This Green Life
A monthly journal of sorts by Sheryl Eisenberg

NOVEMBER 2013: Outside, air quality standards are enforced by the EPA. Inside, the job's all yours.

Curing Indoor Air
Steps to breathing free at home

Air pollution poses a wide range of health risks and shaves years off people's lives. To keep it down to safe levels, the Environmental Protection Agency sets and enforces clean air standards. But it only does so outdoors. That leaves home enforcement in your camp.

You might be inclined to shrug it off if you've seen no obvious signs of a problem. Please don't! According to the EPA, "indoor levels of pollutants may be 2 to 5 times—and occasionally more than 100 times—higher than outdoor pollutant levels."

The higher health risk is compounded by the amount of time people spend in their homes—which is typically more than in any other location. For those who spend the most time there—children, the elderly and people with disabling health problems—it's a double whammy, as they also tend to be the folks with the highest sensitivities.

Where does the pollution come from? Just about everything—building materials, furnishings, appliances, cleansers, personal care products, hobby supplies, etc. Outdoor pollution, including radon from the ground below, can contribute to poor indoor air quality as well. In some households, candles and tobacco smoke are on the list.

Indoor air pollutants include formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, lead, phthalates, flame retardants, radon and particulates. Many cause short-term health effects, such as dizziness or asthma attacks. Some are carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. A few can be fatal at high doses.

While many pollutants are easily detectable by their smell (think of paint or bathroom cleansers), others are odor-free and invisible. Radon is a good example. Without testing for it, you'd never know it was there.

So take indoor air pollution seriously and do what you can to prevent it from entering or contain it at the source. You will not be able to eliminate it altogether, but that's ok. The world is not a lab and our bodies are built to withstand some pollution. The goal is to keep it down to safe levels. Here are some guidelines.

Clean well and often. Many biological and chemical pollutants—including mold, dust mites, lead, PBDEs (flame retardants), phthalates and pesticides—collect in dust, which you can breathe in. Regular and effective cleaning, as follows, will reduce your exposure.
  • Vacuum often with a vacuum equipped with a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter.
  • Wet mop often. (Dry mopping kicks up the dust without eliminating it and increases exposure at the same time.)
  • Dust furniture and electronic equipment often with a damp or microfiber cloth.
Keep dust down in the first place by leaving shoes at the door, sealing cracks and fitting your forced-air heating or cooling system with high-quality filters. Remember to change all filters regularly.

Use green household and personal care products. Don't be misled by the "fresh" scents of conventional products, which are typically produced with phthalates or synthetic musks. These and other risky chemicals contaminate the air when the product is used, exposing you and your family to endocrine disruptors, carcinogens and asthma triggers.
Watch out for water. Moisture provides a breeding ground for mold, which can cause headaches, respiratory problems, skin irritations and allergic reactions (often only after long exposure). To prevent mold from growing, keep humidity in your home to 50% or less, fix leaks, ventilate areas and appliances properly, don't let water accumulate anywhere (and dry it when it does) and tackle flooding problems immediately.

To estimate your humidity, use The Weather Channel's indoor humidity meter. To lower humidity, you may need to open windows, vent better or use a dehumidifier.

If you spot mold anywhere in your home, find the source and clean up the mold right away. For large or difficult mold problems, you may need professional assistance.

Protect against silent killers. Radon and carbon monoxide, two of the most dangerous pollutants, are invisible, odorless and common. Since they don't announce themselves, you need to be proactive to avoid harm.
  • Test for radon (it's simple and cheap to do) and arrange for mitigation measures if a problem is found. Radon is the second highest cause of lung cancer after smoking, contributing to 20,000 lung cancer deaths in the U.S. a year. Typically, radon in the ground enters through openings and cracks in floors and walls. All home-owners and basement or ground-floor apartment dwellers should test as any home could be contaminated.
  • Get your fuel-burning appliances inspected every year to avoid the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, which can be fatal in minutes at high levels and cause a range of lesser health effects at low doses. Also, do not idle cars in an attached garage as the fumes may enter the home. Get carbon monoxide detectors (some states require them), but don't rely on them as the first line of defense as they may malfunction or their batteries may die.
Don't allow smoking indoors. At least 250 of the 7,000 chemicals in secondhand smoke are harmful and at least 69 are carcinogenic. Around 3,000 non-smoking adults die from lung cancer in the U.S. each year due to exposure. Children are also at increased risk of cancer, as well as pneumonia, bronchitis and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Keep everyone in the household safer by insisting that any smoking be done outdoors.

—Sheryl Eisenberg

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On This Topic

Dust bunny
BEWARE THIS DUST BUNNY! Cute though he may be, he and his kind harbor biological and chemical pollutants, which can easily become airborne.

Pollutants in the dust can also be ingested from hand-to-mouth contact. Children are at greatest risk from this kind of exposure because they are prone to spending time on the floor and to putting their hands in their mouths.

Reduce your family's exposure by frequent vacuuming with a HEPA filter, wet mopping and dusting with a damp or microfiber cloth.

YOUR UPHOLSTERED FURNITURE is the source of one type of toxic pollutant commonly found in household dust: flame retardants or PBDEs. These chemicals have been linked in studies to cancer, male infertility, male birth defects, early puberty in girls, lower IQs and attention problems.

Almost all upholstered furniture is made with them due to a misguided regulation in California that has affected the furniture available nationwide for decades. That rule was just changed, so safer options should be available soon. (Hooray!) Meanwhile, you're stuck with the furniture you have, toxins and all—so follow the dust-cleaning suggestions above.

PLANTS CAN FILTER AIR and remove pollutants, according to several studies. For instance, chrysanthemums have been shown to remove benzene from the air. A poison, benzene is commonly found in glues, paints, furniture wax, and detergents. Find other plants that may help purify your air.

Photo: Mahmood Al-Yousif

SICK BUILDINGS. Do you have any conditions—such as respiratory problems, eye irritation, headaches or dizziness—that seem to clear up when you leave home and re-appear after you return? Something inside your home could be the cause. See if you can identify the source based on where and when symptoms appear—and discuss the problem with your doctor.


Introduction to Indoor Air Quality

Illinois Department of Public Health
Air Quality in the Home

11 Hidden Sources of Indoor Air Pollution

Environmental Working Group
Get Rid of That (Toxic) Dust

Green Science Policy Institute
Flame Retardants and Furniture

Mother Nature Network
Mold Prevention Tips

A Citizen's Guide to Radon

Colorado State University Extension
Preventing Carbon Monoxide Problems

Replacing HEPA Vacuum Filters

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Sheryl Eisenberg is a writer, web developer and long-time advisor to NRDC. With her firm, Mixit Productions (, she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites. Sheryl makes her home in Brooklyn, where—along with her family—she tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling.
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