Three Common Indoor Air Pollutants

How to reduce their presence in your home
grey couch with green cushions in a sunny room with plants
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Air pollution is often discussed in terms of outside air. But the air inside your home can become polluted as well. The products you use and the actions you take inside can impact your exposure to indoor air pollutants.

Summer is a great time for airing out your home, which helps flush out some of the contaminants. But there are steps you can take to help improve your air quality year-round to help reduce asthma and allergy symptoms, and other long-term side effects of chemical exposure. This is especially important with young children, since they breathe in more air (and more contaminants) in relation to their body weight. Since their immune systems and lungs are still developing, they aren’t as able to fight toxicity or sickness related to air pollution.

The air quality in our homes depends partly on the air quality outside and partly on what we bring into the space. The outside air quality isn’t really under your control, but you can take steps to reduce its impact on you and your family. Let’s take a look at three types of indoor air pollutants and how you can take steps to create a healthier space for your family.

Volatile Organic Compounds

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are harmful chemicals that are emitted from a variety of products and they can be 2 to 5 times higher indoors than outdoors. They are commonly associated with paints and solvents, but they are also present in products containing ‘fragrance’, including fabric softeners, air fresheners, and household cleaners. While concentrations of these chemicals in any one product is low, it is not well understood how these individually low exposures impact our health over the longer term. However, many of the synthetic fragrance ingredients are known or suspected carcinogens, allergens, hormone disruptors, and can induce asthma.

To reduce your exposure to VOCs, avoid products with undisclosed fragrance ingredients and choose natural personal care and cleaning products, or make your own. When renovating or painting, choose products that are no- or low-VOC. And avoid using your oven’s self-cleaning feature as it causes the chemicals in the non-stick oven lining to off-gas. You can also add some plants that have the ability to remove chemicals from the air— check out the David Suzuki Foundation’s list from the Queen of Green of the best air purifying plants or head to Good Air Geek’s article about "15 Plants that Help Improve the Air Quality in Your Home" for more information.

Dust

Dust allergy sufferers know that humble dust can make life indoors a nightmare. One of the easiest ways to fight this kind of indoor air pollutant is to leave your shoes at the entrance to prevent dirt and debris from entering your home in the first place. But a great deal of dust is created as products slowly degrade and studies are showing that the flame retardants and other chemicals used in our furniture and electronics are ending up in household dust.

This means that dusting is actually good for your health! So grab your damp cloths and mops every week or so to keep indoor pollutants at bay. Also, if you have a forced air system, be sure you’re using high efficiency filters to capture more outdoor air pollutants. They do need to be replaced regularly to function, at least every 3 months or more regularly if you have pets or there’s a lot of dust outside your home.

Radon

Radon doesn’t get a lot of attention, but it can be a significant contributor to poor indoor air quality and is a known cause of lung cancer. It is a naturally-occurring gas that can enter homes from the surrounding soil and build up over time. Health Canada published a study in 2012 that found 7% of homes have radon above the guideline.

The only way to know whether you are being exposed is to test your home. You can purchase a test kit to do it yourself or hire a contractor—just be sure you use a long-term test over at least 90 days and when the temperatures are cooler.

Because many air pollutants are out of sight, out of mind, it’s easy to forget that what we bring into our homes (intentionally or not) could have significant impacts on our health. Making some small habit changes like making your own healthy cleaners will mean that when you’re more likely to have the windows closed and therefore more vulnerable to pollutants that stick around, you’ll have made a significant improvement to your indoor air quality and to the health of your family.

*Originally published July 12, 2016