutonium.

Radon is an “inert” gas, which means you can’t see or smell it and can only detect it using specialized equipment called Radon Detectors.  Many areas of the United States are known to have higher levels of Radon exposure than others, so if you’ve got a suspected Radon issue – take action.

There are thorough ways to mitigate through proper ventilation.  If you’re looking for a professional to do the job, go with a qualified radon remediators in your area.

Pets

OK, so you can’t get rid of Sparky, but you can keep down the dander he produces.  In addition to shedding skin and fur, you pet may be “off-gassing” fertilizer, pesticides, fecal matter and lord knows what else – especially if they spend time outdoors.

Here’s some common-sense tip on keeping your pet from polluting the air you breathe indoors:

  • Vacuum your carpets, rugs and furniture regularly, preferably one with a fine mesh HEPA filter
  • Wash your pet’s bedding often
  • Wash your pet often
  • Brush / groom your pet regularly outdoors, even in the winter months when they have a thicker coat
  • Use a mask and gloves during grooming
  • Change your house air filter often and use higher micron filter specifically made for pets
  • Own a cats?  Keep the litter box outside and away from vents

Cookware

Non-Emitting Cast Iron Pan
Non-Emitting Cast Iron Pan

Up until just recently most non-stick pots and pan contained chemical agents called PFCs (perfluorinated chemicals).  When heated these PFC’s convert to a noxious gas called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) which has been linked to several chronic ailments including cancer.

Today there’s no need to use old-school non-stick pans when there’s plenty of alternatives out there including Ceramic, Stainless Steel and Cast Iron.

Home Heating

Your house heater and fireplace exhausts colorless, odorless, and potentially deadly Carbon Monoxide (CO) into the air.  While Carbon Monoxide deaths are thankfully a rare occurrence, even small amounts can cause long last effects on the brain, often mimicking flu-like or exhaustion symptoms.

Be sure that you have your home checked for levels of carbon monoxide regularly, and always ensure that you have a Carbon Monoxide detectors in place throughout your house and in areas where they are accessible and receive air flow.

Dry Cleaning

While wearing a freshly pressed shirt from the dry cleaner may feel great, many cleaners use a carcinogenic solvent called PERC (Percholorethylene) in the finishing and spot-treatment process.  Once your clothes are unwrapped, PERC will quickly vaporize or off-gas in your home.  This proven carcinogen can also damage central nervous system if exposure is consistent.

Unfortunately PERC has proven difficult to eliminate in the dry-cleaning process due to conversion costs to alternatives, so you’ll have to be diligent in finding a Dry Cleaner that uses alternatives like CO2, Wet or Eco Cleaning.

In addition to the acronym PERC or Percholorethylene, it is also referred to as:

  • Tetrachloroethylene
  • Tetrachloroethene
  • PCE

Check out this video on the Green Cleaning Process…

 

New Clothes

Do you love that “New Clothes” smell?  How about the new “wrinkle-free” fabrics?  Me too.  That’s why I was bummed to hear that many clothing companies stiffen or finish their clothes using formaldehyde – yep, the same stuff an embalmer uses to preserve the dead.  Listed as a known cancer causing agent (among a long list of other chronic illnesses) from the National Cancer Institute, formaldehyde, like PERC, slowly releases vaporized formaldehyde in your home and “Wrinkle-Free” fabrics seem to be the worst offenders.

It may cost a bit more, but I look foreco-friends brands that carry the stringent GOTS certification (Global Organic Textile Standard)

Mattresses , Pillows and Covers

We spend a lot of time in bed, nearly 1/3 of our lives on average!  We like to believe that our beds and pillows are safe to use, especially since our faces lie in such proximity to them when we sleep.  That’s why there’s been growing concern of the common VOC emitting fillers and fire retardants used in the production process of most mattresses, pillows and bedding covers.

To respond to demand, you may see manufacturers using marketing terms such as “all-natural”, “eco-friendly” and “Soy-Foam”.  These vague terms are dubious at best since they do not adhere to any standard.  Even a mattress labeled as “organic” can be misleading since there’s no assurance of just how much of the material is certified organic.

