Air quality is a hard thing to measure. After all, your home may look clean. Your house may smell fresh. But unless you have confirmed that the air in your home and garage is free of harmful gases, molds, or noxious particles, you may have a polluted home. Worse, it may be toxic.
When people think about pollutants, they often think about things that are outside like the air, the ground, or waterways. But keeping our indoor air free of contaminants and toxins is just as vital to our everyday lives and health. And for many, it may be the single most important way of maintaining good health. That’s because home pollutants are a leading cause of symptoms that are often misdiagnosed as allergies or the flu. Even major medical issues, like angina and heart conditions, can be set off by home pollutants. And most people know home toxins are harmful to people with asthma. Depending on the pollutant, contaminants can have a negative effect on an occupant’s short-term and long-term health. Children, senior citizens, people with asthma, and people with immunity disorders are especially vulnerable.
Some types of resulting health issues can appear shortly after a single exposure. Headaches, nausea, congestion, dizziness, or shortness of breath are common short-term reactions. Some long-term health conditions won’t materialize until the person is repeatedly exposed to a pollutant for years. Other long-term health conditions can be triggered immediately but not appear as a health issue until decades later, like mesothelioma.
When a person is in an environment that results in immediate side effects, the resulting medical condition is usually short-term and treatable. For example, if you are exposed to natural gas, leaving the area and breathing fresh air should resolve symptoms.
In other cases, the exposure may seem harmless, and you may not feel any symptoms. This is common with lead paint exposure. But your exposure may lead to longer-term health issues, like brain damage.
When dealing with toxins and pollutants in the home, it’s hard to diagnose the source, and therefore, the situation difficult to fix. After all, tracking symptoms is unreliable. Different people react very differently to toxins. The reaction time and the severity of the symptoms will depend on the individual’s sensitivity. To make matters more complicated, over time, some people become sensitized to indoor pollutants. That means they become less and less tolerant of exposure the longer they are near it. So, pollutants that were not an issue a year ago can make you cough and wheeze now.
Whenever you discuss home pollutants and toxins, it’s important to remember that the people most at risk are the very old, the very young, people with breathing conditions like asthma, and people with other preexisting medical conditions. That’s why doctors’ offices and hospitals are so vigilant about toxins and indoor air quality.
Identifying the Pollutants and Toxins in Your Home’s Air
When it comes to home air quality, it’s not always easy to identify the problem. Even the most vigilant DIY-ers can miss critical signs. If a person becomes more susceptible to colds or develops allergies when they move to a new home or office, when new furniture or carpet arrives, or when a building is treated with pesticides, the cause of the “flu” may actually be poor air quality. After all, some of the things we associate with “good” air quality, like air fresheners and new furniture, could be contributing to the problem. Some pollutants, like radon and carbon monoxide, are invisible and odorless.
To make matters even more complicated, some of the immediate effects of indoor toxins can mimic the symptoms of colds or other viral diseases. This makes it difficult to determine when and where pollutants are an issue.
When professionals discuss indoor air quality, they are talking about the air inside and around a building that affects the health and comfort of a home or building’s occupants. When you hire a qualified air quality specialist, they will take time to interview you and everyone in your home to track symptoms and behaviors. They’ll use instruments to measure air quality in all parts of your home and around your home to make sure every space is free of pollutants. They’ll also evaluate the circulation and airflow to make sure that toxins won’t linger. They’ll examine filtration systems, and they’ll inventory the types of cleaners and solvents you use. When you hire an environmental specialist to evaluate your home, they’re able to assess and identify issues relating to a long list of contaminants and pollutants.
An indoor air quality specialist can also help map out plans to work around potential danger spots, like the installation of new carpet, a major pesticide treatment, or a home renovation.
Finally, if you believe you have a condition resulting from your home environment, it’s essential to talk to your doctor to see if your condition could be caused by indoor air pollution. Many doctors will not test for exposure to lead or carbon monoxide unless you request it. Allergists and occupational medicine specialists may also be excellent resources.
