Indoor Air Pollution
Indoor Air Pollution
Gary Ginsberg (Toxicologist) gives expert video advice on: How concerned should I be about indoor air pollution?; How are dangerous outdoor chemicals affecting my indoor air quality?; What are 'VOCs'? and more...
How concerned should I be about indoor air pollution?
Indoor air pollution ranks very high in the list of environmental concerns and this concern stems from the fact that our homes are more airtight than ever before. Our children and we as adults are spending more time indoors than ever before and so we are exposed to the indoor environment and whatever is coming off our cleaning products, whatever is coming off our home furnishings, like carpeting and drapery and bedding, that's all contributing to our indoor air and so we are breathing this in, it could be allergens, it could be toxic chemicals and that's where we're spending most of our time that should rank highest in our priority of things that are our health concerns.
How are dangerous outdoor chemicals affecting my indoor air quality?
Studies have been done that show that when you apply pesticides to your lawn or garden that the levels of pesticide in the indoor environment can go up 5 or 10 times because some of these chemicals are volatile or off gas and can be brought in on the summer breeze into the home. In other cases, they get tracked in by your own shoes and by dogs digging around in the yard. Dogs are great vectors for transferring contamination from a yard into a home in this. Studies have been done with lead contamination, pets bringing the contamination in on their fur and their paws and also people tracking it in. Where does the pesticide go in the indoor environment once it's sprayed outside and gets into the home? A lot of these pesticides tend to fall out of the air and glom onto carpets and glom onto plush toys so even though children weren't involved or anywhere near the spray application of the pesticides, they could be the ones who get the most exposure. That's another reason why more organic methods for dealing with weeds and dealing with insects are better especially if you've got young children around the home.
What are 'VOCs'?
Volatile Organic Chemicals, or VOCs, are in many consumer products. The reason that we're concerned about them is that they leave the product an off-gas, becoming part of the indoor air. They're actually gases that we're breathing in and in some cases they can be similar to what you'd find in an industrial environment. Some industrial chemicals have found their way into our consumer products and will off-gas when we're using adhesives, when we're using sealants like caulking agents around the bathtub and in the kitchen, and when we're using things to coat our wood. For example, furniture wax is about 50% petroleum hydrocarbon-based and will off-gas into our breathing zone things that you would thnk you would only get exposed to in a gas station. But yet, we're bringing these compounds directly into our home environment whenever we are coating the furniture, even with furniture polish. Furniture polish is about 20% lighter fluid. We're breathing in these VOCs that are off-gassing off of products that are meant to coat our furniture, but to create that nice shiny coating on our furniture they have to release these gases so they get a nice, hard finish.
Are consumer products and building materials generally safe?
One of the main myths that people have about consumer products is that just because something is in a nice, shiny can, and is sitting on a supermarket shelf and has some ingredient lists on the back of it, that this must have been looked at by a regulatory agency. And that this product has been tested and affirmed to be safe. Unfortunately, in a perfect world that would be true. But unfortunately that's not true because the agency that is set up to do this sort of work is The Consumer Product Safety Commission and they just don't have the manpower to look at the huge array of different consumer products and the huge array of ingredients on each product and establish the safety of all these products. So it really is, in a sense, buyer beware and it's also is a sense a toxic tort kind of system. When companies get sued because their product is hazardous and people are having adverse reactions, then they change the product.
What is 'formaldehyde'?
Formaldehyde is used in many industrial applications. It is actually used in glue. It's part of the glue that presses wood together, so whenever you buy furniture ... let's say your average kitchen cabinet ... there's probably a part of it that's solid, hard wood and then the shelves or the backing is usually made out of much cheaper pressed wood materials. That has formaldehyde resin in it. So a new kitchen will have lots of formaldehyde that could be emerging or vaporizing out of the shelving and filling up your indoor air with levels of formaldehyde that may be irritating, that may induce an asthmatic reaction in susceptible people, and that formaldehyde is also a carcinogen. We know about formaldehyde's cancer-causing problems from embalmers. People that were working with cadavers tended to get nasal cancer. And we know in animal studies that formaldehyde is a carcinogen, as well. So, the less exposure to formaldehyde, the better. So, if you're redoing your kitchen, for example, redo it in the summertime when you can have open windows, lots of fresh air, higher temperatures will tend to bake it out and get it out of your house sooner, dry weather days are better than moist conditions to get these gases out of your products.
How do chemicals vaporize and how is it dangerous?
When we talk about a chemical vaporizing out of, say, a pressed wood, a kitchen cabinet, or vaporizing out of a coating that you're putting on wood, that means it's going from the liquid stage to a gaseous stage, and so as that product cures, as the glue in the pressed wood product slowly cures over time, the vapor, the volatile chemical, the vapors can emerge out of the wood and go into the indoor air and become a gas.
What is 'UFFI'?
UFFI” is Urea Formaldehyde Foam Insulation. That was of common type of insulation that was used in the 1970's to enter the side of your home to keep the cool air out. UFFI would have formaldehyde as one of the main ingredients in the foam so the formaldehyde would off gas out of the foam insulation and get into the home's air. That lead to breathing problems, their was an outbreak of breathing problems from this, especially people living in mobile home's because they had a lot of this UFFI's insulation put into them. It resulted that it was phased out in the mid to late 1980's and so now there's no more UFFI use. However, it's on many real state transactions check out so there will be "Do you want to test the home for radium? Lead? Do you want to do inspect for UFFI?" Since its been so long now since UFFI was actually used in homes that it's done off gassing, no more formaldehyde is being released from that insulation so you don't need to worry about it and so it's one of those old problem. That's no longer a problem and when you buy a house you don't have to worry anymore.
Should I use an air purifier to improve the indoor air in my home?
Air purifiers usually are not a great solution. They don't typically work that well because they are just not moving enough air through them to absorb out all of the allergens or all of the volatile chemicals in the indoor air. So that is not the first thing you should try to do. I mean it is sort of a quick and easy approach but it often isn't that effective. An air purifier may actually have some usefulness if you are just trying to purify the air, say if you have got an asthmatic child, and just for that one bedroom. With the door closed it may do some good but generally not a whole household type of solution.