6 Toxic Sources Of Indoor Air Pollution + How To Fix Them
“I want to breathe toxic air,” said no one ever.
Knowing the sources of indoor air pollution is half the battle. Once you know, you can make a plan to correct it, right?
Here are 6 toxic sources of indoor air pollution. You may not be able to fix them today, but they can be fixed — some may be easier than you think!
In a previous post, 5 Sources Of Indoor Air Pollution You Can Fix TODAY, I discussed the items you might have in your home that are contributing to toxic indoor air. These are EASILY fixed!
Today’s post lists 6 more common pollutants, yet these may not be quite so easy to fix. Still, these are real sources of indoor air pollution, and it is possible to get rid of them!
#1 — Building Materials
If you’ve ever watched a home improvement show, you’ve likely heard of a building product that was used in homes for decades before being outlawed in 1989: asbestos. Yet, asbestos is NOT the only building material that contributes to a toxic indoor environment.
Building materials such as fiber board, plywood, particle board, wallpaper, and paneling contain formaldehyde — a known carcinogen. We’ve already discussed the off-gassing of paint, but spray paint, polyurethane sealants, and primers also have fumes that are harmful to breathe, especially for children.
Building materials also give off a small amount of radon gas, but it is usually not enough to cause problems. Still — this contributes to the overall toxicity of your indoor air.
Consequences of Pollution from Building Materials: There’s a reason most asbestos-containing products were banned in 1989 and why it requires a professional service to remove existing asbestos in a home — because this stuff is deadly!
Asbestos fibers are most commonly inhaled, and the fibers accumulate in lung tissue, causing scarring and inflammation. Most commonly, asbestos is linked to a detrimental lung cancer known as mesothelioma (source). If your home was built in the 100 years prior to 1989 and you have remodeling projects that involve ripping out floors, walls, or insulation, you should definitely be on the lookout for asbestos-containing products and seek professional help if you even think you may have encountered it.
Fortunately, if you live in a well-ventilated older home (without asbestos, radon, or mold) your air quality is likely better than some newer homes simply because the building materials in your home have had years to off-gas and lose that “new” smell, meaning your exposure to fumes is also reduced.
Any renovating you do that requires the use of new building materials, will bring in more air pollution from building materials as they off-gas. Since one of the primary toxins in these materials is formaldehyde, renovating does not come without its share of potential health consequences.
Short-term exposure to formaldehyde may result in headaches, dizziness, eye/nose/throat irritation, and nausea (source). So if you’ve ever been inside a brand-new home or part of a renovation project and come out with any of these symptoms, it’s quite likely that you can blame exposure to formaldehyde.
Long-term exposure (inhaled, ingested, or skin) to formaldehyde can cause several different types of cancer.
How To Fix This:
- This may sound silly, but … don’t live in a brand-new home if you can avoid it. The smell of new homes is one of the reasons we have never wanted to live in a brand-new house. From the new cabinets to the carpet to the paint, there are just too many things to off-gas in new homes. Buying or renting an older home is one way to know that the off-gassing process is complete.
- Try to leave your windows open and fans on for several weeks after a remodeling project that required lots of paint, new flooring, or wallpapering.
- When possible, choose non-toxic or low-VOC paints for inside your house. These are becoming more common and more affordable at home improvement stores.
- Seek professional help if you even suspect that there is exposed asbestos in your home.
#2 — Off-Gassing Furniture and Carpeting
Ever noticed the “new” smell that permeates a home when new carpet is installed? Or the smell of a new couch or chair when it’s unloaded from its box? Or the smell of a freshly painted room?
That “new” smell is actually the off-gassing of hundreds of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) used in the making of that carpet, mattress, paint, chair, etc. — specifically the flame retardants that are applied to everything from couches to mattresses and the formaldehyde used in carpet manufacturing. It’s also how we identify that signature “new car smell”.
There’s nothing good about that smell.
Furniture is a particularly common culprit because so many materials, from coatings and glues to particle board and upholstery, can contain VOCs. Some of these pollutants can be toxic or irritating to people with respiratory diseases or chemical sensitivities.
