Living Safely in a Polluted World: Your Home Should be a Haven

If you’re like most people who own a computer, you spend ninety per cent of your time indoors and indoor air quality may have a more profound effect on your health than outdoor air pollution, contributing to respiratory problems, headache, fatigue, dizziness, chest pain, poor concentration, and even promoting cancer. Several types of pollutants may cause Sick Home Syndrome. Your exposure–and your family’s–can be readily controlled by a number of simple, inexpensive and potentially life-saving steps. Why would anyone ignore them?

(1) Don’t smoke at home. Exposure to tobacco smoke, whether your own or someone else’s, increases your risk of developing lung cancer, bronchitis and heart attacks and your child’s risk of developing frequent colds, allergies, asthma, and recurrent ear infections.

(2) Remove shoes upon entering your home. In homes where people do not routinely remove their shoes, the house dust is loaded with lead and pesticides which are tracked in from outdoors. Carpeting holds up to a hundred times the amount of dust as bare flooring; the deeper the pile, the harder it is to remove the dust. Dr. David E. Camann of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, isolated dangerous pesticides and wood preservatives from carpet dust five years or more after these had been sprayed outside homes.

House dust is the commonest source of chronic low-level lead exposure for children. A great deal of attention has been focused on old, lead-based paint, peeling and flaking from walls and ceilings, as a source of this contamination. It is less well-known that roadside soil is still poisoned with lead deposited by gasoline fumes emitted before the ban on leaded petroleum additives, or that the soil around houses becomes contaminated with lead during new home construction or home renovations. This lead is tracked into the house, elevating lead levels in air and dust. The lead levels in carpet dust often exceed levels requiring clean-up at Superfund sites. Toxins trapped in home carpets pose a particular hazard to crawling toddlers.

Taking shoes off upon entering the home, wet-mopping of all horizontal surfaces (including window-sills) and regular hand-washing markedly lowers the blood lead concentration of children living in homes with high lead exposure.

Although lead has been banned from house paint, it may still be used in printer’s ink, along with other toxic metals. Burning newspapers or magazines can liberate lead into the air.

(3) Control Moisture. People who live in housing that is damp or shows visible mildew have a higher rate of sickness than people whose housing is free of dampness or visible mold growth. These problems are not dependent upon smoking habits, occupation or income; they occur because dampness encourages the growth of mold and of dust mites, microscopic insects that live in dust and secrete enzymes that damage the respiratory lining. Heavy exposure to dust mites and mold in childhood increases the rate at which allergy develops. Exposure to airborne or food-borne mold toxins increases the incidence of cancer. Because high humidity encourages mold and mite growth, you should maintain a relative humidity of 3 5% to 45% in each room of your house. Relative humidity can be measured with an inexpensive meter, available in hardware stores. Detailed advice on measures for controlling excess humidity and its attendant ills is presented in my book, The Four Pillars of Healing.

There is surprisingly little evidence to implicate lack of humidity as a source of sickness. If the relative humidity is less than thirty per cent, dryness of the skin and irritation of the nose and throat may occur. Before you rush out to buy a humidifier, however, try lowering the thermostat a few degrees. The hotter you keep your home, the more moisture you need in the air. Humidifiers are dangerous breeding grounds for mold and bacteria. Anti-foulants added to the water in a humidifier are worthless in controlling bacterial growth and themselves pose a health hazard if inhaled. Medical advice to humidify the air for improving respiratory problems has little evidence to support it. Only humidify your home air if you notice a definite improvement in pre-existing respiratory complaints; otherwise the risks outweigh the benefits. If you must use a humidifier, use a cool mist or ultrasonic room unit that is not connected to your central heating system. It will be much easier to clean. Use only distilled water in the reservoir and drain the unit daily, cleaning it with hydrogen peroxide diluted one-to-one with distilled water.

