What causes it and how to reduce it
Daniela Ginta, MSc
How healthy is the air in your home? Indoor air pollution raises the risk of respiratory and cardiovascular problems in adults and kids.
Most people think of their home as their oasis, a protected space to relax in after a long day. Yet depending on the activities we perform while at home, the air inside could be less clean than we think.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 4.3 million people die every year from exposure to indoor air pollution as a result of cooking with solid fuels. While that might not be a problem in Canada, air pollution—indoors and outdoors—increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and chronic respiratory problems in children and adults.
There are many activities that we perform on a daily basis—and products that we own—that increase the number and concentration of indoor pollutants, such as
Cooking, wood burning, using paraffin candles or oil lamps, smoking cigarettes or other forms of tobacco, buying new furniture or carpets, and using electronic devices can all pollute the home environment.
Whether we realize it or not, we spend most of our time indoors. Young children can spend as much as 90 percent of their time indoors, being constantly exposed to pollutants that can increase their risk of allergies and asthma.
Cooking oil fumes may contain a mixture of carcinogenic compounds such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, benzene, and formaldehyde, which can cause DNA and lipid damage . These chemicals can also irritate the airway mucosa (mucous membrane).
Don’t stop cooking though! Home cooking is preferable to eating out, but choose healthy options such as poaching, steaming, or eating foods raw instead of frying, sautéing, or broiling food at high temperatures.
Cooking on a natural gas stove—whether at home or in a restaurant—without using a proper ventilation system, can add nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, and formaldehyde to the air. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that in 55 to 70 percent of US homes with gas stoves, nitrogen dioxide emissions exceed clean air standards.
Cook with your windows open or, if you use a gas stove, invest in a venting range hood. Avoid frying foods at high temperatures. Instead, steam your veggies in a pan, then drizzle with organic olive oil before serving. Add fresh herbs for a zesty taste.
They add a nice glow to the room, making it look festive or romantic, but unless candles are made of pure beeswax or soy, they also give off benzene, toluene, and other light aromatic hydrocarbons. If using fragranced candles or perfumed air fresheners, there is an added burden of endocrine-disrupting phthalates too.
If you love burning candles, stick to beeswax or soy. They may be slightly more costly, but they have notable benefits: they burn clean and last longer, smell nice naturally, and are made from renewable resources.
Small particulate matter is one of the biggest health threats when it comes to indoor air, and is caused by burning wood, smoking, cooking, and sweeping which suspends dust particles in the air. Particulate matter is also generated outdoors. Think pollen, pesticide residue, and vehicle exhaust. The small size of particulate matter allows it to penetrate airways and go further into the cells, causing an inflammatory reaction and oxidative stress.
Particulate matter increases the risk of asthma and allergies in children, and increases in daily exposure have been linked to cardiovascular disease.
Open windows as often as possible. If you have pets and allergy-prone family members, consider installing an air purifier with a HEPA filter and removing carpets. If you have a wood-burning stove or fireplace, make sure your chimney is cleaned regularly and your heat source is functioning properly to reduce indoor smoke exposure.
At the office
At the office, new furniture and carpets come at a cost, literally and otherwise. Pressed wood furniture; paper products; office equipment including printers, photocopiers, and computers; paints and varnishes all increase the concentration of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as formaldehyde, benzene, and toluene in the working space.
In many newly designed buildings, windows cannot be opened, which can result in poor ventilation and a lack of fresh air. Years of research conducted at NASA showed that plants can be effective chemical removers and they seem to work best in areas where there is little open-window ventilation.
Electronics, both at home and at the office, are sources of indoor pollution. When in use, they give off brominated flame retardants and BPA, both known endocrine disruptors that are also present in house dust. Studies have found that BPA and BPA replacement chemical concentrations were higher in office dust than in house dust. But researchers believe that BPA in dust represents only a fraction of human exposure. The BPA we consume in our diets are a much more prevalent source of BPA.
Go green. Fill the space with air-cleaning plants to help reduce the concentration of toxic substances, such as spider plants, bamboo palm, rubber plants, and Dracaena. When outfitting an office, look for green furniture and less polluting electronic devices, and reduce the use of plastic, a major source of off-gassing, as much as possible.
Controlling house dust is one of the best ways to prevent and manage respiratory disease.
What’s in dust?
It’s time to declare dust bunnies a house pest. Recent research has shown that house dust may carry multiple health threats, especially to those who suffer from allergies, asthma, and other lung diseases: