When you think of the term ‘air pollution’ you may immediately think of it as only occurring outdoors. Images of the inside of your home, office, school or even your car might not come first to your mind. But you would be surprised to know that indoor air pollution is just as real and dangerous indoors as it is outdoors, and can have serious effects on your health.
We are spending more time indoors, especially with the end of summer and fall right around the corner. Keeping your indoor air as clean as possible is important to your health. Unfortunately, we bring many of the pollutants indoors ourselves!
Here is the difference between outdoor and indoor air pollutants:
- Outdoor air pollutants occur from a mixture of natural and manmade sources, such as particulate matter, ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and lead.
- Indoor air pollutants can be mold, pollen, tobacco smoke, household cleaning products, pesticides, radon gas and carbon monoxide…plus many more.
What is Indoor Air Quality?
Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) refers to the air quality in and around buildings and structures, especially relating to the health, and comfort, of those within the building. Even if you do not have allergies or health issues, understanding and controlling common pollutants indoors can help reduce your risk of any indoor health concerns, as health effects from indoor air pollutants may be experienced soon after exposure or, possibly, years later.
Poor indoor air quality has been linked to “sick building syndrome”, reduced productivity, and impaired learning in schools.
What Is Causing Indoor Air Pollution?
There are various forms and sources of indoor pollution:
- Tobacco smoke
- Fireplaces and wood stoves
- Household products
- Construction materials
- Biologic agents (microbes, pets)
- Off-gassing from water
- Paint and VOCs
- Carpet fumes
- Air fresheners
This is not an all-inclusive list of indoor pollutants, only a few examples. Any of these can cause disease, inflammation and irritation, immune responses, carcinogenesis, and negative effects on the central nervous system. It can also cause adverse respiratory issues, including upper airway symptoms, causation and exacerbation of asthma, hypersensitivity pneumonitis, and lung cancer.
Indoor Air Pollution Symptoms and Health Problems
Pollutants can cause a wide range of short and long term health problems; adding to the problem is that some people are highly sensitive to certain pollutants and consequently their health can be severely affected.
In the short term, exposure to high concentrations of indoor pollutants can cause eye irritation, headaches, nose and throat irritation, fatigue, and dizziness. This can be misdiagnosed as asthma or a cold, as symptoms can resemble both, making it difficult to recognize the problem.
In the long term, the health problems and effects from indoor pollution can be quite serious. Sometimes the effects do not present until years after being exposed, producing diagnoses such as respiratory lung disease or even cancer.
Indoor Pollution Serious Health Effects
Indoor air pollution has a wide range of negative health impacts, which can lead to morbidity but also in many cases, mortality.
Morbidity refers to having a disease or a symptom of a disease (the amount of disease within a population).
Morbidity does not necessarily mean that your health issues are life-threatening. Over time, however, if an illness continues, it may increase your risk of mortality. While morbidity refers to your level of health and well-being, mortality is related to your risk of death.
Proven links between indoor air pollution and potential health outcomes have been recorded by the World Health Organization (WHO). These health outcomes range from respiratory infections to chronic obstruction pulmonary disease (COPD) to lung cancer, and have varying effects on the population depending on factors such as age and sex.
Many potential toxins exist indoors, and several have been well characterized in studies and research to date. Examples of pollutants associated with acute or chronic toxicity from inhalation include wood smoke, biological agents, radon, second-hand cigarette smoke, and formaldehyde.
How to Prevent Indoor Air Pollution
Three effective ways to prevent indoor pollution and improve indoor air quality are:
- Improved Ventilation
- Source Control
- Air Cleaners
- Proper ventilation helps reduce a large amount of indoor pollutants from inside homes, schools, or offices. This has actually been linked to bettering performance at school and work, with fewer absences. Ventilation has been shown to reduce dust mites, mold, and other organisms that contribute to indoor air pollution. While ensuring clean and effective ventilation is a good solution, there may be some exceptions– ventilation also lets more outdoor air inside, so areas with higher concentrations of smog (harmful ozone gas) could be introducing other harmful substances into indoor air space.
- Source control is one of the most effective ways to improve indoor air quality to eliminate individual sources of pollution. Some sources, like those that contain asbestos, can be sealed or enclosed; others, like gas stoves, can be adjusted to decrease the amount of emissions. In many cases, source control is also a more cost-efficient approach to protecting indoor air quality than increasing ventilation because increasing ventilation can increase energy costs.
- If indoor air quality is negatively affecting your health, then investing in an air cleaner might be the solution for you. There are many types and sizes available, ranging from smaller, inexpensive models, to big, expensive, whole house systems. Depending on your health needs, the smaller, table-top models are much less effective at removing particles from the air, and air cleaners are generally not designed to remove gaseous pollutants.
Using an air cleaner alongside source control will be the most effective to provide cleaner air. Table-top cleaners may not remove satisfactory amounts of pollutants if nearby sources are strong. People with a sensitivity to particular sources may find their air cleanser are helpful only with joint efforts to remove the source.
Bonus Tip: the Role of Houseplants?
Over the past few years, there have been suggestions that houseplants have been shown to reduce levels of some chemicals. There is currently no evidence, unfortunately, to support this idea, so it is unknown what number of houseplants are required to remove significant quantities of pollutants in homes and offices. Indoor houseplants should not be over-watered because overly damp soil may promote the growth of microorganisms, which can affect allergic individuals.
What You Can Do About Indoor Pollution
Indoor air quality is just as vital to our everyday lives and health as outdoor air quality, and the pollutants found inside our homes should concern us just as much, if not more. Educating yourself on indoor pollutants and checking out where you spend most of your time–and what you can do about it–is crucial for your health right now, and also in the future!