Breathing Queasy: Improving Indoor Air
Indoor air is a toxic brew. Here’s what to do.
image by Huan Tran
So much for home sweet home. When it comes to air quality, chances are you’re better off wandering the fume-filled streets of any major city than sitting at home in front of the television.
Take your favorite sofa, for instance. Particles of the fabric can abrade and be taken up by your nose, mouth, and lungs. These particles are likely to contain “mutagenic materials, heavy metals, dangerous chemicals, and dyes that are often labeled as hazardous by regulators—except when they are presented and sold to a customer,” write German chemist Michael Braungart and American architect William McDonough in Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.
Braungart has performed experiments on everyday products to analyze their gaseous emissions. Some of the worst offenders include vinyl wallpaper and flooring, laser printers and photocopy machines (the toner dust can easily be inhaled), glues, paints, and household appliances. He’s concluded that indoor air is, generally, much worse than outdoor air. “Inside, you have chemicals in a sealed building,” he says.
It’s a view supported by a growing body of scientific evidence. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) first blew the whistle on poor indoor air quality in 1987; the U.K.’s Building Research Establishment published devastating findings in 1996. And yet, while there are standards for pollutants in outdoor air, still there are none for indoor air.
Most indoor air pollution comes from sources inside the building. Nearly everything we use sheds particles or gives off gases, particularly when it’s new. The stuff and staples of daily life—carpets, upholstery, manufactured wood products, electronic devices, cleaning supplies—emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs are liquid or solid substances that turn into or emit gases at room temperature (a process known as off-gassing). They are the most common type of gases found indoors. Adverse health effects can include eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, loss of coordination, nausea, and damage to the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system. Some are known or suspected carcinogens.
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