Breathing the Air Indoors
Think about how you spend your days: working, studying, playing, shopping, sleeping. Now think about where you spend your days. Most of us spend at least 80% of our time indoors, and that percentage increases during the winter. So how these indoor environments make us feel really matters.
While we usually think of air pollution as an outdoor phenomenon, the Environmental Protection Agency has found that indoor-air quality is often five times worse - and can be more than 100 times worse - than the air outdoors. In the mid-1980s, the World Health Organization determined that as many as 30% of buildings worldwide have poor indoor-air quality, causing "sick building syndrome" symptoms.
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In the past, concern about indoor pollutants centered on the long-term diseases caused by cigarette smoke and by radon, asbestos and lead exposure. While these are still serious issues, health officials have become aware of a broader range of common indoor pollutants.
In many buildings, bad air is often the result of a buildup of fungi, mold and bacteria, which can cause everything from asthma attacks to the deadly Legionnaire's disease. In addition to these biological hazards, various building materials, finishes, furnishings, office equipment, heating systems and household products can create a toxic smog in our dwellings. Some building finishes and furnishings release, or "off-gas," volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as formaldehyde, trichloroethylene, benzene and toluene - known or suspected carcinogens. Some electronic office equipment off-gasses ozone. Gas heaters and stoves release carbon monoxide.
Here are some examples of materials and products that are prime sources of indoor air pollution:
- Building materials: treated wood products such as particle board, adhesives
- Finishes: paint, carpeting
- Furnishings: upholstery fabrics
- Office equipment: copiers, printers, fax machines
- Heating systems: gas heaters and stoves
- Household products: cleaners, detergents, pesticides, air fresheners, perfumes and even those stinky dry-erase markers
Fumes from these materials typically do not make people sick in structures with good air flow. The energy crisis of the 1970s prompted construction of tightly sealed buildings with windows that cannot be opened, and inadequate ventilation. While this did help to conserve energy, it also contributed to the indoor air-quality problems we have today. Ventilation standards have since been raised, but the air quality in your home, school or office may still be poor.
Short of having an indoor-air-quality specialist do an assessment of the buildings where you live and work, here are some things you can do to safeguard your health:
- Open the windows from time to time to get some outside air flowing through the rooms.
- Consider using an air purification system.
- When using paint or chemical products, or bringing new furniture or materials into the building, allow the rooms to air out for a day before occupying them.
- When you're doing renovation work or interior decorating, look for formaldehyde-free particleboard and carpeting and VOC-free paints and adhesives.
- If you're ready to replace your carpet, consider switching to wood or linoleum flooring, since carpets make great habitat for bacteria and mold.
- Keep office equipment, such as copiers and printers, away from the area where you spend the most time.
- Make sure that your heating, ventilation and cooling systems get routine maintenance, such as filter replacement.
- Remove any water-damaged carpeting and ceiling tiles.
- Use a carbon-monoxide detector.
- Keep paints, adhesives, cleaning products and pesticides in well-ventilated areas away from your main living quarters.
- Reduce or eliminate your use of chemical cleaning products, air fresheners, pesticides and other chemical products.
- Buy indoor plants, such as the spider plant and golden pothos, which absorb carbon monoxide and formaldehyde from the air.
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