The Eight Biggest Threats to Indoor Air Quality
There are literally thousands of ways your home can become polluted. Each person reacts differently to toxins in the air, and most symptoms can be explained by a multitude of factors. As you can see, identifying hazards in your home is complex. Home detection kits are generally poor and unreliable, and you need to purchase multiple kits to measure a wide range of pollutants in every area of your home. To top it all off, some indoor pollutants affect people immediately, while others cause harm through prolonged exposure. Depending on the person and the level of exposure, health issues can appear years after exposure or after long or repeated periods of exposure.
While the universe of indoor air quality is complicated and potentially frustrating, you can simplify it a bit by grouping the basic threats to air quality into eight basic groups. While some are invisible and insidious (like radon), others are easy to spot and eliminate (like smoking).
With that in mind, become familiar with the eight areas of contamination. Each toxin has a common set of symptoms and is more likely to appear in some places and less likely to harbor in others. While you shouldn’t assume your air is clean without the help of an air quality specialist, you can begin by learning about these eight pollutants that are considered especially pervasive, dangerous, or even deadly.
- Lead and Asbestos
- Carbon Monoxide
- Chemical Solvents and VOCs
- Dust and Allergens
- Tobacco Smoke
Radon has a reputation as a basement gas. Although it is most common in basements, it’s not created in basements. And the age of your basement has little to do with your likelihood to have radon. While the EPA estimates that 1 in 15 homes has a radon issue, you can’t rely on your neighbor’s evaluation to clear or condemn your home. Radon levels can vary dramatically from home to home. Sometimes just one house in a neighborhood has radon. Sometimes the entire block has it.
Radon is a naturally occurring gas emitted from soil. It’s not new, and it’s not the byproduct of any man-made material. Instead, it’s produced when tiny amounts of uranium, thorium, and radium break down in the earth. When this chemical breakdown happens, radioactive gases are released into the air. However, radon is not an issue outdoors. In the open air, most radon harmlessly dissipates so quickly that it is generally undetectable.
Because the gas is emitted below ground, it can move through the soil, eventually seeping into cellars, basements, mines, and other underground spaces. If there is not adequate air movement, the radon remains trapped in these spaces. Radon gases can also affect first floors built on slabs or with crawl spaces. Without proper ventilation to move it out of the building, radon poses a significant health risk.
In fact, radon is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Prolonged exposure to radon is the second leading cause of all lung cancer, second only to smoking.
To make matters more complicated, radon is also odorless, tasteless, and invisible. It can’t be detected without special equipment. While some DIY tests are available, they can be unreliable. That’s because radon levels can fluctuate day to day and month to month. Changes in airflow and temperature can dramatically affect test results. To get the most accurate results, have an environmental engineer conduct a long-term test. Long-term evaluations use controlled conditions to measure radon levels for more than 90 days.
If radon is an issue in your home, an air quality specialist can identify the best solution to remove the radon from the space. For example, some buildings may be able to fix the issue by adding sealing and caulking around openings to reduce the amount of radon seeping in. Experts often recommend the installation of a pipe and vent system that moves air through the space and allows radon to move up and out to the outdoors. You may need to create a gas-permeable layer beneath the slab or flooring. For crawl spaces, plastic sheeting may need to go on top of the gas-permeable layer. Each area and construction is slightly different. A qualified environmental engineer can advise you on the safest and most effective solutions.
Molds can grow almost anywhere and on virtually any substance, including wood, steel, paper, carpet, and foods. No matter how clean your home is, every interior space has some level of mold spores in the air. When the count is very low, people tolerate the mold, and it doesn’t cause reactions. But if the mold grows, it can present health risks. It’s hard to know when mold is growing since mold is seldom easy to spot, or even possible to see. Mold prefers dark, wet spaces like plumbing, ductwork, and the areas behind appliances. Mold spores break off and travel through the air, moving relatively far away from the mold source, triggering health issues, and spreading your mold issue.
People who are sensitive to molds can quickly experience congestion, throat irritation, eye irritation, or, in some cases, skin irritation—the more severe the allergy, the more severe the reaction. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) has reported that there is sufficient evidence to link indoor exposure to mold with upper respiratory tract symptoms in otherwise healthy people and that children may be especially suspectable to the effects of mold. Mold can also trigger asthma symptoms in people with asthma.
The only way to completely eliminate mold from a space is to adopt “clean room” protocols that require decontamination chambers and the use of hazmat suits. This approach is not practical for most homes, to say the least.
However, reducing moisture to 30 to 60 percent is a sensible way to control the growth of most molds in your home. Most need moisture to grow. You can reduce the humidity in your home by increasing the ventilation, fixing leaks or wet spots, using air conditioning and de-humidifiers, and ensuring that no building materials, furnishings, or other content is damp for more than 48 hours.
An environmental specialist can safely test different parts of your home for mold and will test the air for mold spores. Samples are then sent to laboratories that analyze the type of mold. Based on the lab results, the environmental specialist will then recommend ways to remove mold or suggest changes that reduce or eliminate mold sources.
About Lead and Asbestos
Lead and asbestos are some of the most dangerous environmental toxins on this list. These are the slow but sure killers. Few people feel short-term effects after brief exposure to lead, but long-term exposure can result in chronic and severe health problems, including brain damage, hypertension, and heart disease. Exposure to asbestos can lead to immediate damage to the tissue in your mouth, throat, and lungs or may cause mesothelioma, a rare type of cancer, 20 – 50 years later.
Even if your house is fully restored, older homes are much more likely to contain lead and asbestos. The EPA estimates that 87 percent of homes built before 1940 contain lead paint, and the sale of lead paint was not banned until 1978.
Asbestos is a component in many building materials manufactured in the 20th century, including wall insulation, flooring, drywall, and even lumber. While asbestos has been banned in some building materials, it’s still legally permitted for things like cement roofing and siding shingles, roof coatings and felt, and even some types of vinyl floor tile.
The good news is that if the surfaces of your home have been appropriately treated and undisturbed, the lead in paint and the asbestos in building components don’t pose a danger. However, if your paint starts chipping or materials with asbestos are disturbed, you will be at risk of exposure. If you live in an older home, you should get an indoor air quality test and lead paint tests to ensure that all lead and asbestos is covered and safely contained.
When lead-based paint is disturbed by renovations, stripping, or scraping, it releases lead-contaminated dust into the air. And even tiny amounts of lead dust are dangerous, especially to children and pets.
Asbestos is also highly dangerous when it’s disturbed in any way. In fact, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recommended covering old asbestos instead of removing it, since the removal, not the presence, presents the health hazard. And whenever you do renovations, have a professional check your air quality during and after repairs to ensure that no lead dust and asbestos (or other toxins) remain in the air.
If it becomes necessary to remove lead or asbestos from your home, there are strict legal requirements that contractors must follow. If you are a homeowner working on your home, follow government guidelines to protect your long-term health.
If you suspect asbestos, contact an accredited asbestos inspector or environmental engineer to assess the situation. If asbestos is found in an area under renovation, most laws state that a certified asbestos remediator must do the removal.
About Natural Gas
Natural gas is an affordable energy source that is a part of many homes. Gas stoves, gas water heaters, gas heat, and even gas fireplaces are present in millions of American households. When the gas is working correctly, it is safe and efficient. But if you develop a gas leak, the people in your home may get carbon monoxide poisoning. When exposed to gas leaks, people can quickly experience headaches, shortness of breath, chest pain, flu-like symptoms, dizziness, drowsiness, and fatigue.
Like radon and carbon monoxide, natural gas is actually odorless and colorless. Gas companies have added a sulfur smell to make it easier to detect in case of a leak. Some describe the smell as rotten eggs. If you have a small, slow leak that isn’t easy to identify, you may notice your gas bill is higher than usual. Your family may not feel well, and your house plants may wilt or die.
