We’d like to think that the air inside out homes is cleaner than the air outside, but there is a good chance that it’s not the case…according to the EPA, the air quality in our homes can be on average about 2-5 times worse than outside, and sometimes it can be much more than that.
This is particularly disconcerting when we take into account that most people spend at least 75% of their time indoors (mostly between work, school and home). That’s a lot of time to be constantly breathing in air that is toxic to our bodies. According to a study by the EPA, children and adults on average breathe in between 10 000 – 36 000 liters of air every day while doing ordinary daily activities (sitting, standing, driving, walking, household chores, playing outdoors) and up to 70 000 liters a day when daily activities included more vigorous movement (walking faster, jogging). The International Agency for Research on Cancer and the World Health Organization have concluded that about 80% of cancers can be attributed to environmental toxins (carcinogenic chemicals present in our food and environment) rather than genetic factors.
There are various incriminating substances which contribute to the toxic load of the air quality indoors, and most of them exist because of toxic chemicals used in the production of certain items. Lack of proper ventilation also causes a build up of toxic chemicals in the home. Most of these toxins can be removed by making a few simple changes in the products you choose to use in your home. Here are some of the most common guilty parties making your home air toxic:
Cigarettes, cigars and pipes contain at least 200 known poisons, 43 of them being proven carcinogens. Second-hand smoke also has dire consequences, resulting in cancer, cardiovascular disease and asthma in non-smokers, as well as an increase in respiratory infections in infants.
Synthetic chemical cleaning products (ie your standard home cleaning products available in most stores) are another big contributor to toxic air in the home, as well as dryer sheets (made out of polyester, a plastic) which are infused with synthetic fragrances, the ingredients of which manufacturers are not obliged to disclose. Pesticides (mosquito repellents and general pest control sprays for home and garden) are another huge culprit of air pollution – it’s a mystery as to why people think it’s safe to ever use such deadly chemicals in the home.
Chlorine bleach, if mixed with an acid like ammonia or vinegar, creates chlorine gas which can cause immediate health problems and even death when inhaled.
Paints, air fresheners and even candles also release toxins. Paints and air fresheners release toxic VOCs continually (volatile organic compounds = chemicals that release vapors and gasses at room temp). Many air fresheners also contain phthalates which are an endocrine disruptor, especially in infants and children who do not yet have fully developed endocrine systems. Paints can continue to release VOCs for several month after they have been applied, and the less ventilated the painted area is, the longer it will take to get the VOC levels back to “normal”.
Burning paraffin candles (which accounts for most candles) releases benzene and toluene. Paraffin is also bleached to give it a white colour, and this process infuses the paraffin with dioxins, another toxic chemical. On top of this, the artificial dyes and fragrances in the candles also release their own mix of toxins into the air when the candles are burned. No matter what kind of candle you use, during combustion, all candles release soot carbon particles that can lead to respiratory problems.
The ingredient called “fragrance” on a product label can actually include a mix of hundreds of different chemicals (including phthalates), and sometimes those chemicals can react with ozone to create dangerous chemicals such as formaldehyde. An example of such a fragrance ingredient is limonene (an orange scent) which is not harmful by itself, but once it reacts with ozone from the environment, formaldehyde is formed.
Even permanent and white board markers release xylene, a very toxic chemical which can cause depression of the central nervous system resulting in dizziness, nausea, headache and vomiting.
Perfluorinated acids are found in non-stick pans. Several dangerous fumes are released when the pans are heated even at normal cooking temperatures, and the release of toxins become even higher when the pans are heated at higher temperatures, as well as if the coating on the pan has been damaged (but the damaged coating could be so small so as to not be notable to the naked eye).
There are numerous cases and studies of many birds and rats dying within minutes of being exposed to the chemicals released from heated non-stick pans as well as PTFE-coated heat lamp bulbs, the article can be read here . If these chemicals can kill animals within minutes, is there really still a good reason for anyone to be using PFA coated pans?
In people, PFA toxicity can cause polymer fume fever, which manifests as a “temporary, intense, though not very serious influenza-like syndrome”. Since this condition mimics the flu, it is likely that doctors wouldn’t even realize that the origin of the illness is PFA related, which probably explains why only a few cases of people being admitted to hospital because of polymer fume fever have been reported.
Personal care products
Products intended to be used on the body, which one would think to be safe, are no exception to releasing harmful chemicals. Deodorants (VOCs), antiperspirants, hairsprays, nail polish (formaldehyde, xylene), perfumes (phthalates)…all consist of and release toxic gases into the air.
Mold & bioaerosols
Molds thrive in damp conditions, like bathrooms. Mold can become very dangerous and should be treated immediately. Mold toxicity can result in nasal stuffiness, throat and eye irritations, wheezing and skin irritations.
Bioaerosols refer to biocontaminants such as bacteria and viruses. These are released by people, pets, ventilation systems, humidifiers.
These refer to unvented gas heaters and stoves, fireplaces, and car exhaust fumes from garages attached to the home. The by-products released via these sources are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides.