Formaldehyde, for example, is a known carcinogen often found in the adhesives that bind particle board together, as well as some coatings. Others, like butyl acetate (a common solvent in lacquers) and methylene chloride (a paint thinner) can induce dizziness or headaches. (Source.)
Consequences of Breathing Off-Gasses: Once again, we see formaldehyde, so the same consequences apply: headaches, dizziness, eye/nose/throat irriation, and nausea. However, if you are sleeping on a new mattress that’s off-gassing, your exposure is even worse because of the long amount of time you spend in bed — up to 1/3 of your life!
Most off-gassing odors are detectable from 3-12 months after new carpeting is installed or a new couch or mattress is unwrapped. That means 3 to 12 months of exposure to VOCs while your new carpet or furniture “detoxes” and releases chemicals into your home’s air.
Chronic exposure to VOCs — whether from off-gassing paint, a new couch or mattress, or new lacquered or painted furniture — leads to serious health threats and complications such as cancer, liver, kidney, and nervous system damage, respiratory problems and asthma, particularly in young children and the elderly. Folks with chemical sensitivities are at greater risk for illness caused by VOCs (source).
How To Fix This:
- When you buy brand-new furniture or a mattress, unwrap it and allow it to sit for several days in a well-ventilated area, ideally outdoors or even in your garage, where it can off-gas a large portion of its toxic fumes.
- If you live in a home with brand-new carpeting, open the windows and turn on ceiling fans for several days so that the off-gasses are expelled as quickly as possible. There is really nothing you can do to avoid the off-gassing of new carpet in a home you’re already living in, which is why I never recommend carpeting to begin with. Installing an environmentally friendly wood or bamboo floor or even a natural stone will reduce the off-gassing of new flooring in your home.
- Buy used furniture that’s already had the chance to off-gas — this saves lots of money too!
- Know that a non-toxic, naturally made mattress is a worthy investment for your health. We adore our Essentia Organic Memory Foam mattress and pillows because they are non-toxic and didn’t come with that “new” smell. From the first night, we were able to enjoy the health of non-toxic sleep!
#3 — Mold and Mildew
There are hundreds of types of molds and mildews (all fungi), all of different colors and textures. Mold and mildew thrive in warm, moist areas, so the best places to look for mold/mildew are those with water intrusion such as leaks in or around pipes, windows, and roofs or where there has been flooding.
A “musty”, “damp”, or “moldy” smell is also a huge indicator that mold or mildew is present. The classic “basement” smell that many people believe is normal is actually likely an obvious clue of a mold or mildew presence and should not be taken lightly.
Consequences of Mold and Mildew: Potential side effects of mold/mildew growth in the home include breathing problems/respiratory complaints and asthma, allergies and sneezing, headaches, skin rashes, eye irritation, and runny nose.
The long-term consequences of mold exposure, especially the mold species that produce mycotoxins (Fusarium, Trichoderma, Stachybotrys atra), can be devastating and cause systemic issues (source).
- Compromised immune system
- Pulmonary fibrosis
- Endocrine and/or renal toxicity
- Gastrointestinal, cardiac, or pregnancy issue
Infants and small children, those with compromised immune systems, and the elderly are at the highest risk of developing issues as a result of mold exposure.
How To Prevent Mold/Mildew:
- If you do not have forced central air conditioning and live in a warm/hot, humid climate during the summer, invest in a dehumidifier. Make sure you use a dehumidifier that is suited for the square footage of your home so that it can keep up with the moisture.
- Take leaking water seriously. A leaky pipe under the kitchen sink isn’t a big deal on the surfact, but it can turn into a nightmare if left untouched.
- Fix sources of water leakage or moisture. Mold needs moisture to thrive, so remove the moisture, and you increase your odds of beating the mold. Install bathroom vent fans that vent OUTSIDE, NOT in your attic. The small amount of mold in our home was from our sump-pump drain. It was draining too close to the wall of the basement where the grade of the dirt outside sloped slightly toward the house, causing the water to trickle back in through the concrete. By re-routing the pipe downhill, my husband was able to eliminate the source of the moisture for a few dollars’ worth of PVC!
