The term “environmental health” may sound like something from a textbook, but in actuality, this concept is one we encounter every day. Everything from the chemicals present in the water we drink or the quality of the surrounding air can have an impact on our health. Clean air is often taken for granted, despite being a major health problem worldwide, with an estimated 6.76 billion people living with poor air conditions. In Western countries worries about the atmosphere are most often related to climate change, and pollution is generally regarded as a non-issue. However, studies have shown that thousands of Americans die annually as a result of toxins in the air.
Furthermore, air pollution is often thought to only plague the outdoor environment. Most people don’t realize that the air in their homes and workplaces is usually far more polluted than the outdoor air. These pollutants can come from biological contaminants, environmental conditions such as humidity and temperature, the materials used to construct the building itself, or the outdoor air that is tramped into the building. Additionally, a poor ventilation system could result in a build-up of indoor air contaminants.
When it comes to indoor air pollution, it’s also important to consider the issue within the larger context. The impact of a particular contaminant can intensify as the length of time of exposure increases. Given that the average American spends around 90% of their time in enclosed spaces such as buildings or vehicles, any toxins present can have a much worse effect on someone’s health. Furthermore, air pollutants are often invisible to the naked eye, which contributes to the overall lack of awareness and engagement with air quality. Despite this, a variety of pollutants can be present in every breath. The Environmental Protection Agency notes indoor air contaminants can include:
- Biological Pollutants such as mold, pollen, or dust
- Carbon Monoxide
- Formaldehyde/Pressed Wood Products
- Lead Dust
- Nitrogen Dioxide
- Particulate Matter
- Secondhand Smoke/ Environmental Tobacco Smoke
- Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
Toxins like asbestos fibers and lead dust can most often be found in older buildings because both asbestos and lead were once widely used in the construction industry. Now, as the building ages or is renovated, these materials can be disturbed and swept into the air. Mold is likely the result of improper air circulation or excess moisture within a building. Radon is a naturally occurring gas that can seep into a home through any minor cracks or openings in the building’s foundation.
Any of these pollutants can have an impact on health, some with more severe consequences than others. Inhaling mold spores can cause symptoms such as coughing, nasal congestion, or irritation of the throat, skin, and eyes depending on the sensitivity of the individual. More serious reactions can occur in individuals with asthma, COPD, and other lung conditions. At the other end of the spectrum, asbestos exposure can result in the development of the incurable mesothelioma cancer decades down the line. Radon is the second highest cause of lung cancer after tobacco products. The extent of the health risk truly depends on the specific type of pollutant.
There are other widespread concerns for both the physical and mental health of occupants. Commonly building occupants can suffer from sick building syndrome (SBS), which can include a variety of non-specific symptoms (headaches, skin and eye irritation, coughing, asthma attacks, nausea, etc.), which impact focus and productivity. The specific cause of this condition is currently unknown, however air quality is thought to be a contributing factor. And in addition to physical discomforts and diseases, indoor air quality has a direct effect on cognitive function. A study from researchers at Harvard University and SUNY Upstate Medical University found that mental performance was higher in green buildings as compared to conventional buildings.
But don’t worry, many of these worse air quality sources can be eliminated by just changing just a few things in your home.
Mold can grow on cold exterior walls where condensation collects as well as on the food in your fridge, and is the source of spores that fly around your home looking for a new place to land and grow. These spores are a lung irritant and allergen that can be reduced in your home by keeping the inside humidity low. Reducing your indoor humidity by 30 - 60% will reduce the amount of moisture on surfaces and therefore inhibit mold growth and prevent spore production. Something as simple as a dehumidifier can take out the excess water in the air, stopping a build up of wet walls and moist nooks around your home perfect for a floating spore to latch on to and use to grow.
Some homes are built on the ground with high radon levels. Background radon levels are not a big deal to your health, but when you live in a home with even 10% more radon than typical levels, your exposure overtime increases dramatically. Radon is radioactive gas that comes from uranium decaying in the soil below the home. The gas can seep into your home by minuscule gaps in the foundation and linger in the home. You can get radon detectors for your home to make sure that your radon levels and radiation exposure remains at normal, safe, levels. If you notice the radon levels are high, there are couple solutions. First, you can try sealing all the cracks in the basement to prevent the gas from leaking through your foundation. Another solution is to install a pipe that runs from the roof to the basement with a fan that blows the radon-infused air upwards, keeping your home radon free.
Finally, VOCs or volatile organic chemicals are common indoor pollutant with much higher prevalence inside than outside. These chemicals often come from new textiles such as curtains and furniture whose fabrics are still off-gassing after manufacture. In addition to textiles, many paints and building materials such as drop-down ceiling tiles are produced with trace amounts of formaldehyde, which also seeps into the air over time, adding to the VOC amount. Luckily you can reduce the amount of VOCs you’re exposed to by letting any textiles you want to bring in your home sit in the garage or outside for a week or two to let the much of their VOCs leave the material. Another solution is to regularly open your home’s windows and doors to replenish and refresh the air. Finally, a more beautiful and fun solution would be placing some plants into the room to naturally take out the VOCs that are contaminating your air.
Lung health is valuable, but often people think avoiding tobacco products is enough to protect their lungs. In reality, there are many other pollutants that should be addressed. Raising awareness and taking steps to clean your air the first steps to breathing clean healthy air wherever you go.