If you’re wondering where to start looking for acceptable brands I strongly advise you to do your research online before heading out to a bedding store.  In particular, look for products and providers that adhere to one of two industry standards for certifying organic material: namely GOLS or GOTS.

  • GOLS stands for Global Organic Latex Standard and certifies that latex filled mattresses, pillows and covers are filled with certified organic Natural Latex
  • GOTS is the Global Organic Textile Standard and ensures that the glues, framing and fabric are certified organic in addition to padding material that uses wool, cotton or natural fibers (for customers with latex sensitivity)

Household Cleaners

I suppose I could list all the many dangerous chemicals used in today’s popular household cleaners, but that’s for another LONG article.  Bottom line:  dump the scrubs, the window cleaners, the toilet bowl gels, the disinfectants and go all natural.

Many of these nasty chemical sprays evaporate or easily atomize into the air after being used.

Keep it simple!

You can use a combination of these natural ingredients to clean just about anything in your home:

  • Lemon Essential Oil
  • White Distilled Vinegar
  • Rubbing Alcohol
  • Hydrogen Peroxide

Most of the time however, I simply use wet and dry micro cloths made by Norwex to clean my counter-tops, floors and windows.   Norwex micro-clothes in particular have patented non-toxic micro-filament strands of silver embedded in the cloth which act to naturally kill fungus, bacteria and mold – and they work great for cleaning windows!

Upholstered Furniture

Similar to mattresses, many upholstered furniture companies use petroleum-derived foam, toxic flame retardants and stain guards in the manufacturing process.  They also like to use misleading terms as “Organic” or “Soy Foam” or “Eco-Friendly” in the sales copy to confuse customers and, sorta / kinda meet their concerns.

Again, insist on furniture that carries both the GOLS and GOTS certification, and – since you want to be a good steward of our planet – look for furniture that a uses reclaimed material or carries the FSC Certification which ensure that every link in the supply chain for any wood used meets certain sustainability standards.

One other thing you may want to consider:  Buying used.

By purchasing used furniture you’re doing two environmentally beneficial things:

  • You’re recycling!  (Never mind it’s so much fun to go antique shopping!)
  • Depending on the age, used furniture has likely already off-gassed any harmful chemicals (this also holds true for another enclosed space – the interior of cars)

Carpeting and Rugs

Chances are your rugs and carpet are full of dust mites and toxic chemicals that are being off-gassed into the air in your home.

Replace your traditional carpeting with eco-friendly carpeting or natural flooring. Cotton rugs and natural fiber wools are excellent choices. There are green manufacturing processes that now decrease the amount of the toxin 4-phenylcyclohexene (4-PCH) over 80 percent.[2] You may also consider going with hardwood floors or eco-friendly ceramic or linoleum. If possible, steer clear of the toxic glues and stains.

Interior Paint

Looking to painting indoors?   Many of the paints today still emit VOCs, dangerous solvents, and adhesive agents as they dry.  Protect yourself and your family by choosing a zero or low VOC paint.

How do you find these paints?  Go online and search for products that carry one or more of the following VOC certifications:

  • GreenSeal GS-11GreenSeal is a non-profit company that focuses on certifying products that adhere to environmentally sustainable standards.  The GS-11 seal indicates that the paints and tints were made and emit low VOCs.  Since companies pay for this certification, it’s not as strong as the next certification…
  • MPI X-Green:  Unlike the GreenSeal certification, MPI X-Green certification requires 3rd party testing in its validation, as well as paint performance – a key difference – as multiple applications naturally generate more emissions.

Although products may be listed as low-VOC, take extra precaution and ventilate properly by opening as many windows as you can while painting indoors.

Air Fresheners

Air fresheners are like so 20 years ago.  Sure, they can your house smell like a pine tree or Mom’s apple pie, but does your Mom make her apple pie with dangerous VOCs like phalates, benzene, formaldehyde and terpenes?