- Seal exposed concrete floors or walls to prevent moisture from seeping in.
- Run a bead of caulk around outside doorways and windows the keep moisture out.
- Areas of mold which are 4 feet by 4 feet or less can be safely remediated without professional help. I do not have much experience with mold, however we had some mold in our basement last summer, and I was able to successfully remove it by spraying colloidal silver on the area and wiping it clean with a paper towel.
- When in doubt, call in a professional mold remediation service! This is costly, but it is far less costly to hire someone to remove mold from your home than to pay the price of the long-term consequences mold can have on your family.
#4 — Radon Gas
This carcinogenic, radioactive gas that is most commonly found in homes with basements, though radon gas can occur anywhere, even in homes or buildings without basements. It occurs from the natural decay of uranium in the soil.
Radon gas is found in the ground and can make its way into your home by way of leeching into the walls of your basement, primarily through cracks in the foundation or in air gaps in walls or around pipes. You cannot see or smell it. It is also possible for radon to contaminate ground water, however the primary source of radon exposure is through inhalation (source).
The only way to know if your home has radon gas is to test the air. The EPA recommends testing all floors below the third floor level, and testing is quick and cost effective.
Consequences of Radon Gas Exposure: Lung cancer is the most obvious risk of radon exposure, and children are the most vulnerable. Radon itself is actually quickly exhaled, however coupled with other environmental pollutants (dust, aerosols, and smoke) the risk of these things being deposited into the lungs and creating long-term problems is higher (source).
How To Fix This
- Test all levels of your home below the third level. If you have a single-story home with a basement, you should test both the main floor and the basement. If you have an HVAC system, you should test all levels of your home because the air is circulated more freely throughout the levels. It is important to keep the house closed up for at least 12 hours during the testing period.
- You can purchase a one-use radon test kit online for less than $11! The testing is quick and accurate, and you get an instant result. No taking samples and waiting for lab results. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions to get the most accurate result.
- To check for radon gas more often, a radon detector will better suit your needs. This radon gas detector has an LED display screen and automatically tests the air every hour.
- If your first test has a result between 4 and 8 pCi/L, you have the choice of testing again. If results are needed quickly, you can re-test with a short-term (2-7 days) device. For a better understanding of your home’s year-round average, you can test with a long-term (3-12 months) device. If the results of your first test are higher than 8 pCi/L, then it is recommended that you test again using another short-term test device. The higher the radon concentration above 8 pCi/L, the sooner you should conduct a retest.
- If mitigation is necessary, you can hire a professional radon mitigation service by locating one through your state’s radon office. Or, if you are a DIYer, Protecting Your Home From Radon: A Step-By-Step Manual For Radon Reduction by Doug Kladder is a highly recommended resource.
#5 — Smoking and Second-Hand Smoke
I hope this one goes without saying…
If you live in a home where you or someone else smokes inside, your indoor air is extremely unclean, and you’re constantly bombarded with airborne chemicals that find their way into clothing, bedding, and walls.
My grandmother was a heavy indoor smoker. It only took a few minutes inside her house before my entire body and hair wreaked of cigarette smoke, and I was coughing and my eyes were watering. And I would spend two weeks with her at a time!
Consequences of Smoking and Second-Hand Smoke: If you’re a smoker, you’ve probably noticed the Surgeon General’s warning on the side of every pack of cigarettes you’ve ever smoked. Smoking causes cancer and lung diseases like emphysema, COPD, and stroke.
It also causes teeth to become yellow or gray, premature birth and low birth weight in babies born to smoking mothers, blindness, macular degeneration, and at least 10 other types of cancer, including cervical, stomach, and pancreatic cancers (source).
A 2011 study of 126 children residing with a primary caregiver who was a smoker revealed some startling information about the effects of second hand smoke on children:
- 63% of those children met the criteria for moderate to severe persistent asthma.