If other people or pets in your home are experiencing symptoms of gas poisoning, leave your house and see if symptoms disappear once you go outside. If you suspect you have a gas leak, turn off your home’s main gas line, open as many doors and windows and you can, and then leave immediately. Call your gas company and report the issue, and then get yourself and your family (and pets) to a doctor or hospital. Tell them you have been exposed to natural gas and carbon monoxide.
Like carbon monoxide and radon, natural gas is non-toxic when it is well ventilated. But that doesn’t mean it’s harmless. Natural gas is highly combustible and can even cause large explosions when combined with a distinct amount of oxygen, sparks, or fire.
Because low levels of gas are hard to detect, it’s wise to schedule regular inspections by qualified industry professionals of all gas appliances, furnaces, vents, flues, fireplaces, and chimneys. The U.S Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends carbon monoxide alarms for every home. CO alarms will detect the presence of natural gas and should be installed and working on any floor with a sleeping area, in laundry areas, in garages, near furnaces or boilers, near water heaters, in kitchens, and near gas fireplaces.
Store chemicals and flammable materials well away from any gas appliances or open flames (including pilot lights) and keep at least one multipurpose fire extinguisher in your kitchen, near furnaces or boilers, and near gas appliances or fireplaces.
When you invest in testing and managing the air quality of your home, an environmental specialist will help you identify danger zones for gas leaks and recommend the right kind of ventilation to reduce risks of health issues or fire.
About Carbon Monoxide
Carbon monoxide, or CO, is a pollutant produced from the burning of carbon-based substances, including wood, paper, and coal. In fact, almost anything that burns produces carbon monoxide. Natural gas also contains carbon monoxide. Malfunctioning boilers or furnaces and appliances can emit dangerous levels of CO. Gasoline engines found in cars, trucks, motorcycles, and even lawnmowers can produce carbon monoxide. Workspaces in or close to garages are at exceptionally high risk.
When you breathe carbon monoxide into your lungs, it binds to your red blood cells and prevents the flow of oxygen to your heart and brain. High concentrations can be deadly, but even lower levels can lead to illness or even death for some people. Most importantly, carbon monoxide is odorless and invisible, so it’s vital to have working CO detectors in your home. The U.S Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends carbon monoxide alarms for every home. Have them on any floor with a sleeping area, in laundry areas, in garages, near furnaces or boilers, near water heaters, in kitchens, near fireplaces or wood stoves, and any area using space heaters.
Early warning symptoms of CO poisoning are headaches, dizziness, nausea, breathlessness, collapse, or even loss of consciousness. Some people mistake CO poisoning for flu symptoms, food poisoning, or even fatigue.
If other people or pets in your home are experiencing similar symptoms, leave your house and see if symptoms disappear once you go outside. If you suspect you’ve been exposed to high levels of carbon monoxide, get fresh air immediately. Turn off the gas in your house and leave immediately. Call your gas company and report the issue. Then get to a doctor or hospital and tell them you have been exposed to carbon monoxide.
To ensure better indoor air quality, have an environmental engineer inspect your home to identify the source of the emissions and remedy the issue.
If the issue can’t be repaired or eliminated (you may not be able to remove cars in your garage, for example), unsafe carbon monoxide levels can be reduced or eliminated with a proper exhaust or ventilation system. Work with a professional to ensure the systems are functioning correctly. They should be regularly tested and rigorously maintained to ensure that your exhaust systems are adequately sized and fully functional.
About Chemical Solvents and VOCs
In some homes, you may find you get headaches, an upset stomach, or even irritation in your eyes and throat. When volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are present, they can cause minor short-term issues and major-long term issues, including cancer.
The VOC category includes a long list of chemicals. The EPA reports that home interiors consistently outrank the outdoors when it comes to VOC concentrations, often scoring 10 times higher. That means your home may have 10 times more pollutants than the outdoors. And it’s no wonder—VOCs are emitted by thousands of products, including paints, varnishes, cleaning products, and cosmetics.
