Poor indoor air quality is a leading environmental and safety issue for property owners. Because this is a relatively new problem, many Americans have not yet realized its magnitude. The 1970s energy crisis and the consequent rise in energy prices lead to the construction of energy-efficient buildings with improved insulation and sealing that drastically reduced the quantity of fresh air entering our homes, thereby increasing indoor pollution levels. The EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), the American Lung Association and World Health Organization (WHO) have indicated that poor indoor air quality is a serious health risk and therefore steps must be taken to mitigate the same. According to an EPA estimate, the air indoors is 2 to 5 times more polluted than the air outside. Although many of us are not aware of it, an average American home could contain as many as 15000 hazardous substances and hidden air-borne pollutants affecting the air quality in our homes.
Most Americans spend about 90% of the day indoors, and about 65% of that time in their homes. The segments of population that spend the most time at home are young children, older people, pregnant women and people suffering from allergies – the very people whose health is most vulnerable.
Consequences of Poor Indoor Air Quality
The most serious consequence of high indoor air pollution levels is the health hazard they pose for the people who inhale this air. If left unresolved, poor indoor air quality can cause minor health problems such as allergies (nose, eye and throat irritations), dizziness, headache and fatigue. Acute indoor air pollution may result in serious conditions, such as asthma and dermatitis. Prolonged or repeated exposure to poor indoor air quality has been known to cause grave health problems, including respiratory diseases, heart disease, reproductive and developmental problems - and cancer. The adverse health effects of indoor air pollution are not always apparent right away. Health problems due to poor air quality (particularly the more serious diseases) are often experienced years after a person has been exposed to indoor air pollution. Naturally, air quality affects people in varying degrees. Typically, children, the elderly and those whose health is already frail will be the most affected.
Exposure to air-borne pollutants will also affect the health of individuals in schools, factories and office or commercial buildings. Indoor air quality at the work place can have a negative impact on employee health and productivity. Poor air quality can increase medical expenses and raise the rate of absenteeism among employees. In fact, poor air quality can have an adverse effect on the economy in the long run. Obviously, reducing indoor air pollution and improving indoor air quality should be a priority for homeowners and public building owners alike.
Do You Have Indoor Air Quality Problems That Affect You?
The points listed below can help you decide whether your home (or work place) may have an indoor air quality issue:
· Do you feel healthier and breathe easier when you step outside?
· Have you noticed unusual odors inside your home? (Odors resulting from volatile chemicals in the air may indicate poor indoor air quality)
· Is the air inside your home or work place unusually still (no movement)?
· Is your central heating and / or air conditioner equipment dirty?
· Is the humidity level inside your home or office excessively high? Above 45%?
· Are there any damaged fuel pipes or chimneys in your home?
· Do you have proper vents for all fuel burning appliances?
· Have you checked for mold or mildew recently?
· Do you live or work in a tightly constructed or re-modeled home (asbestos insulation etc)?
· Have you experienced any adverse health reaction after moving into a new home? New office? After completing a home re-modeling project?
· Do you frequently have headaches or feel unnaturally tired or nauseous inside your home or work place?
If you think you may be one of the millions of Americans whose homes and work places have an indoor air quality problem, the first step to take is to determine the source(s) of the problem. Some principle sources of poor indoor air quality are:
- Ventilation problems: HVAC systems do not function properly or they are contaminated. Airborne contaminants may be pulled into your air duct system whenever you use the furnace, building up inside the ductwork, transforming your duct system into a breeding ground for mold spores, bacteria, fungus and mildew. When you turn your furnace on, it releases these contaminants into your home. A ventilation system that is not functioning properly will not bring enough outdoor air inside to dilute indoor air pollutants nor carry poor quality air out of the home.
- Indoor chemical contaminants: These could come from damp carpet, adhesives, cleaning products, insect repellant sprays, printers, photocopy machines, pressed-wood furniture or appliances that use combustion sources (oil, gas, kerosene, coal, wood or any other source that releases carbon monoxide). All these things release volatile chemicals and particles that affect air quality.
- Construction materials such as asbestos (in insulation), formaldehyde and lead.
· Outdoor contaminants: Polluted outdoor air (containing exhaust fumes, radon and pesticides) can enter your home or work place through air intake vents, unsealed windows, and any other building openings, affecting indoor air quality.
· Microorganisms such as bacteria, mold and viruses often grow indoors in the standing water accumulated in ducts, drain pans and humidifiers. It can be hard to detect bacteria and viruses since they are invisible. Elevated temperatures and high humidity levels promote the growth of these microorganisms.
· Other biological contaminants that often affect indoor air quality are dust mites, cockroaches, pollen and animal dander. These are all allergens.
How to Improve Indoor Air Quality
The first thing to do is to assess the problem and try to determine the reason behind any air quality issues you may have. Once you discover the problem, fix it. Do not just cover up the symptoms. Obviously, the most effective method for improving indoor air quality is to control air pollution sources. There are three basic approaches to resolving air quality problems: eliminating the source of the problem; using ventilation to dilute the airborne contaminants and using air purifiers to reduce the contaminants. The ideal solution, of course, is to use all these three methods combined.
If you believe you have a serious air quality problem, call in a professional service to carry out an indoor air quality assessment of your home. You can also purchase a DIY kit for testing air quality. A professional air quality assessment will include essential steps such as:
· Moisture Survey
· Mold Inspection
· Inspection of HVAC systems
· Instrument testing for carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds (VOC), radon and other gases
· A professional air quality survey will also discover the presence of asbestos, lead and other chemicals
Once you have determined the reason behind unhealthy air quality, you should lay down a plan to resolve the problem. Different homes have different pollutant sources. To improve your indoor air quality, you must eliminate, or at least reduce, the specific source(s) of indoor air pollution in your home. If your problem is deteriorating asbestos insulation, for example, you can have it sealed or enclosed. If the problem turns out to be your gas stove, it can be adjusted to reduce the amount of gas emission. Still, there are a number of simple things everyone can do to improve air quality inside the home:
- Scheduling regular air duct cleaning (once every three to five years) by a professional service; this should also improve the efficiency of central heat and air units, thereby saving money.
- Chimney cleaning will also enhance air quality inside your home
- Regularly replace vacuum cleaner filters to prevent dust particles from escaping into the air.
- Deep clean your carpets & floor surfaces once every season at least.
- Some air purification systems can help to improve indoor air quality by removing a percentage of air pollutants - but remember, you get what you pay for. One small unit will be ineffective in a large house.
- Ventilate your home in nice weather.
- Try to maintain humidity levels at 45% or less. If you have a humidifier, empty it regularly to prevent mold spores from growing in the tank.
- Keep pets outside – or at least off the beds and out of the bedrooms.
- Keeping a clean house will aid air systems to run smoothly (less dust will be caught in the air ducts)
- Wash linens in hot water (130 degrees) to kill dust mites and their eggs.
- Do not use aerosols and do not smoke inside.
If you have a serious indoor air quality problem, do not neglect it and do not cover it up. Discover the source and treat the problem. Your health and that of your family are at stake, so you have to exercise utmost care and concern. Always call in remediation experts for mold problems.
Cheerful Tip: Go out and buy a Peace Lily or a Spider Plant. Indoor plants can help improve air quality by absorbing harmful chemicals and gases. Just be careful not to over water the plant - or the potting soil will grow mold!