Carpets and upholstered furniture release VOCs (linked to heart and lung disease and cancer) and formaldehyde. Some carpets are also treated with the anti-moth chemical naphthalene which can cause toxic reactions, especially in newborns.
Pressed wood products (hardwood, plywood etc) and mattresses release formaldehyde, and PVC pipes, food packaging, toys and vinyl flooring release phthalates. The insulation of some homes still contain asbestos.
Some plastics and fabrics contain PDBEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers = flame retardants) which can affect thyroid function, behaviour, learning and memory.
CFL light bulbs (compact fluorescent lights) contain mercury (a neurotoxin), so if they break they release small amounts of mercury into the air. If that happens, you are advised to open all windows, switch off central air if you have it, vacate the room for at least 15 minutes and then follow the EPA mercury cleaning guide. It is advised to NOT vacuum up a mercury spill since the vacuum could spread mercury vapours all over the place. Other common household items containing mercury are mercury thermometers and some batteries (eg button cell batteries – tiny round ones).
Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that’s produced from the decay of the elements uranium, thorium and radium which is found in rocks and soil. This gas escapes easily from the soil and so enters our homes. The homes greatest at risk for high levels of radon in their indoor air are those which are built on soil rich in the 3 elements mentioned above, and houses near mine tailing dumps. Radon levels enter the home through cracks in the foundation, drains, loose-fitting pipes and even through water supply from contaminated underground water.
Long-term exposure to radon is a proven link to lung cancer. Smokers exposed to radon are however at a much higher risk of lung cancer than non-smokers, as much as 25 times higher at risk. Most radon-related cancers occur among smokers, with an estimate of about 10% of radon-related cancers occurring among non-smokers.
Radon naturally dissipates in outdoor air but levels become high indoors because the air is trapped and the radon cannot escape efficiently.
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Now for some ideas on how to improve the air quality in your home!
Avoid using chemical-laden products
This is your first line of defense. Even better than trying to only ventilate toxic air out of your house, do the environment a favour in the process and avoid using chemical-laden products as much as possible. Quit smoking. Use 100% beeswax candles with cotton wicks. Use natural cleaning products with safe ingredients (or save a bundle by making your own cleaning products). Find nail polishes with fewer toxic ingredients, or think, do you really need nail polish at all? Use natural deodorants and antiperspirants, or if you choose not to go natural, use roll-ons instead of sprays. Use natural scents (such as pure aromatherapy oils) to scent your home, and you can even use essential oils to make your own perfume. Avoid non-stick pans. Use VOC-free carpets and paints. Or even better, if you can, avoid carpets in favour of wood or tile floors and use rugs which you can wash properly. Try making your own natural hairspray. If you can afford to, opt for organic furnitures and mattresses. If you do have toxic chemicals stored in your house, remove them and keep them elsewhere where their fumes won’t pollute your home. Avoid plastic items and containers as much as possible. Find natural and safer alternatives for pest control. Use natural laundry products and scent your clothes with essential oils. If you have dry cleaned items, hang them outside for a couple of days before putting them in the cupboard, or use eco-friendly dry cleaners.
Ventilate, ventilate, ventilate!
Keep windows and doors open for as long as you are able, especially on opposite sides of the house to allow the breeze to move right through your house. If you have installed new carpets or painted walls or bought new furniture, make sure to keep those rooms as ventilated as much as possible for at least a few days, and make use of a fan to help move the chemicals out the house. If you burn candles or cook with non-stick pans or use a gas stove or fireplace, keep the house ventilated during and after your used of those items. If you spray deodorant or hairspray or perfume on yourself, or apply or remove nail polish, don’t inhale the fumes and ventilate the room when using those products. Damp places like bathrooms should be especially well ventilated to prevent mold.
Keep your house clean
Vacuum and wash floors and surfaces regularly to remove toxins which have settles on the floor (babies who spend all their time on the floor inhale much more toxins than adults who don’t have their noses so close to the floor all day). Use HEPA filter vacuums to prevent toxins from being blown back into the room. Fix water leaks that could lead to damp moldy spots. Clean moldy areas immediately. If you are able to, install extractor fans in bathrooms and kitchens to help reduce mold and kitchen contaminants. Clean air conditioners, humidifiers and dehumidifiers regularly. Make sure your gas heaters and stoves are properly maintained so as to minimize the leakage of gases.
Redecorate your home with many plants
Plants absorb many dangerous chemicals in the home, including mold spores. Read more about air purifying plants here.
Reduce radon exposure
It is possible to get radon testing kits to measure the levels of radon in our homes. There are also methods to reduce radon exposure. The WHO recommends reducing radon exposure in your home by:
- increasing under-floor ventilation
- installing a radon sump system in the basement or under a solid floor
- avoiding the passage of radon from under the floor into the home
- sealing floors and walls
- improving ventilation in the house
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Wow, it might feel a bit overwhelming, but with a few really small and simple changes (some examples suggested above) you can make a big difference in improving the air quality in your home.