What are the common contaminants in air indoors?
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the World Health Organization (WHO), common indoor air pollutants are asbestos, benzene, biological material, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, naphthalene, lead, nitrogen dioxide, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene, pesticides, radon, pollutants from cooking stoves, particulate matter and secondhand smoke.
In the developed world, we spend the majority of our time indoors. Therefore, the contents of our indoor air is important.
In this article, we cover common indoor air contaminants and their sources.
We also offer some helpful advice on how to combat their effects on your health, so you can keep your family as safe as possible.
Indoor Air Contaminants: What to Look Out For?
What Are the Four Major Indoor Air Pollutants?
The four major indoor air pollutants are asbestos, radon, biological material, and secondhand smoke.
Radon is a colorless, tasteless and odorless gas that is a natural byproduct of the breakdown of uranium.
According to the American Lung Association (ALA), radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States.
It is responsible for more than 21,000 deaths annually in the United States.
Radon is present in most cigarettes, and it is even more hazardous to your health when inhaled intentionally through smoking tobacco.
Radon is also present in secondhand tobacco smoke, and according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), exposure to radon in secondhand smoke causes long-term negative health effects.
The good news is that you can test your home to see what your radon levels are. There are short-term tests, which take anywhere from two to seven days in order to get the results.
Long-term tests take at least a few months to get the results. That’s because it takes time for the particles to decay and settle.
With regard to secondhand smoke—please quit. If you need assistance with doing so, your doctor can help you with a number of medications and substitution-aids.
Asbestos is a collection of silicate minerals fibers. It grew exponentially in popularity because of its flexibility and its strength.
It was formerly used in the manufacturing of everything from roofing shingles to talcum powder until it was partially banned during the 1980s when it was found to cause cancer.
The problem with banning a building material such as asbestos is getting rid of everything you’ve already built using that material.
Ever since the 1980s, we’ve been dealing with exactly that issue.
Asbestos is only dangerous when disturbed and not intact. For instance, if you have asbestos insulation that is in good working condition, then it poses little to no health risk.
However, if the insulation is worn, torn, or falling apart and frayed at the ends, then it poses quite a high health risk because the fibers are floating in the air and remain suspended in the air for a long time.
When inhaled, asbestos fibers can deposit themselves as far down as your alveoli (the end of your respiratory system) and eventually cause:
- scarring of the lungs (asbestosis)
- mesothelioma (cancer)
- other respiratory problems
If you live in an indoor area with asbestos materials nearby, be sure to use a HEPA filter. Also, use wet cleaning methods both inside and outside the home, because dry methods kick up more dust.
Once found, asbestos can safely be removed and replaced by a professional with the proper equipment.
To learn more about asbestos and its effects on your health, you can visit the EPA’s website.
If people only knew what was in their air, they would probably think twice about breathing. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), indoor air contains all sorts of living organisms, such as:
- dead skin
- insect parts
All of the above pollutants affect people differently when inhaled.
Studies performed on the long-term health effects of biological contaminants in indoor air showed that the variables are so broad that scientists can’t really say.
People with asthma, allergies and other respiratory diseases are especially vulnerable to biological pollutants, and should be concerned about their indoor air quality.
Biological contaminants flourish in moist, poorly ventilated areas. Keep the moisture level down in your home to reduce bacteria growth.
Use wet cleaning methods whenever possible to reduce dust. Purchase a dehumidifier with a HEPA filter in it as well, if you can.
Secondhand tobacco smoke from cigarettes, cigars, and pipes contains more than 7,000 known chemicals.
According to the National Cancer Institute, cigarettes contain more than 69 known carcinogens (cancer-causing chemicals).
Here are some of the chemicals in tobacco products:
- ethylene oxide (used to make antifreeze)
- hydrazine (rocket fuel)
- arsenic (rat poison)
- formaldehyde (embalming fluid)
- volatile Hydrocarbons (spontaneous combustion)
- isoprene (synthetic rubber)
The long-term health effects from exposure to secondhand smoke as a nonsmoker are lung cancer, heart disease, asthma, stroke, low birth-weight births, and other health problems.
Children have a unique vulnerability to airborne contaminants when compared to adults because their airways are narrower.
There is more surface area for particles to hit up against, and irritation results faster as a result.
They also inhale more air per pound of body weight than adults do, which makes them even more susceptible.
How Can I Improve the Quality of My Indoor Air?