- 62% had uncontrolled asthma.
Up to 300,000 cases of respiratory tract infections in infants and children up to 18 months of age are attributed to second hand smoke (source).
Second hand smoke is also linked to an increase in Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) in homes where a smoker resided.
How To Fix This:
- If you’re a smoker, you already know the health risks you are taking for yourself. However, you should consider that everyone in your home has a right to breathe clean air. Children and babies, especially, cannot open windows for themselves or go outside to breathe fresh air.
- You may be unwilling to quit smoking, but you should be willing to take your smoking outdoors and give the people living in your home the courtesy of breathing clean, smoke-free air.
- If able, you can slowly invest in new or used furniture from smoke-free homes to further reduce the odor in your home while cleaning up the air for your family.
- If able, remove carpeting from your home and replace it with a material that isn’t as likely to absorb cigarette odors.
#6 — Cooking and Heating
Are you still using non-stick, Teflon-coated pans? Are you aware that even slightly overheating a non-stick pan releases a toxic soup of chemicals into your home?
Although many manufacturers, including leading manufacturer DuPont, has taken steps to remove these chemicals from their pans, not all manufacturers have — and it’s hard to know which companies have and which haven’t since virtually all this stuff is made in China anyway.
Even if you’re cooking with safer cookware, burning food is never a good thing if you want to keep your home’s air pure. Smoke of any sort, even from food, releases gasses like carbon monoxide into your home’s air, so even accidentally burning your food is still contributing to indoor air pollution.
If you’re using forced air heat, it is very important to change your filters frequently. We use a combination of heat from our wood-burning stove, baseboard water radiators, and oil-filled radiator space heaters to heat our home. Wood stoves sometimes put out smoke, and with nowhere for that smoke to go, we end up breathing it in.
If you use a wood stove to heat your home, you should have functioning carbon monoxide detectors in your home at all times.
Consequences of Pollution from Cooking and Heating: The particles from wood smoke are so small that they cannot be filtered out through the nose or upper respiratory system. These small particles make it deep into the lungs and sort of set up camp there for months.
Any type of smoke inhalation, whether from cooking or burning food or smoke from a wood-burning stove, obviously causes respiratory issues. Short-term exposure will likely cause coughing and/or eye irritation, however repeated exposure can cause more long-term damage.
Wood smoke interferes with normal lung development in infants and children, and penetrates into the lower lungs, where issues like pneumonia originate. If someone in your home already suffers from asthma or cardiovascular disease, even short-term exposure to wood or cooking smoke can be dangerous (source).
The particles from wood smoke are so small that they cannot be filtered out through the nose or upper respiratory system. Even doors and windows in newer, energy-efficient homes cannot keep these particles out.
How To Fix This:
- Eliminate the risks of problems associated with Teflon-coated/non-stick cookware vapors by replacing yours with non-toxic cookware, such as cast iron, enamel-coated cast iron, or stainless steel. Refrain from burning food, no matter what type of cookware you use.
- Even if you partially heat your home with wood, take care to follow the safety procedures of your wood-burning stove. Open the damper and allow smoke to rise out of the stove BEFORE opening the damper. Burn only dry wood; wet wood smokes much more. Maintain a clean stovepipe by having your chimney and stovepipe cleaned and inspected annually. If your stove is used daily during the winter, it is recommended to have it cleaned twice per year. Keep the air intake open while starting a fire to force air and smoke upward.
- If your house smokes up either from cooking or the wood stove, open doors and windows and turn on fans to remove the smokey air as quickly as possible.
From the possibility of asbestos or mold to the harmful effects of off-gassing furniture and building materials, it may feel like your home will never be a safe place to live. Not true!
It’s impossible to live in a completely non-toxic world! And thankfully, our bodies are equipped with immune systems and detox pathways to flush toxins out on a daily basis. Try to reduce your toxic load as much as possible by paying attention to what you’re bringing in to your home or what might already be there that you didn’t think was a big deal.
It may be a little tricky at times, but thankfully there are abundant resources on how to solve these problems, whether with help or on our own!