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Improve Your Indoor Air Quality

Most people, unless they are hypoallergenic, do not think about home air quality.  And most air quality problems are the result of poor home construction, outdated building materials, poor maintenance, the use of toxic products, and just plain carelessness.

Furthermore, the cost of air quality is not apparent on monthly utility bills.  It is only evident as the deferred costs of future health care.  For these reasons air quality is often ignored.

The causes of poor indoor air quality can be looked at in two categories: airborne gases and airborne pathogens.

Airborne Gases include:

Volatile Organic Compounds


Airborne Lead and Mercury

Carbon Monoxide


Airborne Pathogens include:


Legionnaires Disease

Allergenic Agents

Airborne gases

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) such as Formaldehyde, Pesticides, Solvents, Beauty Products, and Cleaning Agents

Formaldehyde is commonly used in construction materials like plywood and particle board.  It is used in adhesives, paints, cardboard, and paper products.

It is also a product of combustion from wood burning stoves, vehicle exhaust, and cigarette smoke. 

Health Risks include coughing, burning sensations to the eyes, throat and allergic sensitivity.

Preventative Measures include not purchasing materials in which formaldehyde is used in the manufacturing process.  Today manufactures of wood products, paints and solvents are aware of formaldehyde dangers and will label their products Low VOC.  There are more manufactures that have No VOC products.  These should be used.

Obviously, wood burning stoves must be well ventilated.  Barbequing grills designed for outdoor use should never be used indoors.  Gasoline engines should not be used where there is a danger of the exhaust entering your home.  And cigarette smoking should be banned from the home.

If there is no other option except purchasing materials or finished goods made with formaldehyde, the material should be allowed to “air out” for several weeks before it is brought into the home.  Formaldehyde dissipates relatively quickly and after a few weeks will not be an irritant to most people.

Pesticides, Solvents, Cleaning Agents and Beauty Products that are used in the home are usually applied by hand in concentrated amounts only an arms length from the nose.

Health Risks are often the same as those of formaldehyde and will cause similar reactions.  In addition, because of the closeness to the source and the high concentrations, dizziness and nausea can be additional symptoms.  The toxins do enter the blood stream and many build up within our bodies.

Preventative Measures include not using agents with VOC’s.  There are many organic and nontoxic-to-humans products available.  It can be argued that the nontoxic agents do not work as well.  If the decision is made to use agents containing VOC’s, the best advice is to use them only in well ventilated areas.

Asbestos, Airborne Lead and Mercury are the result of past widespread use of these materials in construction products.  Lead was widely used in paints until the 1950’s and can still be present in older houses.  Mercury was also used in paint manufacturing until 1991, when phenyl mercuric acetate was banned from use in water based latex paints.  The compound was used to preserve shelf life and some of it may still be around in old paint products.

Asbestos was commonly used as an insulting and fireproofing material.  It was used as a drywall compound and as water pipe insulation.  It was used in floor tiles and ceiling panels.  On July 12, 1989, the EPA banned most products that contained asbestos.  Unfortunately, two years later the US Court of Appeals overturned the ban.  Now the use of asbestos is banned only in a few specific products like flooring felt and corrugated paper.

Fortunately, most manufacturers, because of litigation danger, no longer produce home building products containing asbestos.

Health Risks for asbestos, lead and mercury are gravely serious and, if exposure is great enough, can be fatal.  The great danger from asbestos and lead arises when materials containing the substances are damaged or disintegrate with age.  Microscopic particles can be dispersed into the air and inhaled.  Over time the particles can cause lung cancer.

Preventative Measures in dealing with these materials is highly regulated and proper procedures must be followed.

Tearing out old building materials that contain asbestos, lead and mercury should only be done by licensed professionals.  The areas where mitigation takes place will be sealed off.  The demolition workers will wear protective gear and the contaminated materials will be disposed of properly in a regulated and proscribed manner.  There are numerous agencies that test for lead, mercury and asbestos that can perform the demolition.

