Indoor air pollution refers to toxic contaminants that we encounter in our daily lives in our homes, schools and workplaces. According to the California Air Resources Board (ARB), part of the California Environmental Protection Agency, many pollutants build up rapidly indoors, resulting in higher levels than usually found outside, especially in newer homes where tighter construction prevents particles from escaping the home. These pollutants can cause a variety of health problems and can even be fatal at high levels.
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Exposure to Indoor Air Pollution
According to the ARB, indoor air pollutant levels can be anywhere between 25 to 62 percent greater than outside levels. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that people in industrialized nations spend as much as 90 percent of their time indoors. For some parts of the population, such as infants and the elderly, the time spent indoors can be even greater. Exposure to some pollutants, such as tobacco smoke and radon, occurs almost exclusively indoors.
Sources of Indoor Air Pollution
Indoor air pollution can be caused by tobacco smoke, carbon monoxide or nitrogen oxides from unvented or faulty gas appliances, particles from wood-burning stoves, fireplaces and aerosol sprays, and biological agents, such as pet dander, dust and mold. Asbestos, lead and radon are particularly dangerous indoor pollutants that can cause brain damage and cancer.
Volatile Organic Compounds
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are hazardous chemicals that commonly exist in high concentrations indoors. VOCs are released from consumer products, such as aerosol sprays, solvents, glues and adhesives, cleaning products, paint, air fresheners, building materials, furnishings, office equipment, carpet, craft supplies and dry cleaning chemicals on recently treated clothing. Products of this nature release VOCs when in use or even while stored. Formaldehyde is a common VOC found in furniture, wallpaper and pressed wood products, such as plywood and particleboard.
Health Risks of Indoor Air Pollution
A 1987 EPA study ranked indoor air pollution as the fourth highest cancer risk out of 13 environmental problems. Indoor radon exposure, which is the second-leading cause of lung cancer, was rated the number-one environmental health risk. In addition to lung cancer, indoor air pollution can cause other respiratory conditions, such as bronchitis, pneumonia and emphysema. Toxic compounds found inside the home have also been linked to heart disease, headaches, loss of eyesight; impaired mental function, eye, nose and throat irritation, allergic reactions, asthma and damage to the liver, kidney and brain, according to the ARB. Some indoor pollutants, such as carbon monoxide, can be fatal.
Reducing Indoor Air Pollution
Minimizing or preventing the release of pollutants is essential to lowering the levels of hazardous compounds inside the home. The ARB recommends restricting smoking indoors and using products and appliances safely and properly. Products containing VOCs should be used outside whenever possible, and indoors only in properly ventilated areas. Choose alternatives to aerosol sprays whenever possible and do not use gas stoves to heat the house. Choose building materials, furniture and carpet carefully; avoid VOC-containing materials, such as plywood and particle board. When purchasing new furniture and carpet, arrange for items to be aired out prior to delivery, or air them out in the garage or yard before bringing them into the house. Clean the house regularly to keep it free of dust and mold.