Since the pandemic, we have been spending more time at home. Professionals are leaving traditional office jobs in favor of remote work, and parents are opting to homeschool their children. People often think about air pollution as an outdoor problem, but the air in our homes often poses serious health risks. Some pollutants are particularly harmful to children, older adults, and anyone with a health problem such as asthma. With so much time spent at home, it’s more important than ever that we take the time to ensure optimal air quality for everyone living under our roof.
Air Pollution in the Home
Overall, we spend a lot of our time indoors, especially during the cold winter months. Most of the time, we don’t see the pollution that lowers the air quality in our homes. We go about our daily lives completely unaware of the danger in the air around us. Pollutants commonly found in the air we breathe are gasses, chemicals, particulates, and living organisms such as mold and viruses.
Breathing these pollutants can cause us short-term health problems such as sore eyes, headaches, burning in the nose and throat, or fatigue. Sometimes these pollutants are capable of causing long-term health complications like respiratory illnesses, heightened allergies, cancer, and heart disease.
Learn About Pollutants
Basic knowledge of the most common air pollutants in our homes is essential for any homeowner’s safety. Knowing what to test for and how to mitigate indoor air pollution is crucial for the health and safety of everyone in the family. The most common pollutants to look for include:
Products of Combustion
How Radon Affects Air Quality in Our Homes
Radon is a radioactive gas that naturally seeps out of the rocks and soil. It enters our homes through cracks and penetrations in foundations or slabs or floors immediately above the bare ground. Radon gas is trapped inside our homes and builds up over time.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finds that exposure to radon gas is the second leading cause of lung cancer, surpassed only by smoking. Each year, lung cancer results from radon poisoning claims over 21,000 lives in the United States.
The effects of radon take a long time to build up in our bodies, and lung cancer develops only after many years of exposure. According to the Mayo Clinic, short-term symptoms of radon poisoning include:
- Ongoing chest pain
- Persistent coughing
- Unintended weight loss
- Coughing up blood
Testing Homes for Radon Gas and Taking Action
Radon is odorless, colorless, and tasteless. Many people live in homes without realizing they are being exposed to dangerous levels of this radioactive gas.
Fortunately, reliable equipment now allows consumers to test radon levels in their homes on an ongoing basis. These affordable testing devices offer results in minutes.
When checking the readings of this equipment, homeowners will discover radon is measured in picocuries per liter of air (pCi/L). A reading of 0 pCi/L would be ideal, but even with the best ventilation, We’re bound to find trace amounts of radon in our homes.
Outdoors, radon levels between 0.1 and 0.4 pCi/L are typical. Indoors, we’re likely to detect higher levels.
A higher radon level means higher health risks. The EPA advises taking action when radon levels reach 4.0 pCi/L. According to the EPA, at least one in every 15 homes in the U.S. has radon exceeding this level, and reducing radon levels below this amount would cut lung cancer deaths as a result of radon in half.
How Secondhand Smoke Affects Air Quality in Our Homes
Secondhand smoke results from burning tobacco products such as cigars, cigarettes, and pipes. Long-term exposure to this pollutant in our homes is a cause of cancer and severe respiratory illnesses.
According to the EPA, young children are especially vulnerable to health risks brought on by secondhand smoke. Physically, they are still developing and exhibit more rapid breathing rates than adults.
Secondhand smoke is proven to cause or worsen asthma symptoms. It is also linked to a higher risk for ear infections, pneumonia, bronchitis, and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Unfortunately, children are not in control of the safety of their environments. Parents will want to take a firm stand against smoking in their homes and cars to protect them from secondhand smoke.
How Combustion Pollutants Affect Air Quality in Our Homes
Combustion pollutants are gases or particles released into the air as we burn things inside our homes. Unvented appliances are the primary culprits in our homes. Common places to check for air pollution are fireplaces, space heaters, water heaters, wood or gas stoves, and dryers. Several factors influence the number of combustion pollutants an appliance produces. Proper installation, maintenance, and ventilation are essential.
Different types of combustion pollutants are commonly found in our homes. The type of fuel being consumed determines the pollutants released into the air.
- Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless gas. It hampers the delivery of oxygen throughout our bodies. Exposure to carbon monoxide causes headaches, weakness, dizziness, nausea, and even death. Because of these severe health risks, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends a carbon monoxide detector in every home.
- Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is another combustion pollutant found in our homes. It is a colorless, odorless gas and is known to cause irritation of the eyes, throat, and nose, reduced lung capacity, and a higher risk of respiratory infection.
Indoor furnaces, leaking chimneys, unvented kerosene and gas space heaters, and tobacco products commonly introduce combustion pollutants into our homes. To mitigate this form of pollution, homeowners can ventilate rooms where fuel-burning appliances are used and opt to use appliances that vent to the outdoors.
How Volatile Organic Compounds Affect Air Quality in Our Homes
We all recognize the characteristically chemical smell of Volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These pollutants are introduced into the air we breathe through many products we use daily, such as paints, paint strippers, air fresheners, cleaning supplies, building materials, varnishes, waxes, and pesticides.
VOCs pollute the air wherever these products are used or stored. Short-term health problems caused by VOCs include headaches, nausea, and irritation to the eyes, nose, and throat. VOCs' more serious health risks include cancer and damage to the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system.
To minimize health risks due to exposure to VOCs, homeowners will want to carefully read and follow directions on common household products containing VOCs. When using these products, they should ventilate the room properly and ensure a good supply of fresh air. Mixing products, such as household cleaners, is never a good idea.
Storing products containing chemicals according to the manufacturers’ instructions is critical. These products should be stored in a place that is inaccessible to children.
How Mold Affects Air Quality in Our Homes
Molds are living organisms. To reproduce, they release tiny spores into the air. When these spores land on a damp surface, they grow into mold.
Breathing the airborne spores into our bodies or even touching them can cause allergic reactions such as runny nose, sneezing, red eyes, and skin rashes. More serious health issues caused by mold include asthma attacks and other respiratory ailments.
Mold can grow anywhere there is moisture. Bathrooms and basements are two common places for mold to take hold. Installing bathroom fans clears moisture more quickly after showers. If water damage or spills are addressed within a few hours, mold won’t have a chance to take root. To control mold, you simply have to control excess moisture.
High humidity means more moisture in the air and increases mold’s chances of survival. Homeowners can use a moisture gauge to keep their homes’ humidity level between 30 and 50 percent. Opening windows or cranking up the AC should decrease the humidity.
Improving Air Quality in Our Homes
With just a few steps, homeowners can minimize health risks caused by indoor air pollution. Simply opening doors and windows or running fans and air conditioners drastically improves a home’s indoor air quality. Changing or cleaning filters in our heaters and air conditioners keeps many pollutants out of the air we breathe.
The safety of our homes depends on controlling indoor pollutants. Testing for radon, preventing secondhand smoke, keeping surfaces dry, ventilating when using products that contain chemicals, and inspecting appliances and fireplaces for leaks are all essential tasks to ensure a healthy place to live.