Why not diffuse all-natural Essential Oils instead?  Made simply from the distilled essence of a plant, all you need are a few drops of your favorite scented oils, fresh water and a diffuser, and you’ve got yourself a cheap and safe alternative to freshen up your home.

Many petroleum-based products like many plastics and polyurethane contain compounds called “VOCs” or Volatile Organic Compounds.   Unlike stable molecules these “volatile” (or unstable) compounds easily break apart (off-gas), often reacting adversely to other organic material it touches like your skin or lungs.

Dryer sheets and Detergents

The combination of dyer sheets and detergents may reduce static and add a nice smell to your clothes, but were you aware that many of these products off-gas a multitude of nasty chemicals into the air?  What makes it particularly disturbing is the fact that few companies disclose the chemicals used on their label.

According to a University of Washington study, a sample set of products from this industry emitted an average of 17 chemicals, many of them classified as unsafe according to Federal standards.

Looking for a clean alternative?  Check out this article from our Canadian friends at the Organic Prepper for a wonderful article on safe laundry alternatives .

Now What?

So you’re well on your way to ridding yourself of some of the main sources of indoor pollution.  Stay on it with some good habits and products we recommend you use on an ongoing basis in order to keep the air in your home the cleanest it can be.

Watch for excess moisture

Mold and mildew produce spores that can damage the lining of your lungs.  They grow in areas of prolonged moisture and can quickly spread if left untreated.  Make sure you clean the areas in the home most prone to excess moisture (bathroom and kitchen) with these safe, effective and natural cleaning alternatives like:

  • Vinegar
  • Hydrogen Peroxide
  • Baking Soda
  • Anti-Fungal Essential Oils like Cinnamon, Tea Tree or Clove

Keep the dust down

You want to keep your dust at a low level in your home, so be sure to mop your floors regularly and use a vacuum that has a HEPA filter.   This type of vacuum will gather more toxic allergens than a regular vacuum.  As mentioned previously:  If you own a pet: this is a must!

Houseplants

According to a clean air study by NASA along with several related studies from US universities like Pennsylvania State University, a single indoor plant is wonderfully efficient at filtering the air of dangerous VOCs by absorbing these pollutants into their leaves and roots while expelling fresh oxygen.

Open Up Your Windows

Look outside, is it nice out?  If the answer is YES.  Then open those windows up wide and let in some fresh air.

“Make Up” Air Ventilation

Today’s homes are built more air-tight than ever – which is great for home energy efficiency.   Not so much for clean air.

The problem is: the inside of your home isn’t properly pressurized, than exhaust air can have difficulty leaving your home or – worse yet – can be pulled back into your home.

Modern tight homes and offices benefit a reliable, controlled supply of fresh air.

Enter “Make Up” Air Ventilation systems.

Also known as Positive Pressure Ventilation Systems, these are sensor-based or time-based dampers (ie: air flow regulators) that ensure that the pressure inside your home is always forcing air from your home, not sucking it back in.

While many modern kitchen range-hoods and HVAC units are standard equipped with positive pressure functionality, older homes may need to be retro-fitted.

Air Purifiers

While not the magic cure-all for perfectly clean indoor air, Air Purifiers certainly help to reduce air particulate in your indoor air.  Air Purifiers that use both a HEPA Filter in combination with a carbon / charcoal have the best chance of eliminating the most dust, mold and VOCs from the air.  To get the most out of your Air Purifier, make sure you are sizing your unit appropriately to the indoor space and change or clean the HEPA filter regularly.

Well there you have it.  If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed with all the article and the number of contributing factors to poor indoor air quality, take a deep breath and relax.  The good news is: your body has wonderful built-in filtration systems to process toxins, but over time these toxins can affect your health.  I recommend starting small.  Begin the process by making a list of concerns you have and, little by little begin make the changes.

Megan Word

Green Gal Guru

A self-described "Green Gal", Megan is a full-time mommy and passionate blogger in the natural health and green living space. She has been actively preaching to friends and family for years about simple ways to live free of synthetic chemicals, and in harmony with our one and only planet earth.

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