The quality of our indoor air becomes more important as people spend increasing amounts of time indoors. Adverse health effects from poor IAQ can be mild and irritating (runny nose, headache), or they can be much more serious (asthma attack). If you suspect that the IAQ in your home is poor, the first step is to try and identify the possible source of the pollutant.
Common Indoor Air Quality Pollutants
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC's)
Environmental Tobacco Smoke (ETS)
Molds (fungi), bacteria, and dust mites are some of the main biological pollutants indoors. These are generally airborne particulates that can be inhaled and cause an allergic-type reaction, such as nasal congestion, sneezing, watery eyes, and a runny nose. They can also trigger asthma attacks. Molds and bacteria are often found in wet areas of the home, where there is excess humidity or a water leakage has occurred. For information on cleaning up a mold problem, refer to this Fact Sheet.
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Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC's)Carbon Monoxide
The term Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC's) encompasses many different chemicals which can come from a variety of different sources indoors. These sources can include household cleaners, paints, solvents, or other chemicals found in the home or garage. For these types of VOC’s, proper usage and storage should be taken to minimize your exposure. Typically, these compounds have an odor associated with them, making them easier to detect.
Formaldehyde is a very common VOC because of its widespread use as a preservative in a variety of products such as paneling, particle board, furniture, and carpeting. Formaldehyde can take up to two years to completely off-gas in some cases, so residents of a newly built or remodeled home may notice some symptoms. Exposure can cause symptoms such as eye, nose and throat irritation, skin rashes, couching, headache, nausea, and sever allergic reactions. Some types of VOC's can cause damage to the kidneys and central nervous system, and others have been linked to cancer.
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Carbon Monoxide is the most dangerous of the potential IAQ pollutants, as it can be fatal in high levels. At lower levels it can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea, confusion, and disorientation. Other combustion by-products (gases or particles that come from burning fuels) can damage the respiratory tract and cause eye, nose, and throat irritation. Any appliances that burn fuels can introduce combustion by-products. These appliances should be properly installed (particularly vented to the outside) and maintained. Such appliances can include furnaces, boilers, fireplaces, space heaters, and automobiles.
ALERT- Put generators outside: Never use a generator inside homes, garages, crawlspaces, sheds, or similar areas. Deadly levels of Carbon Monoxide can quickly build up in these areas and can linger for hours, even after the generator has shut off.
These inhalable particles can range in size, and be organic/biological (mold, pollen, pet dander, skin flakes) or inorganic (wood, carpet fibers, byproducts from fuel combustion or tobacco smoke). Typically, a whole house filter can help keep levels down if it is properly maintained. For sensitive individuals (e.g., asthmatics or those with severe allergies), additional steps may be needed to control exposure. Health symptoms are typically an allergic reaction, such as nasal congestion, sneezing, watery eyes and runny nose. They can also trigger an asthma attack.
Stand-alone air purifiers can help with additional filtration if they use a filter, similar to a furnace. They will only work for a small area, and the filter needs to be changed on a regularly. The 'ionizing' or 'electrostatic' purifiers can create ozone, itself a powerful lung irritant, and are not recommended.
In most cases, it isn’t necessary to test. Knowing the sources of common pollutants, as well as the symptoms they cause, can often help a resident diagnose a suspected problem. Often, a thorough visual inspection can help as well. While there are companies in Nebraska that will offer a variety of tests, it can be very expensive, and at times, inconclusive.
For example, knowing a home has a high level of VOC’s may not help to determine the source for removal. Also, having a mold spore count for your home doesn’t tell you if those numbers are elevated or not, as there is not currently a state or federal standard.
There are some instances where testing can be beneficial, but they are limited. Radon or Carbon Monoxide testing is necessary to know if those toxins are at dangerous levels or not. If a legal action has been initiated, or if negotiating a claim with an insurance company, testing may be necessary.
Improving Your Home's Indoor Air Quality (IAQ)
There are ways to improve your IAQ. They typically fall into one of three categories: Source Control, Ventilation, or Preventative Maintenance.
Perhaps the best way to keep good IAQ is to control the sources of pollutants. Ensure that chemicals are correctly stored and used to minimize potential health problems. Use products in a well-ventilated area, and only for their intended use. Also, practice preventative maintenance (see below) to help reduce the need for such products.
There's a reason why 'Dilution is the Solution to Pollution'. One way to keep toxin levels low is to ventilate your home, either by 'general ventilation', which is removing toxins from a larger area, or by 'spot ventilation', which is removing toxins from a localized area.
Bringing in fresh air into a home for general ventilation is difficult to maintain year-round in Nebraska. With energy costs high and on the rise, homes are being constructed air-tight. During heating or cooling seasons when a house is closed up, the air can quickly become stale, and toxins can build-up. Most homes do not have an active way to bring in fresh air, meaning that little or no fresh air comes in, unless the windows are open.
Many homes have 'spot ventilation', meaning fans that exhaust air from specific places, such as bathrooms, oven hoods, or clothes dryers. This type of ventilation has fans turned on only when the pollutant is being produced.
When radon gas is a problem in the home, a permanently installed radon mitigation system is the answer, something a licensed professional can help you with. An added benefit of a radon mitigation system can be reduced moisture levels in the home. Visit the Nebraska Radon Program's homepage or call us for more information.
Practicing preventative maintenance can keep your indoor air clean and healthy. Examples of preventative maintenance are to keep combustion equipment inspected on a yearly basis, and install a carbon monoxide detector. Quickly attend to spills, leaks, and stains to prevent mold. Keep your home clean and clutter free. Remove food waste to control dust, dander, and pets. Change your furnace filter on a regular basis (at least quarterly, if not more often) to control airborne particulates. Conduct a radon test and install a radon mitigation system, if necessary. Do not allow smoking in your home or vehicle. Keep chemicals stored properly. For example, knowing a home has a high level of VOC’s may not help to determine the source for removal. Also, having a mold spore count for your home doesn’t tell you if those numbers are elevated or not, as there is not currently a state or federal standard.
DHHS- Indoor Air Quality Program
PO Box 95026, Lincoln, NE 68509-5026
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