By Kim Robson
My husband and I are big fresh air buffs. Weather permitting, we always have windows open in our home, especially at night. There’s nothing worse than being trapped in a stuffy, closed room. During winter, however, it’s harder to get fresh air inside: we don’t want to lose the heat in the house. Modern building materials ensure that homes are sealed from the outside more than ever before.
Sources that release gases or particles into the air are the primary cause of indoor air quality problems in homes. For instance, an improperly adjusted gas stove can emit significantly more carbon monoxide than a properly adjusted one. Inadequate ventilation increases indoor pollutant levels by not bringing in enough outdoor air to dilute the indoor air. High temperature and humidity also increase the concentration of pollutants. Sleeping with the thermostat off at night is better for your lungs.
Homes today are designed and constructed to prevent the “leaking” of air into and out of the home (called “infiltration”) through joints, cracks, floors, ceilings, and around windows and doors. This helps conserve energy and money, but it also prevents clean air from coming in, thus allowing indoor pollutants to build up in concentration. If your home or workplace isn’t equipped with mechanical ventilation like fans or vents, you’ll have to rely on natural ventilation (good old-fashioned open windows).
Look for and remove sources that continuously emit pollutants, such as chemical air fresheners, certainbuilding materials and furnishings, and clogged HVAC ducts. Radon detectors and test kits are inexpensive and easy to use. The presence of mold can trigger allergies, asthma, and respiratory distress. Smoking cigarettes releases countless toxic chemicals into the air. Other sources of pollution to watch out for include unvented or malfunctioning stoves, furnaces, or space heaters, solvents used in cleaning and hobbies, paint strippers used in redecorating activities, and cleaning products and pesticides used around the house.
A person’s individual sensitivity, which can vary tremendously, depends on whether or how they may react to a pollutant. It is possible to become desensitized, or hypersensitized, to chemical or biological pollutants after repeated exposures. Immediate effects can include headaches and cold- or flu-like symptoms, so pay attention to the times and places you experience symptoms. If they fade away or disappear when you’re away from home, make an effort to identify pollution sources that may be possible causes.
Other health effects may not show up until months or years after exposure, or only after long or repeated periods of exposure. Long-term health effects, including respiratory disease, heart disease, and cancer, can be severely debilitating or fatal.
The EPA’s Indoor Environments Division (IED) is responsible for conducting research and educating the public about indoor environmental issues, including health risks and the means by which human exposure can be reduced. Their website contains a wealth of valuable information — but the simplest, easiest way to improve the quality of your indoor environment right now? Open some windows and let the fresh air in!