Breathing. It is a function of our bodies that is so automatic we rarely give much attention to it. However, with each unmonitored breath we take, the surrounding air, and more importantly the pollutants found in it, are being introduced inside our bodies. That is why the conversations happening about indoor air quality (IAQ) are so important in this day and age.
For an average person, gathering information starts with an internet search. If you do a quick search for indoor air quality, a slew of articles will appear from high-ranking sources such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Harvard Health, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to name a few. With so many reputable sources speaking on the topic of IAQ, it would be reasonable to think that the research is plentiful, and answers to concerning questions can be easily answered. Unfortunately, that is not quite the case. In fact, the EPA states that they do not have the authority to regulate IAQ and even if they did, regulating household products would prove challenging because no Federal Agency has "authority to collect information on the chemical content of products in the marketplace".
That being said, if there are no current governmental regulations regarding products that could potentially be affecting our health, then it is up to each individual to educate themselves on potential risks and make informed decisions.
Why is IAQ a concern now? Quite simply, while trying to solve one problem (reduction of fuel consumption) humans have unknowingly created a new problem, poor indoor air quality. The Institute of Medicine wrote a report explaining how energy-efficient buildings can actually cause health problems. Harmful pollutants, a result of emissions from new building materials and alterations causing mold, coupled with poor ventilation result in those pollutants being trapped inside the buildings.
But it's not only the air at the office that we need to be concerned about. Many common household products emit gasses that can pollute the air inside our homes. In fact, a study done by the EPA "found levels of about a dozen common organic pollutants to be 2 to 5 times higher inside homes than outside".
Just how can poor IAQ affect our health?
According to the EPA, the short-term effects can "include irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, headaches, dizziness, and fatigue", while the long-term effects are more serious and can "include some respiratory diseases, heart disease, and cancer".
How are these pollutants entering our homes and offices? Microbes are a common air pollutant. Excessive moisture and humidity inside the home can lead to fungus and mold growth. Bacteria can enter is on our skin or clothing. Viruses, something that is all too familiar to us in recent times, can silently enter our homes and stay undetected for days.
Another source of pollutants is something that may not be as well known. It is called volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Many household products such as building materials, sprays, cleaners, and cosmetics emit these organic chemicals known as VOCs into the air. Unfortunately, relatively few studies have been performed on how these VOCs affect health. However, Berkley Lab states: "While there are many uncertainties about the health risks of indoor VOCs..., the evidence of health risks is clearly sufficient to warrant that precautionary measures be taken to limit VOC..exposures."
So what steps can be taken to improve the quality of the indoor air we are breathing? The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) highlights three strategies.
Control the source of the air pollutants
Keep the home clean to minimize dust and other allergy-causing pollutants. Regulate the humidity, to guard against mold and other fungal growth. Follow instructions on all household cleaning chemicals and disinfectants, paints, and other toxic products. Only purchase the amount needed to prevent the storage of such chemicals. Use caution while cooking with gas stoves. It is best to have a hood or fan installed that vents to the outside. When it comes to your heating and ventilation system the CPSC recommends: "Have central air handling systems, including furnaces, flues, and chimneys, inspected annually and promptly repair cracks or damaged parts."
Improve Building Ventilation
To properly vent your home, it is important to open windows and doors to let the outdoor air blow in, reducing the level of inside pollutants. Many heating and cooling systems do not bring in a sufficient amount of outdoor air, and while filters can help reduce pollution in an HVAC system, most are designed to keep the furnace or air conditioner clean as opposed to filtering out some of the smaller molecules that cause air pollution.
Keeping your area well-ventilated is especially important when involved in activities that will bring you in contact with a high concentration of VOCs, such as painting.
Use an Air Purification System
In recent years, there have been improvements in air purifier systems, showing promising results in combating indoor air pollutants. Studies have shown that these systems have been proven effective in reducing various microbes and VOCs commonly found in homes.
Whole building air purification systems can be installed in the ductwork of your building, providing a complete solution. For more information on this type of system, check out our page on Indoor Air Quality.