We’re all familiar with outdoor air quality problems like smog warnings, smoke from forest fires, and industry pollution – but lesser known, and perhaps more important to our everyday and long term health, is indoor air quality pollution.
“Indoor air quality“ refers to the quality of the air in a home, school, office, or other building environment. The potential impact of indoor air quality on human health nationally can be noteworthy for several reasons:
- Particles or gasses that are not normally part of the air affect air quality. This is called ‘air pollution’. Air pollution can also happen indoors.
- You bring outdoor air inside any time you open a door or window. You can also bring in pollen and smoke. Leaks around doors and windows can let in polluted outdoor air.
- Indoor air can have allergens like dust, pet dander and mold. Humidity can lead to higher dust mite levels. Particles are released into the air by furnaces, wood-burning fires and candles.
- Cooking sends oil and fat particulates into the air. Newly installed floors and furniture can release chemicals.
Many are unaware of the potential negative health impacts of poor Indoor Air Quality (IAQ). According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), IAQ refers to the air quality within and around buildings and structures, especially as it relates to the health and comfort of building occupants.
Health effects associated with indoor air pollutants include:
- Irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat.
- Headaches, dizziness, and fatigue.
- Respiratory diseases, heart disease, and cancer.
- The link between some common indoor air pollutants and health effects is very well established.
- Radon is a known human carcinogen and is the second leading cause of lung cancer.
- Carbon monoxide is toxic, and short-term exposure to elevated carbon monoxide levels in indoor settings can be lethal.
- Episodes of Legionnaires’ disease, a form of pneumonia caused by exposure to the Legionella bacteria, have been associated with buildings with poorly maintained air conditioning or heating systems.
- Numerous indoor air pollutants—dust mites, mold, pet dander, environmental tobacco smoke, cockroach allergens, particulate matter, and others—are “asthma triggers”, meaning that some asthmatics might experience asthma attacks following exposure.
While furnaces are highly efficient machines, they do need some attention and regular maintenance services from time to time. Routine repairs have their advantages – they ensure that your unit is functioning safely, and they can increase the life of your furnace as well. However, when a furnace is outdated or continuously presents the same problems, it may be more cost-effective to replace it.
In particular, children are at a higher risk for developing the negative health effects of indoor air pollution due to the amount of time they spend in school buildings. The schools present a heightened risk as they often suffer from poor IAQ due to old age and lack of funding to address indoor environmental issues, creating a nationwide challenge.
Children specifically are more susceptible to this risk as their bodies are still developing, and it is physically more difficult for children to process toxins as adults do.
In addition, children are more sensitive to exposures, and they also experience greater exposures: they breathe, eat, and drink more relative to their size than adults do, and they play closer to the ground, exhibit more hand-to-mouth activity, and are less able to identify and protect themselves from potential hazards.
Several other factors affect indoor air quality, including the air exchange rate, outdoor climate, weather conditions, and occupant behavior.
The air exchange rate with the outdoors is an important factor in determining indoor air pollutant concentrations. The air exchange rate is affected by the design, construction, and operating parameters of buildings and is ultimately a function of infiltration, natural ventilation, and mechanical ventilation.
Certain climatic conditions can increase the potential for indoor moisture and mold growth if not controlled by adequate ventilation or air conditioning.
Factors that affect indoor air quality are:
Air Fresheners and Scent
More and more workplaces have scent free policies for a good reason – many people are negatively affected by the chemical make-up of scented products like perfume, cologne, air fresheners, scented candles and more. Removing them can improve indoor air quality and make your home or office a healthier and more productive environment.
This gas has no color or odor, and can be generated indoors by fuel-burning appliances like your furnace. Sadly, carbon monoxide poisoning and deaths are very common, especially during the winter months, and can be easily avoided by using equipment safely and installing a carbon monoxide detector.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
These chemicals become airborne when at room temperature – the scent of a freshly peeled orange is a good example. But unlike oranges, many VOCs can have harmful effects on our health, and can be found in many common cleaning products, solvents, glues, paints, and more.
Commonly used until the 90s, asbestos was once known as the ‘miracle mineral’. Now known to cause a rare kind of cancer and irreversible lung damage, it’s treated the same way as toxic waste, and should be neutralized or removed if you suspect its presence in your home.
Many older homes may still contain lead paint, which, as it gets old, may flake or chip off. Lead dust is easily inhaled and can cause serious lifelong health problems.
Outdoor climate and weather conditions combined with occupant behavior can also affect indoor air quality. Weather conditions influence whether building occupants keep windows open or closed and whether they operate air conditioners, humidifiers, or heaters, all of which can affect indoor air quality.