Indoor air pollution is one of the most overlooked threats to human health. Households in developing countries might be the hardest hit. Because children spend almost eighty percent of their time indoors, they are the most likely victims. In the past several years it has been determined that conditions ranging from asthma, headaches and fatigue to allergic reactions, hormone imbalances and central nervous damage may be attributed to indoor air quality—or, rather, the lack of it. Most of us realize that outdoor air quality can affect health, but few pay attention to the indoor air…unless it smells bad.
In a paper supported by the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and printed in the British Medical Bulletin in the early 2000’s, Junfeng (Jim) Zhang and Kirk Smith allowed that the ubiquitous character of indoor air pollution “…may contribute to increasing prevalence of asthma, autism, childhood cancer, medically unexplained symptoms, and perhaps other illnesses.” Because the sources of indoor pollution are not expected to abate in the near future, particularly those associated with tobacco use, we can expect to voice concerns for a long time. The authors add that “…risks associated with solid fuel combustion coincide with risk associated with modern buildings.”
COMMENTARY It is absurd that indoor air quality should be so poor that it causes sickness and disease, yet that appears to be more the rule than the exception in modern times. Nobody would think of running a tractor-trailer or a tour bus in the living room, but the pollution effect is the same. Most of us are unaware of the problem because a single major source of indoor pollution can’t be fingered. Despite this unrecognized threat, indoor pollution is twice as bad as outdoor, according to studies performed by the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins. Others put the rate at five times. There are so many sources of indoor pollution that have become part of our daily lives that we never question them. Have you thought about the unpronounceable ingredients in your cleaning products and other household chemicals, like the pesticides you use in the yard? How about your cosmetics and the smelly things you plug into the wall to hide other smelly things? Got new carpet or upholstery? Oh, yeah, there are more, such as the aroma of hot tar being applied to the new roof at your children’s school…while school’s in session. The activity may be outdoors, but the sickening smell is certainly indoors.
The influx of biological pollutants is hard to manage. Molds, bacteria, viruses, animal dander, skin particles (yes, even human), pollen and dust mites are everywhere. You can see airborne particles in that beam of sunshine coming through the window, but you can’t identify any of them. Some can breed in the stagnant water that sits in your humidifier, or where water has collected in your ceiling tiles, insulation or carpet. These things can cause fever, chills, cough, and chest tightness, among other symptoms. Even when we do what we think is good for the family, we may do the opposite. Burning the woodstove or fireplace might save money on the heating bill (though the fireplace is suspect), but how about the junk it puts into the air? You can’t win, eh?
In our attempts to conserve energy, we have sealed our houses so tightly that nothing can get in and less can get out. Once we change the air pressure dynamics of our houses, we have allowed intruders to enter. Radon and soil gases are most common, and they creep through the cellar floor. Mechanical ventilation can help to get the junk out and bring at least some fresher air in. Not only does insulation contribute to the tightness of our homes, but also it brings problems of its own in the form of irritating chemicals.
Increasing ventilation is one of the easiest steps to improving indoor air quality. Even in the dead of winter it’s a good idea to open the front and back doors simultaneously once a day to let fresh cold air in and the stale reheated air out. Pathogens grow in an environment that is warm, dark and damp. Your hot-air heater is a prime breeding ground for colds and the like. The American Lung Association and the Mayo Clinic have recognized air filters as being sufficiently effective to allay at least some of the problem. Using a vacuum with a HEPA filter is another prudent intervention.
Concerning household cleaners, we all know that anything natural costs more than anything man-made, and that mindset is hard to figure out. Why do we have to pay for things that are left out? In the mean time, note that vinegar-water concoctions are just as good as many commercial products at cleaning our homes—even the commode. Who cares if it smells like salad?
But what might just be the best air cleaner on the planet is a collection of house plants. Formaldehyde is a major contaminant of indoor air, originating from particle board, carpets, window coverings, paper products, tobacco smoke, and other sources. These can contribute to what has been called “sick building syndrome.” The use of green plants to clean indoor air has been known for years. This phytoremediation has been studied with great intensity in a few laboratories across the globe, where it was learned that ferns have the greatest capability of absorbing toxins. (Kim, Kays. 2010) As is the case with many endeavors, there is a hierarchy of plants that does the job. After the ferns, the common spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum) was found best at removing gaseous pollutants, including formaldehyde. Way back in 1984 NASA released information about how good the spider plant is at swallowing up indoor air pollution. The heartleaf philodendron partners well with Chlorophytum. Dr. Bill Wolverton, retired from NASA, has a list (http://www.sti.nasa.gov/tto/Spinoff2007/ps_3.html). Areca and lady palms, Boston fern, golden pothos and the dracaenas are at the top. Plants with fuzzy leaves are best at removing particulates from smoke and grease, and some are even maintenance-free (almost), including the aloes, cacti, and the aforementioned spider plants, pothos and dracaenas, the last sometimes called the corn plant.
For more information, try these resources:
Indoor Air Pollution Increases Asthma Symptoms (Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health) http://www.jhsph.edu/publichealthnews/press_releases/2009/breysse_indoor_asthma.html
Pollution at Home Often Lurks Unrecognized (12/26/2008, Reuters Health) by Amy Norton http://www.reuters.com/article/2008/12/26/us-pollution-home-idUSTRE4BP1ZL20081226
Air Purifiers and Air Filters Can Help the Health of Allergy and Asthmas Sufferers (S. A. Smith) http://ambafrance-do.org/alternative/11888.php
Indoor Air Pollution Fact Sheet (08/1999, American Lung Association) http://www.lungusa.org/healthy-air/home/healthy-air-at-home/An Introduction to Indoor Air Quality (Environmental Protection Agency) http://www.epa.gov/iaq/ia-intro.html