It is often possible to encapsulate lead and asbestos, which can be the most cost efficient way to deal with the problem.  The danger of this approach is that future renovation work could expose the old materials.

Radon is an odorless, radioactive gas that is present in the ground from the natural breakdown of uranium.   It is released into homes through fissures in the earth and through cracks in buildings.  It is more prevalent in some areas of the country than in others.  Fortunately, Georgia has relatively low levels of radon.

Health Risks from radon develop when the large amounts of the gas are present.  Radon itself decays and produces “daughters of radon”, polonimu-218 and 214, which emit alpha particles that can cause lung tissues to develop cancer.

Preventative Measures are relatively simple.  If a new home is built in an area where radon is present, the crushed stone layer beneath concrete slabs should be vented to the outdoors by plastic piping.  In many older homes the basement or crawl space area was earth.  In these homes there are enough air leaks that any radon gas that is present will escape to the outdoors before it poses a danger.

If a basement in an old home is dug out and finished, the crushed stone beneath the new concrete floor should be vented.

Carbon Monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas that forms when fossil fuels, coal or wood are burned.

Health Risks are caused because carbon monoxide reduces the amount of oxygen in the blood.  Low levels cause flu-like symptoms; head aches, tiredness, shortness of breath and impaired motor functions.  Because the symptoms are similar to flu, sometime diagnosis is incorrect.   High levels of exposure or long term lower level exposure inhibit the blood’s capacity to carry oxygen and will cause death

Preventative Measures require elimination of the sources of the gas.  Never use fuel burning equipment that is designed for outdoor use indoors.  Emergency lights like lanterns or kerosene lamps should be used only in well ventilated areas and should be used only if specifically designed for indoor use.

Maintain furnaces and gas water heaters to make sure there are no gas leaks.

Do not idle gasoline powered automobiles or lawn mowers in the garage.

Get a carbon monoxide detector!

Airborne Pathogens

Tuberculosis risk is increased when there is poor indoor air quality, crowded living quarters, and previously infected individuals.   Tuberculosis is more commonly transmitted in health care situations than in homes.  Nonetheless, the disease is a reminder to have a well ventilated home.

Preventive Measures include making sure that you do not come in contact with infected individuals, and that your home is well ventilated.  Your heating/cooling system should have the proper amount of outdoor make-up air.  Check with your HAVC maintenance provider at annual check up time.  Also, make sure to use pleated filters that fit properly.  If there is an air gap around the edges of the filter it is like not having a filter at all.

Legionnaires Disease is pneumonia associated with dirty cooling systems, hot tubs, humidifiers, and residential tap water.  Legionella pneumophila must be present.

Preventive Measures include making sure air conditioners, hot tubs and humidifiers are clean.  The condensate piping from this equipment must be properly drained.  The drain traps must be cleaned periodically.

The disease can be cured by high doses of the drug Erythromycin.

Allergenic Agents such as animal dander, molds, and dust mites cause a variety allergy reactions, which vary from individual to individual.

Preventive Measures include the measures indicated for Tuberculosis and Legionnaires’ Disease:  Provide sufficient outdoor air ventilation; keep water reservoirs, condensate lines and drip pans clean and in proper working order; repair equipment leaks and seepage.  If water damage occurs, immediately and thoroughly clean and dry wet carpets and replace damaged drywall.  In such cases mold will begin forming within hours.

Vacuum carpets and upholstery regularly.  Change bedding often, and cover mattresses.

According to the EPA, washing bedding at temperatures above 130o F will kill dust mites.


Most of the forgoing material comes from information from the EPA and Health Canada.  Most remedial action relies on common sense and is inexpensive and easy to do.

For more information refer to:



Also, check Environmental Working Group’s web site for detailed information on toxins in our environment.

Comment Feed

2 Responses

  1. i am very allergic to dust mites that is why i take antihistamines all the time.;

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    Shaneka TrameJanuary 9, 2013 @ 3:50 am
  2. humidifiers are really needed to ensure that we always feel comfortable inside the room.’

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    Brad FabertJanuary 16, 2013 @ 10:09 am

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