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The Real Threat of Indoor Air Pollution & How to Keep Your Family Safe

Background on the Issue

The quality of air inside our homes can be many times worse (on average, 2 to 5 times worse, according to the EPA) than outside air. And because on average we spend 90% of our time indoors, most of that time in our homes, we are quite susceptible to the air quality issues there. Children are particularly vulnerable as they breathe in 50% more air per pound of body weight than adults do. Indoor air quality issues are directly linked to asthma in children, which affect 6.3 million U.S. children.



COMBUSTION SOURCES, e.g. oil, gas, coal, wood, and tobacco products Byproducts of combustion, such as carbon monoxide, can come from leaking chimneys, faulty furnaces, and from automobile exhaust in attached garages.

BUILDING MATERIALS AND FURNISHINGS e.g. paint, carpet, and “fake” wood Lead-based paint is an issue, particularly in older homes (pre 1978) and in urban areas. Look for peeling or chipping paint inside and outside your home, such as in windowsills and the space around storm windows.

Formaldehyde is widely used in furniture, carpeting, and other permanent press fabrics and pressed wood products. These emissions generally decrease over time (or off-gas). Formaldehyde can bring on asthma or cause chemical sensitivities.

VOCs or volatile organic compounds include a wide-range of carbon-based molecules that vaporize into the air forming ozone. In the home they come from paints, wallpaper, carpets, glues, furnishings, and cleaning agents. VOCS can be in concentrations of up to 1,000 times greater indoors than outdoors says the EPA. VOCs can cause immediate health issues (headaches) and some are known toxins.

HOUSEHOLD CLEANING PRODUCTS AND OTHER CHEMICALS USED INDOORS There are 17,000 petrochemicals available for use in your home, of which only 30% have been tested for human and environmental safety. There are nearly 125,000 kids under 6 poisoned every year by cleaning products according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

OUTSIDE POLLUTANTS INSIDE. Pesticides, heavy metals, radon, and other outdoor air pollutants can tracked into the home or can otherwise leak into homes. Radon is found in the soil in many areas, but can’t be seen, smelled, or tasted, and is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers. Heavy metals, such as lead, mercury, and arsenic, are particularly damaging to developing brains and can end up in the soil or be found in older outdoor playgrounds and decks pressure treated with CCA or ACZA.

MOLD AND MILDEW. Mold can form on, or in, drywall, paper, and wood if it becomes moist and fails to dry within 48 hours. Mold colonies can release spores causing health issues such as allergies or respiratory problems.


  • Remove shoes (which can track pollutants indoors) upon entering your home.
  • Wash your kids’ hands with soap and water a lot.
  • Open your windows when it is nice out—the outdoor air will greatly improve your indoor air quality.
  • Wet mop your floors and windowsills regularly, especially in an older home (pre-1978 when lead paint was banned).
  • Don’t smoke inside your home.
  • Beware when buying furniture, including furniture for kids. Particle board, plywood, or other wood products are made with glues that use formaldehyde. There are some low-VOC options available from the E.U., otherwise try to buy real wood without extra glues. When wood isn’t possible, try buying used products (that have off-gassed more).
  • Buy no- or low-VOC paints and look for water-based adhesives and finishes.
  • Your drycleaner is toxic (they use perchloroethylene)—avoid dry-clean only clothes, use a green cleaner or, at minimum, let your clothes and bags off-gass outside before bringing them inside.
  • Get a carbon monoxide detector.  And if you have an attached garage, do not idle the car inside and carefully exhaust so as to not allow fumes inside.
  • Consider a radon test (a short-term radon detector kit is just $10-20).
  • Avoid antibacterial soaps and antimicrobial cleaners. The FDA has found that they do no better than soap and water and they might add to the risk of breeding antibiotic resistant “super-germs.”
  • Many plants, such as mums and gerbera daisies, will improve indoor air.
  • Buy green cleaners.  Avoid everything marked “Danger!”  Why take the risk with kids around and why put more of something that can kill kids into the environment by washing it down your drain or throwing it into a landfill.
  • Dispose of all toxic household items in Chicago at the Household Chemicals & Computer Recycling Facility (



  • White distilled vinegar can disinfect, deodorize, and dissolve tarnish and gummy substances. It can be used for everything from softening cotton diapers to cleaning your hardwood floors.
  • Lemon juice can cut through grease, lighten stains, and polish metal.
  • Baking soda can eliminate odors and clean. It’s good on the sink, tub, oven, and countertop. Sprinkle it on the carpet and vacuum to remove odors.  Clean drains by pouring ½ cub baking soda down the drain followed by 1 cup vinegar, wait 15 minutes and then pour hot water down.
  • Washing soda can be used instead for extra-stubborn stains or greasy ovens.
  • Borax can be used instead of washing soda and can also be used to kill mold. (Borax is toxic when swallowed, so exercise caution.) You can pour 1 cup of borax into the toilet and leave overnight for extra-strength cleaning.

Remember, almost anything with “fragrance” listed as an ingredient contains phthalates or other chemicals harmful to human health. Instead, try using essential oils to mask smells when necessary.

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