Indoor air quality may be hazardous to your health

The air in today’s homes and buildings may be more polluted than outdoor air. Identifying sources of indoor air quality can lead to better health.

Indoor air pollutants can come from many sources.Most of us spend over half of our time indoors either at home, school or work. Increases in energy efficiency, such as sealing buildings against loss of heat and cooling, can result in pollutants in the air we breathe.

Some indoor air pollutants can cause irritation, such as sore eyes, burning of the nose or throat, headaches or fatigue. Other pollutants can cause more serious reactions, including respiratory illness, allergies or other serious conditions.

Detecting poor air quality can be difficult. Some pollutants, such as paint or tobacco smoke, can be smelled or seen, but others are odorless and invisible. Another problem in detecting pollutants in the air is that people react differently to contaminants. An irritant for one person may not affect others. Children, the elderly and those with chronic respiratory conditions are especially susceptible to some air pollutants.

If you suspect poor air quality, the first step is to find all possible sources of pollution. Identifying all potential sources and dealing with them is usually the most effective and cost-efficient. If someone is exhibiting symptoms, it may be the result of multiple pollutants rather than a single source.

Start your search by identifying all potential pollutants. Most air pollutants fall into three categories: combustible contaminants, Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and living organisms.

Combustible contaminants are gases and/or particles that result from burning materials. Improper use or venting of fuel-burning appliances, such as a space heater, gas stove or water heater, furnace, fireplace or wood stove, can allow gases to get into the home. The most common pollutants are:

  • Carbon monoxide (CO): colorless, odorless gas that can cause headaches, nausea, dizziness or even death.
  • Nitrogen dioxide (NO2): colorless, odorless gas that can cause eye, nose and throat irritation, shortness of breath or increased susceptibility to respiratory illness.
  • Tobacco smoke: can cause respiratory illness and possibly cancer. Children are particularly susceptible to secondhand smoke. It can cause the onset of asthma and has been linked to increased risk of ear infections.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are found in building materials, pesticides, office equipment, paint and varnishes, paint stripper, cleaning supplies, moth repellents, air fresheners, carpet and dry-cleaned clothes. VOCs evaporate into the air when these products are used. VOCs cause eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches, nausea. Prolonged exposure may result in kidney, liver or central nervous system damage.

Biological contaminants are living or once-living organisms. They can cause odor and damage to household items. Biological contaminants include pests, pet dander, dust mites and mold.

  • Pests, pet dander, dust mites: found in variety of household items including pillows, carpets, blankets and stuffed animals. Causes asthma symptoms, such as coughing, wheezing, tightness in the chest or breathing problems.
  • Molds: These produces spores that float through the air, land on damp surfaces and grow. Molds are most commonly found in bathrooms, kitchens and basements; however, any place with damp areas is mold-prone. Inhaling or touching molds may cause sneezing, runny nose or red eyes or skin rashes. Molds can trigger asthma attacks.

Additional information is also available from Michigan State University Extension’s Home*A*Syst Bulletin, WQ #51, available at the MSU Extension Bookstore or your local MSU Extension office. Specific Home*A*Syst chapters are available from Oakland County and the U.S. EPA also has general and specific topic information related to air quality.