Why Is Our Indoor Air So Polluted?
In most of our homes, the answer to this question is, “because we have made it that way.” The pollution most often comes from things we bring into the house that release their chemical ingredients into the air of our home. Furniture, stinky cleaning supplies, paints, or any of the new baby items mentioned above are common culprits.
Pollution also gets tracked in on our shoes, sucked in the door from an attached garage, or wafts in through an air intake. Energy-efficient buildings are great in many ways, but they can keep fresh air from flowing into and through a house.
The great upside of indoor air pollution is that it can be much easier for a parent to do something about than outdoor air pollution. You just need to understand what is polluting your home, and then remove the sources.
To learn more about the chemicals mentioned in this chapter, including formaldehyde, VOCs, and chemical flame-retardants, read The ABCs of Common Household Toxins.
Common sources of indoor air pollution:
- Household Cleaning Products and Other Chemicals Used Indoors: There are currently about 17,000 petrochemicals available for use in your home. These chemicals can be released into the air when used or stored improperly and are a major source of childhood poisonings. (Learn how to green clean your home.)
- Outside Pollutants: Pesticides, heavy metals, radon, and other outdoor air pollutants can be tracked in or leak into homes. Radon is found in soil. It can’t be seen, smelled, or tasted, but it is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers. Heavy metals such as lead, mercury, and arsenic can end up in the soil or be found in older outdoor playgrounds and decks constructed with older pressure-treated wood, which contained arsenic compounds. These heavy metals are routinely found in household dust, in carpets, and even on toys.
- Mould and Mildew: If drywall, paper, or wood becomes moist and doesn’t dry out within 48 hours, mould can begin to grow. Mould colo- nies release spores that cause allergies and respiratory problems.
- By-Products of Combustion: Carbon monoxide and formaldehyde can come from leaking chimneys, faulty furnaces, second-hand cigarette smoke, or automobile exhaust from an attached garage.
- Building Materials and Furnishings: The home’s largest polluters are often the furniture and finishes, including paint, wallpaper, carpeting, furniture, pressed wood, the glues that hold down flooring and tiles, PVC products, curtains, fabric and foam in our sofas, electronics, cords, and permanent-press and fire-resistant fabrics.
How bad is it anyway?
The air inside our homes and buildings is typically two to five times more polluted than the outside air. Often it is the spaces our children frequent that are the most polluted: old school buildings, daycare spaces, and our own home nurseries. Not only are these indoor spaces more polluted, but on average our kids spend 90 percent of their time there.
Children are particularly vulnerable to problems with indoor air because they breathe 50 percent more air per pound of body weight than adults. More physical activity means they take air deeper into their developing lungs and a faster metabolism means they absorb more contaminants faster. If a child accidentally swallows something contaminated with lead, for instance, he would absorb almost half of it, while an adult who swallowed the same would only absorb about one-tenth of it. Many indoor air pollutants also settle on or near the ground, where kids can easily be exposed — by putting things in their mouths, crawling, or simply breathing. Air pollution can also accumulate in the mother’s fatty tissue to be passed to the baby during pregnancy and through breastfeeding.
Children don’t detoxify as well as adults do either, and a fetus can’t detoxify at all. Adults store away many contaminants in our fat or excrete them. In children, this doesn’t happen, so toxins have more opportunity to mess with a child’s rapidly developing organ systems. Adults also rely on a blood-brain barrier to help protect their brains from many of the chemicals floating around in their bodies. Babies, however, don’t fully develop that barrier until six months of age. Similarly, a baby’s immune system isn’t fully developed. “Everything in moderation” just doesn’t apply when it comes to young children. It only takes a tiny amount of the wrong pollutant at the wrong time to profoundly impact a child’s development.
Pollution in indoor air has been linked to every one of a parent’s worst nightmares: stillbirths, birth defects, SIDS, lower IQs, respiratory infections, neurological disorders, hormone disruption, cancer, and other life-threatening illnesses. One of the most obvious of these illnesses is childhood asthma, which many are now considering to be at epidemic levels in North America.
Learn more about the Major Polluters in Your Home.