Our homes have long been considered safe havens from all that is potentially harmful. When it comes to air pollution, however, we can’t shut the door on outdoor toxins. Posing a more immediate threat, however, are the toxins born within our own homes. There’s a flip side to making your home more energy-efficient. Sealing those doorways and weather-stripping and caulking those air leaks helps keep air inside. It’s good news for our monthly budgets — and bad news for air quality. Considering that we spend 90 percent of our time indoors — 65 percent of which is spent in our own homes — adequate ventilation is imperative. Sometimes even the air outside is cleaner that what we breathe inside our homes.
Gary Branson, a writer for the online homeowners’ resource HouseNet, Inc., tells the following harrowing story about household-generated air pollution:
“An engineer was wearing an air pollution monitor while touring the Los Angeles freeway system. He forgot to turn the monitor off when he arrived home and was surprised to find that the air inside his home was 10 times more polluted than the freeway air.” The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found that the home air pollution levels may be as much as 20 times worse than outdoors. And the ironic part of all of this is that the occupants themselves are the source of poor indoor air quality.
For the most part, toxins come from what we bring into our homes. And many of these toxins are coming from places where you’d least expect them — try furniture, for instance. Believe it or not, that innocent-looking sofa in the corner of your living room could be releasing formaldehyde into the air. Some other culprits: water heaters that emit exhaust fumes, lead-based paints, paints insulated by asbestos. And, occasionally, toxins grow naturally within your home — for example, the mildew growing between your shower tiles, those dust mites who sleep with you in your bedding each night, and the radon seeping into your basement.
Homeowners aren’t merely passive receptacles for these toxins, however. Like most energy-saving strategies, air pollution remedies are cheaply and easily attained — and usually generate dramatic results.
Appliances that subsist on fuel combustion — water heaters, gas ovens, clothes dryers, fireplaces, and furnaces, for instance — could release carbon monoxide (CO) and nitrogen oxide (NO2) indoors if either they’re not functioning efficiently, or if an obstruction blocks their vents to the outside. We all know about the potentially lethal effects of carbon monoxide, and most of us are well aware of the merits of having a carbon monoxide detector, but nitrogen oxide’s effects have received considerably less publicity. NO2 irritates both the eyes and respiratory tract. It’s also important to note that carbon monoxide is odorless, so detection is more difficult than, say, formaldehyde, a component of cigarette smoke which not only lurks in some pieces of furniture but may also be emitted by common household items such as particleboard, paneling, glues, fabrics, and some carpeting adhesives. People who are exposed to formaldehyde may suffer from eye and throat irritation, headaches, or nausea.
And, of course, our kitchens and garages contain some of the biggest air-polluting culprits: cleaning products such as pesticides, oven cleaners, bathroom cleaners with pungent odors, and hobby-related products such as paints and lead solder. It’s easy to overlook, but cooking — particularly frying — is responsible for the formation of pollutants. A range exhaust hood in the kitchen used frequently throughout your meal preparations will help remove air pollutants. Microwave ovens are the mainstay of every kitchen — and rightfully so. They significantly cut both cooking time and grease.
Our home heating and cooling systems, if not properly inspected and maintained on a yearly basis, may become clogged with mold, mildew, dust, and other irritants. Cleaned heating systems also cut back on the need to light fires on very cold nights. Under those weather conditions, an abundance of fireplace smoke is trapped indoors, inside your tightly sealed home.
It goes without saying that smoking indoors creates pollution. Heavy smokers, in particular, could be turning the white paint on their walls a dingy yellow color. “If you are a smoker and doubt the effect cigarette smoke has on indoor air and cleanliness,” Branson says, “hold a piece of white paper up against your ceilings. You may be amazed to see how dirty those ceilings are.”