Breathing Queasy: Improving Indoor Air

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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.

We spend 90 percent of our time indoors, according to the EPA. In homes, offices, schools, or shops. Awake with our families, friends, and coworkers, or sleeping in our beds. Everything in the air ends up in our bodies, so good-quality air is of vital importance.

In a sentence: We are what we breathe.

The good news is there’s plenty you can do to improve the quality of your indoor air.

Freshen up the air–naturally. Unless you live next to a highway, the cheapest and most effective way to allow fresh air in and toxic air out is to open a window. Ban air “fresheners,” a source of VOCs, and use natural odor eaters such as a bowl of baking soda or naturally fragranced alternatives. Avoid using perfumes, deodorants, and products containing parfum, a catchall term that hides the identities of dozens of potentially persistent or allergenic chemicals.

Clear out cleaning chemicals. Recent studies have linked cleaning sprays with a new surge of asthma in adults, and have tied use of cleaning products by pregnant women to their children’s persistent wheezing in early childhood. Use products made from natural plant ingredients or experiment with simple cleaning solutions made from lemons, vinegar, and baking soda.

Suppress breathable particles. Dust is just dust, right? Wrong. A 2002 Greenpeace U.K. analysis of house-dust samples vacuumed from 100 homes showed that hazardous chemicals such as phthalates, brominated flame retardants, and alkylphenols were widespread contaminants. Regular cleaning can help keep down levels of breathable particles along with dust mites, pollen, and other allergy-causing agents. Keep humidity to a minimum, too, to discourage the growth of mold–which has the potential to cause allergic reactions when it is inhaled.

Plug into plant power. Living green plants can remove toxic chemicals including formaldehyde, benzene, and carbon monoxide from the air, according to a two-year study by NASA scientists.[Check out “Leafy Clean” for suggestions on the best plants to cleanse indoor air and how to care for them.]

Control contaminated carpet. A 2001 Greenpeace U.K. report, “Poisons Underfoot,” found that new carpets contain significant levels of flame retardant chemicals, pesticides, and formaldehyde. Carpets also are reservoirs for dust. Choose carpets and rugs made from natural fibers like organic wool or cotton, coir, or jute, but check to make sure they haven’t been treated with unnecessary chemicals or glues. Avoid toxic cleaners; use a steam cleaner instead. And always take off your shoes at the door to keep dirt and bacteria from the streets at bay.

Know what not to paint with. Conventional paints can include polyurethane, polyvinyl chloride, and VOCs. Choose natural and nontoxic water-based or clay-based paints instead. [Utne Reader illuminated ecofriendly paints in its July-Aug. 2006 issue. Read “A Cleaner Coat” online at]

Place electronics carefully. Ban electrical appliances from the bedroom. A computer, for instance, contains toxic gases, metals, acids, plastics, and chlorinated and brominated substances. The dust from some printer toner cartridges contains harmful substances such as nickel and mercury. Greenpeace’s online “Guide to Greener Electronics” ranks the top manufacturers.

Protect babies and children. Expecting a child? Go easy when you’re creating a nursery. Often people paint walls and put in new carpets and curtains–so when the baby arrives it ends up in a room full of off-gassing substances and products. Instead of plastic playthings, consider handcrafted natural wooden toys in water-based colors, finished with natural oil blends.

Choose better bedding. Traditional mattresses and pillows are often packed with synthetic chemical batting and made from equally toxic fabric. Cut down on off-gassing where you sleep by choosing chemical-free natural latex, coir, or wool mattresses and organic cotton bedding.

Excerpted from the Ecologist(Nov. 2008), a London-based publication of environmental news and issues;

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