While there is no way to completely eliminate indoor air pollution, you can certainly mitigate its effects on you and your family.
The best thing to do is to educate yourself, which you are doing right now, and employ several strategies.
Some methods are more cost-effective than others, and you should weigh your options accordingly.
Keeping your indoor area clean.
Cleanliness is next to godliness. That may or may not be true, but a clean home is almost certain to have a low level of contaminants in the air.
Vacuuming the floors and carpets twice each week will cut down on pet hair and animal dander within the home and add to the overall hygiene of the place.
Also, be sure to purchase a vacuum with a HEPA filter if possible, and change it regularly within the timeframe that the manufacturer recommends.
Consider bringing plants outside.
Houseplants are beautiful, and the overall greenery adds to the mood of the room.
However, even the aromatic benefits don’t really compensate for the mold that can fester in the moist soil they grow in.
It creates a perfect environment for all kinds of biological organisms. Consider moving the plants outside to the garden.
Change your filters.
It is truly amazing how many people don’t change their air-conditioning filter. In residential homes with central-air conditioning, there is at least one intake vent.
Dirty air is filtered and cooled through that vent and blown out the other vents of the cooling system.
That intake vent has a foam filter in it. They are made in various sizes, and install easily in minutes.
If the filter were to clog, the entire system could break down, and shoot pollutants from the dirty filter into the air.
External air-conditioning units have removable filters also. Be sure to remove and clean them on a regular basis to minimize allergens, pollutants, and particulate matter in your indoor air.
Remove and clean, or replace, your vacuum cleaner’s filter as well. Otherwise, it will spit back contaminants into the air. The same goes for the small handheld vacuum cleaners.
Consider having your air ducts cleaned.
If you have a forced air cooling and heating system in your home, and you want to improve the quality of your indoor air, then you might want to consider having a professional clean your air duct system.
The system itself consists mainly of the supply and return air ducts and registers, grilles and diffusers, heat exchangers, heating and cooling coils, condensate drain pans, fan motor and housing, and the air handling unit housing.
The jury really isn’t in on just how much air-duct cleaning improves the quality of your indoor air.
It makes perfect sense, however, that having your air-conditioning ducts spotless by trained professionals would improve the quality of the air flowing through them. Tiny particles lodge in seams where the ducts are fastened together or turn at sharp angles.
Experts advise that before you pay a lot of money to have your air ducts cleaned, do a full inspection of your air-conditioning system to see if there are areas where there is significant damage.
These areas need to be replaced instead of cleaned because no amount of cleaning is going to change what they are doing to your indoor air quality.
You should consider having your air ducts cleaned if, upon full inspection of your air-conditioning ducts, you see a significant buildup of mold.
Remember, there are a lot of substances that can appear to be mold at first, but then turn out to be something harmless.
To be sure, you really need an expert or a mold-testing kit from the store.
A lot of mold can grow in areas of your system that aren’t readily accessible.
That’s why it’s better to ask an expert to check your system, because they have all the necessary equipment on hand for the job.
Another reason to have your air ducts cleaned is if you know or suspect that vermin have made their way into your ventilation system.
Get an air purifier and dehumidifier.
If you have allergies, such as being allergic to animal dander, you should invest in an air purifier and place it in the common area of the house.
The best kind of purifier for pet dander would probably be an ionic purifier. It removes at least some amount of allergens from your surrounding air.
You’ll never get perfectly clean air to breathe, but the important thing is to do what you can.
Purchasing a dehumidifier is a great idea, if possible.
Keeping the moisture level down in your home is extremely significant, because those are the conditions where mold grows and flourishes.
If you cannot afford to purchase a dehumidifier, there are some cheaper options.
You could try:
- Purchasing a used model dehumidifier on craigslist.org.
- Searching on freecycle.org for someone giving away a dehumidifier for free. Dehumidifiers are like bags of bricks once you don’t need them anymore, and it seems like you can’t give them away.
- Asking your friends on Facebook if anyone has a dehumidifier they could give or lend you.
Maintaining a good set of cleaning habits combined with everything we’ve discussed above, and staying relatively up-to-date on what is in the air you and your family breathe, will help you stay happy and healthy.
To learn more about improving the quality of your indoor air, please consider checking out the EPA’s website dedicated to the subject of Indoor Air Quality.
With the amount of time we spend indoors, it’s vital we pay attention to the indoor air quality in our homes and look out for potential air contaminants.