ost of us tend to think of air pollution as something that occurs outdoors where car exhaust and factory fumes proliferate, but there’s such a thing as indoor air pollution, too. Since the 1950s, the number of synthetic chemicals used in products for the home has increased drastically at the same time that homes have become much tighter and better insulated. As a result, the EPA estimates that indoor pollutants today are from five to 70 times higher than pollutants in outside air.
Depending on the home and the individual, this “sick building syndrome” can result in problems ranging from eye, nose and throat irritation to damage to the liver, kidneys and central nervous system. Cancer, too, has been linked to indoor pollutants, and both offices and residential homes are vulnerable.
How pollutants get into our homes
Potentially toxic ingredients are found in many materials throughout the home, and they leach out into the air as Volatile Organic Compounds, or VOCs. If you open a can of paint, you can probably smell the VOCs in the air. The “new-car smell” is another example of this. The smell seems to dissipate after a while, but VOCs can actually “off-gas” for a long time, even after any noticeable smell is gone.
We all know to use paint and glue in a well-ventilated room, but there are many other materials that don’t come with that kind of warning. For instance, there are chemicals such as formaldehyde in the resin used to make most cabinets and in plywood and particle board. It’s also in wall paneling and closet shelves, and in the wood finishes used on cabinets and furniture.
The problems aren’t just with wood, either. Fabrics—everything from draperies to upholstery, bedding and your dry cleaned clothes—are a potent source of VOCs. Even some wells in the United States have been contaminated with dangerous levels of VOCs from product spills or proximity to gas stations or other sources.
Carpets: one of the worst culprits
Wall-to-wall carpeting is a fairly modern invention, and one that most homeowners take for granted. But carpeting has a high propensity for making our indoor air less than healthy. Not only do the synthetic fabrics themselves emit VOCs, but so do the glues usually used to secure them. Carpets also tend to collect dust mites and pet dander, and soak up any outdoor contamination we bring in on our shoes, such as pesticides. If they get wet, they can be even more of a problem as mold and fungi take hold.
Mold gone bad
Molds release tiny spores into the air, and most of the time they’re pretty harmless to humans. But a certain form, known as “toxic mold,” emits its own little VOCs that are suspected of causing symptoms from memory loss to lung problems in some individuals. This type of mold prefers to grow on things containing cellulose, such as drywall, wood and paper, but it can also take hold on leather and clothing, and even inside air conditioners.
Homes that have flooded or are located in areas with a moderate temperature and high humidity are most at risk of developing toxic mold. You can look for signs such as green, black or brown patches on the wall, a musty odor, or respiratory irritation when you’re inside the home. An even earlier sign is a yellowish discoloration on walls that have been wet, which makes them prime breeding areas for the fungi.
What you can do about VOCs
The good news about VOCs is that they do dissipate with time and with a good airing. For that reason, the greatest problem with VOCs is in new homes or remodels, and if this is a concern to you, there are many products you can buy today that are either low- or no-VOC.
The best advice if you’re purchasing a home that you suspect may have air- quality issues (especially mold) or if you’re concerned about your own home is to get the air tested. After all, healthy air is something that’s too important to all of us to be taken for granted.
“What’s making us sick?”
When Tracy Clarke and her family moved into their new home five years ago, it really was a homecoming. The house in the Los Angeles suburbs, built in 1941, had previously been owned by her parents. Tracy and her family were aware when they moved in that the partially finished lower level had a history of moisture both from drainage problems and a burst water heater, but they didn’t think much about it until their two young children and nanny began coming down with a constant stream of colds.
for more information on indoor air quality
When Tracy researched toxic mold, she decided it was time to have her home’s air tested, and the results were alarming. They were told the “acceptable” ratio of indoor mold spores to outdoor was less than 10 to one. Their ratio was more like hundreds to one, and their indoor mold was one of the toxic varieties. They definitely had a problem. The problem was bad in the basement but way worse in their crawl space, which had a dirt floor. They removed carpeting from the basement and laid new Visqueen in the crawl space, then closed off the crawl space with plywood. The Clarkes have only just completed their mold remediation, so they don’t know how much the change will affect their family’s health, but they certainly feel better knowing they’ve dealt with the threat. Tracy’s advice to others? “Trust your instincts,” she says, “and don’t ignore the problem.” She advises careful screening of companies before hiring someone to test the air and remediate a mold problem, as it’s an unregulated field and there are many alarmists out there promoting extreme measures.
She also advises homeowners with damp rooms to get rid of carpeting and rubber padding and go instead with utility rugs or other flooring that’s less likely to attract mold. There are also companies that can seal walls to keep mold from growing. As with anything, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Reducing your exposure to VOCs and mold
Make smart choices in building materials.
· For floors, use tile or solid wood—hardwood, bamboo or cork—instead of composites.
· Instead of using pressed particle board or indoor plywood, choose solid wood or outdoor-quality plywood that uses a less toxic form of formaldehyde.
· Choose low-VOC or VOC-free paints and finishes.
Purify the air that’s there.
· Make sure your rooms have adequate ventilation, and air out newly renovated or refurnished areas for at least a week, if possible.
· Clean ductwork and furnace filters regularly.
· Install air cleaners if needed.
· Use only environmentally responsible cleaning chemicals.
· Plants can help—good nonpoisonous options include bamboo palm, lady palm, parlor palm and moth orchids.
· Air out freshly dry-cleaned clothes.
Fight the carpet demons.
· Choose “Green Label” carpeting or a natural fiber such as wool or sisal.
· Use nails instead of glue to secure new carpet.
· Install carpet LAST after completing painting, wall coverings and other high-VOC processes.
· Air out newly carpeted areas before using.
· Use a HEPA vacuum or a central vac system that vents outdoors.
· Clean up water leaks fast.
· Use dehumidifiers, if necessary, to keep humidity below 60 percent.
· Don’t carpet rooms that stay damp.
· Insulate pipes, crawl spaces and windows to eliminate condensation.
· Kill mold before it gets a grip with ½ cup bleach per gallon of water, but use care when applying. See www.epa.gov/mold/cleanupguidelines.html for details.
Call Equity Building Inspection for more information and schedule a mold test.
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