Home Improvement

Indoor Air Pollutants That Could Be Slowly Killing You

Indoor Air Pollutants That Could Be Slowly Killing You

Indoor Air Pollutants That Could Be Slowly Killing You  (belchonock)

You may know how to clean plenty of things around the house, but do you know how to clean air? As odd as that sounds, it may be essential to your health: Indoor air pollution is a chronic but underrated problem hiding within our homes.

"It can increase your risk of cancer, lung disease, and asthma," says Max Sherman, a senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a Department of Energy lab managed by the University of California.

The problem is, no one knows exactly who is vulnerable to indoor air pollutants and at what concentrations. So just to be safe, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends homeowners try to improve the air quality in their home even if symptoms aren't noticeable.

Check out this hit list of some top indoor air pollutants, plus how to clear the air so you can breathe a little bit easier.

Furniture, flooring, and air fresheners

Over the past 50 years, we've become more aware of the chemicals, particularly formaldehyde, found in the glues and solvents used to produce composite wood products (e.g., laminate flooring) we proudly install and display in our home. The EPA says certain levels of exposure to formaldehyde can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation; asthma; and neurological impairment. Over time, they can increase the risk of developing some types of cancer.

Sherman says manufacturers have gotten better at reducing the amount of formaldehyde these wood products emit. But, there's still a lot of disagreement about how much formaldehyde is acceptable, and how much fresh air you need to dilute the impact of the chemical.

Formaldehyde isn't the only chemical of concern. Many household products emit chemical contaminants called volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, that have been linked to cancer and liver, kidney, and central nervous system damage.

Some of the most common VOC sources follow:

  • Caulks
  • Adhesives
  • Carpeting
  • Fabric materials and furnishings
  • Air fresheners
  • Perfumes and shampoos


  • When buying furniture or rugs, try to snag a floor sample that already has emitted gasses. If you buy, say, a new couch, let it off-gas outside for a few hours if possible until that "new couch smell" has faded somewhat.
  • Run your HVAC system fan to keep fresh air circulating and reduce the concentration of VOCs in your home.
  • Store laundry products and cleaning agents in a well-ventilated area or in the garage.
  • Instead of spraying air fresheners, which are merely nice-smelling VOCs, remove the source of the stink and open windows to dilute the smell.

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    Cooking and showering

    Every time you fry up breakfast or take a shower, there's a chance you're creating pollutants that can damage your health.

    "Cooking is the single most polluting thing that people do in their homes," Sherman says. "That's the activity that produces the most contaminants."

    High-temperature cooking produces acrolein, a toxin that irritates skin, eyes, and nasal passages (and was briefly a tear gas candidate in World War I). Breathe enough acrolein (though nobody knows how much), and you increase your risk of lung cancer.

    "If you're just boiling water on an induction range, that's a low-polluting event," Sherman says. "If you're wok-frying with boiling oil on a gas range, that's a pretty high-polluting event. We need more research to give the numbers. We're not all dropping dead from this, but it is causing harm."

    Other forms of everyday harm include bathing, which adds moisture to the air that fosters mold and mildew.

  • Make sure your range hood vents to the outside, and run it whenever you cook, especially when using hot oil.
    • After showering, run the bathroom fan and keep the shower door open to prevent mold from growing.


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    Cars, chemical plants, and outdoor sources

    It's a dirty world out there, and when outside pollution particles enter your home, you can be in big trouble. Where you live -- downwind from a chemical factory or upwind from a freeway -- determines what type and how much of a particular pollutant enters your home through doors, windows, vents, and even cracks in your foundation.

    Some natural pollutants, like tree pollen, can provoke immediate reactions like sneezing and runny noses. But it's the extra-fine pollution particles produced by any combustion process that slowly, steadily penetrate your lungs and "do the most long-term damage," Sherman says.

  • If you live near a combustion source, like a highway or factory, make sure the seals and caulking around doors and windows are in good shape.
  • Upgrade your furnace filters to trap particles hazardous to your health. They're MERVE (minimum efficiency reporting value) rated from 1 to 16; Sherman says to buy at least a MERVE 12 and change it once a month.