HealthLeader

An Online Wellness Magazine produced by The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth)

Home Sick

Indoor air pollution can pose greater health risks than the air outside

Home Sick

Whether at home, work or school, the majority of Americans spend most of their days indoors. In fact, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), we spend nearly all of our time indoorsclocking in at roughly 90 percent. It makes sense, then, that the air we breathe inside be free of pollutants, irritants, waste and other hazards that potentially put our health at risk. 

It's likely, though, that poor indoor air quality (IAQ) doesn’t even rank near the top of our list of health concerns. We seem more concerned about the other chemicals that enter our bodies through our mouths such as the food we eat and water we drink. The notion that indoor air is more harmful to our bodies than outdoor air doesn't seem quite right. 

However, the EPA has gathered a good amount of scientific evidence to show that the air inside homes and other buildings can be more seriously polluted than outdoor air in even the largest and most industrialized cities. 

But before you start stacking surgical masks in cupboards and desk drawers, or set up a temporary campsite in the backyard, there are plenty of ways to clean up the indoor air where you live and where you work. It's one of the smartest choices you can make for your health. 

Always eliminate the source

The best way to improve indoor air qualityboth in residential homes and workplaces—is to find the problem source and either eliminate it or reduce it to the best of your ability. 

“In my experience, nine times out of 10, IAQ problems stem from poor maintenance and upkeep of the HVAC systemthe heating, ventilation and air conditioning system,” says Robert “Safety Bob” Emery, DrPH, vice president for Safety, Health, Environment and Risk Management at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth). “It's due to a system that is either broken down, malfunctioning or not properly maintained, and that can lead to a myriad of problems.” 

Historic water intrusion is also a big one, adds Emery. “That's when you wind up with mold.” 

He explains that homes can have latent water leaks that feed into the drywall, creating a perfect environment for mold to grow. “Mold needs both a source of water and food to grow,” Emery says. “The food can be something like old bread but also can be cardboard or wet sheetrock. Molds are fungi and, as such, are living organisms.” 

Mold can grow in office spaces, too. “For example, condensate drain pans will get plugged up and create standing water, and that will grow mold,” Emery explains. “Then, the air distribution system will circulate mold spores all over the place.” 

Mold also likes high temperatures and humidity, which provide an optimal environment for it to proliferate, Emery says. “If you have the presence of water, the right temperature and a food source, mold will go crazy,” he says.

Indoor pollutants also can come from re-entrainment sources. “This is where exhausts from a building or car are sucked back in by the air intake,” Emery says. 

We even compromise inside air quality when we bring new products into our homes and offices. 

“For example, let's say you bought new furniture that contains particle board,” Emery explains. “These sorts of products can off-gas with the chemicals that are in there. Off-gassing occurs when a product that contains some sort of chemical is brought into a closed environment and the chemicals vaporize. This could range from formaldehyde in particle board to chemicals used in dry cleaning.” 

According to the EPA, paint, furniture made from pressed wood or particle board, carpeting, cleaning products, air fresheners and personal care products are all sources of poor indoor air quality. Tobacco products should never be smoked in the home. 

In addition to tobacco smoke, a known detriment to health for smokers and by-standers, other combustion sources include gas-powered generators, gas and kerosene space heaters, gas ovens and ranges, fireplaces, wood-burning stoves and gas furnaces. 

Headache, haziness and other health hazards

If you've ever wondered if a headache came about because of pollutants inside your home, like a strange odor or fumes from cleaning products, you are not alone. Chronic headache is a common health effect resulting from poor indoor air quality. Other symptoms mimic those of the common cold and allergies, like runny nose, itchy and watery eyes, coughing, sneezing, fatigue and dizziness. 

If you find that your symptoms go away after leaving a room in your house or going outside for a breath of fresh air, poor indoor air quality might be the culprit. 

A more serious health concern, however, from indoor air pollution is carbon monoxide poisoning. Carbon monoxide (CO) is an odorless, colorless and tasteless gas, so it's impossible to know you are breathing in CO fumes. CO poisoning often begins with a headache, followed by other flu-like symptoms, including nausea, fatigue and dizziness. Higher levels of CO poisoning can be deadly. 

Carbon monoxide is a product of incomplete combustion; basically, anything that burns produces CO. That's why we don't fire up the grill inside the house or use generators indoors. “If you have a hot water heater that's gas-powered and you have an obstructed vent to the outdoors, carbon monoxide from the combustion process can build up,” Emery explains. 

The key to preventing CO poisoning is adequate ventilation of combustion fumes. It's also a good safety measure to install a carbon monoxide detector in your home, Emery adds. 

Quality of air = Quality of work

Chronic headache, runny nose and itchy eyesthe common symptoms one feels from poor IAQ at homealso show up at the office if the indoor air environment is less than favorable. However, the effects go beyond just feeling sick and sluggish because inadequate air quality at work also affects an employee's performance and productivity levels. 

“If people aren't feeling well, they're not going to perform their best at work,” Emery says. “It certainly can impact productivity, but it also can impact morale because you have people discussing it amongst themselves.” 

If you suspect your workplace has poor IAQ, voice your concerns to your office or building manager and keep a log of symptoms. 

“Sometimes, IAQ problems can be frustrating because the source of the problem is not readily evident,” Emery adds. “When in fact, if people are sick, it's a question of what's causing them to be sick. 

“Here at UTHealth, we take it very seriously,” Emery continues. “Anytime we have someone concerned about indoor air quality, we aggressively investigate and do monitoring. We have a standard protocol for air monitoring with standardized things you look for to see if they'll give you a hint as to what might be going on.” 

The typical indoor air quality sampling protocol at UTHealth is to inspect the facility by using an EPA-recognized technique or set of tests. “We would sample for carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, temperature, relative humidity, total suspended particulates (TSP), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and, in some cases, mold, if we suspect its presence,” Emery explains.

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