Did you know that indoor air can be two to five times—and sometimes up to 100 times—more polluted than outdoor air? It’s true. Much of that is due to the combination of the increasing use of plastic and synthetic building materials, most of which release undetectable, dangerous fumes, and the air-tightness of modern buildings, which prevents those fumes from escaping. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that 50 percent of all illnesses can be traced to indoor pollution.
Indoor air quality is often overlooked as a cause of illness and stress, though, and some sources of indoor pollution are formaldehyde gas that escapes from board products (particleboard, fiberboard, chipboard, plywood and pressboard), foam insulation, synthetic fabrics, carpets and furnishings. Additionally, chemicals, pesticides and carpet cleaning and fabric treatments for water- and stain-proofing introduce harmful substances into the air. Incidentally, you can find a variety of these indoor air threats from the most surprising sources, including some disposable diapers, shampoos, air fresheners and mattresses. Other harmful agents in our air include dust, mold spores, bacteria and dust mites, which are the most common airborne allergen.
Indoor air quality is important, too, because most people spend about 90 percent of their time inside—in homes, office buildings, school buildings, restaurants and shopping centers—where indoor toxins, chemicals and bacteria get trapped and recirculated throughout the heating and air conditioning systems. In fact, volatile organic compounds such as benzene, styrene, carbon tetrachloride and other chemicals are as much as 100 times greater in new buildings compared to the levels found outdoors.
For example, new carpet releases formaldehyde. Paints release solvents such as toluene and formaldehyde, and new furniture made from pressed wood releases formaldehyde into the air as well. In the office or home office, high amounts of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can also be emitted from copying machines, printers, computers and other office equipment.
Fortunately, there are some steps you can take to improve your indoor air quality such as:
- Reducing sources of indoor pollution such as cleaning chemicals (use natural cleaning products like baking soda and vinegar instead)
- Regularly maintaining air conditioners, furnaces and air return filters
- Using non-toxic paint, varnish and other home improvement materials
- Replacing older carpeting with natural flooring
- Reducing the amount of synthetics and board products in your home
- Purchasing quality air filters
- Using non-harmful, natural pesticides (only when necessary)
- Opening the windows when possible and providing a cross-flow of air
- Bringing plants into your home
Speaking of plants . . . common houseplants can be used as filters to remove indoor air pollution, an idea that came out of NASA space research in the 1970s. Scientists discovered that not only could plants convert carbon dioxide into oxygen and recycle oxygen, but they also were able to remove air pollutants.
In fact, NASA scientists say that houseplants can extract VOCs from the air, and certain plants can remove over 85 percent of indoor toxins within days. Toxins like benzene, formaldehyde and trichloroethylene are just a few of the airborne toxins noted. One study says that one good-sized houseplant with a six- to eight-inch diameter per 100 square feet of indoor area acts as a good filter for the air. Try aloe vera plants, English ivy, Chinese evergreen, bamboo or reed palm, snake plant, heartleaf philodendrons, weeping fig, peace lilies, spider plants, chrysanthemums and dracaena.
Not only are they decorative, but you can also breathe easier knowing that you’ve taken positive steps to clean up indoor air, which can protect you from indoor pollution.