Common VOC culprits include:
- Paints, paint strippers, solvents, and varnishes
- Aerosol sprays
- Cleaning products and disinfectants
- Air fresheners
- Dry-cleaned clothing
- Glues and adhesives
- Permanent markers
- New carpet, new mattress, and some types of new furniture
- Printer and copier ink
However, it’s not always easy to tell when VOCs have reached problematic levels. An environmental engineer is training to measure VOCs and identify the source. They can often pinpoint the worst offenders in your home and help find solutions to reduce VOCs in your home dramatically.
When using products on the “Common Culprits” list, use the following precautions:
- Note label precautions and follow them rigorously. If it says to use in a well-ventilated area, perform the task outside or open windows and turn on fans.
- Always replace caps and lids firmly. Never leave a possibly toxic product open. If you lose the top, dispose of the product.
- Use alternative pest management techniques to reduce the need for pesticides.
- Safely dispose of unused or seldom-used containers. Purchase small quantities that you will use quickly.
- When possible, store unused amounts in garages or sheds.
- Keep out of the reach of children and pets.
- Never mix products unless directed on the label. Mixing even non-toxic ingredients together can result in a toxic mixture.
If you must use products that emit VOCs, ventilation is your best defense. Open your windows and doors as wide and as often as possible. “Airing out” your home is a helpful way to move toxins out of your home. Use ceiling fans or floor fans to circulate air through your home. Make sure your HVAC is powerful enough to maintain optimal air quality.
About Smoke (Including Tobacco Smoke)
While tobacco smoke is one of the top pollutants on our list, it is also one of the most common. Tobacco smoke is also the only toxin that can be wholly controlled and totally eliminated. First-hand and second-hand tobacco smoke presents well-documented health hazards to the smoker and the people around them.
Even second-hand smoke can trigger respiratory conditions and is especially hazardous for children, the elderly, and people with chronic health conditions or compromised immune systems.
Sussex Environmental Consultants strongly recommends a strict no-smoking policy at home and on all personal property.
What to do Right Now to Reduce Pollutants or Toxins
If you find that you must spend a short time in a space with any of the seven most dangerous pollutants, ventilation is vital. Some HVAC systems are robust enough to prevent the accumulation of any of these pollutants. Powerful exhaust fans are also useful. Opening windows and doors in ways that provide a cross-breeze are very helpful in diluting or even removing harmful vapors.
Hot temperatures and high humidity levels can also increase the concentration and the danger of some pollutants. In these conditions, symptoms may worsen.
It’s important to know that some pollutants are unsafe at any level. If you suspect carbon monoxide in your home or office, evacuate the area immediately, call the gas company for an emergency evaluation, and to check the area to see if it is safe to return.
Follow the same procedure if you smell gas. Evacuate immediately. Call the gas company. Avoid sparks or fire when you smell gas. Evacuate the area and leave windows and doors open if possible. Make sure the leak is identified and fixed before returning.
While short-term fixes will mitigate immediate danger, the persistent presence of any indoor pollutants or toxins must be dealt with professionally. For example, a new carpet can emit fumes that cause nausea and headaches. While these symptoms may go away in a few hours for some people, they can last for weeks for others. In this case, it pays to have an environmental specialist to evaluate your indoor air quality.
Don’t Postpone Indoor Environmental Testing
Sussex Environmental Consultants will perform survey methods and sampling techniques custom-designed your needs. Our staff of indoor environmental and industrial hygiene professionals will interview you and your family, perform site assessments, inspect HVAC systems, study building configurations, carefully analyze air particles and pollutants, and deliver a timely, site-specific recommendation that accurately assesses the issues and challenges that contribute to building-related illness and sick building syndrome.
If you’re ready to initiate an indoor air quality investigation, call the air quality and environmental experts at Sussex Environmental Consultants. We serve Lewes, Sussex County, Southern Delaware, and the mid-Atlantic, and we’re ready to help you.