(4) Check appliances and sources of combustion. Stoves, heaters and dryers that burn fuel of any kind may generate carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide. If the appliance is improperly maintained or vented, carbon monoxide poisoning can occur. Acute carbon monoxide exposure can cause death by asphyxiation, heart attacks, headache, lethargy, hyperactivity, irritability, confusion, bizarre behavior, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, blackout spells and seizures. Acute poisoning may be followed by evidence of brain damage two to four weeks later. The delayed symptoms include memory loss, unclear speech, visual disturbances, unsteady gait and personality changes. Chronic low grade exposure may cause subtle deterioration in mental function and hearing loss. Sometimes the first signs of carbon monoxide toxicity in the home are morning headache or dizziness and difficulty concentrating. Information on low-cost carbon monoxide detectors is available from the Consumer Products Safety Commission (800-638-2772).

Nitrogen dioxide is a respiratory tract irritant that can cause sore throat or cough and increase the rate at which allergies develop. It has been shown to increase the spread of cancer in experimental animals. Its main indoor sources are appliances that burn natural gas and kerosene space heaters. Nitrogen dioxide emissions in homes are greatly reduced by venting appliances to the outside and by the electrical ignition of gas stoves rather than the use of a pilot light.

(5) Reduce formaldehyde levels. Because of the extensive use of building materials and furnishings which release it, formaldehyde exposure is almost inescapable in modern indoor environments. The greatest levels are given off by the glue which holds together fiberboard, particleboard, and plywood panelling. New houses with particle board sub-flooring and mobile homes are loaded with formaldehyde. Although formaldehyde emission eases with time, high humidity or moisture disintegrates the glue and increases formaldehyde release. Formaldehyde is used to stiffen fabrics of all types, so that new clothing, carpeting and upholstered furniture may off-gas considerable formaldehyde for days or weeks. Other sources of formaldehyde in household air are foam insulation, urea-formaldehyde finish coatings on furniture and flooring, fresh latex paint, space heaters, new paper or plastic products of any type, and cosmetics (including nail polish, skin creams, and hair sprays).

Acute exposure to low doses of formaldehyde may cause burning of the eyes, nose and throat, tearing, nausea, dizziness, cough, chest pain and shortness of breath. Chronic exposure has been causally associated with headache, drowsiness, memory loss, menstrual irregularities and two types of human cancer.

Testing for formaldehyde in home air should be done when all doors and windows are closed and heat and humidity are high, to eliminate false negative readings. When the source of formaldehyde cannot be removed (e.g. in mobile homes), surface treatments to seal pressed-wood sources may significantly reduce emissions.

(6) Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). These are invisible gases which are emitted from paints, adhesives, carpeting, wall coverings, new furniture, building materials, solvents, cleaning solutions, copy machines, and laser printers. Studies using experimental chambers have shown that VOCs can cause irritation of the respiratory system in humans and animals at levels which are one hundred times weaker than the World Health Organization Indoor Air Guidelines. Controlled experiments with people who suffer from Sick Building Syndrome confirm that VOC exposure can also cause headache, fatigue and difficulty concentrating. Dozens of VOCs have been identified in residential air. Some of the VOCs found in indoor air, such as benzene derivatives, may promote cancer in humans. Concern over the safety of cleaning solutions and VOCs has created a demand for less toxic alternatives. Information about these products can be obtained from sources in listed in the appendix of The Four Pillars of Healing. Good dust control (as described in section 2 above) will lower VOC levels, because dust particles absorb VOCs and increase their concentration in the air.

(8) Purify your water. Chlorination of municipal water supplies was first introduced in Jersey City, New Jersey, in 1908. It dramatically reduced the death rate from typhoid fever, a bacterial infection which is spread through drinking water. But chlorination has drawbacks. Chlorine reacts with organic matter dissolved in water to form cancer-promoting substances like the trihalomethanes (THMs), of which the best known is chloroform. Drinking chlorinated water increases the risk of developing cancer of the rectum or the bladder, the risk increasing the more water is drunk. THMs are volatile; they evaporate from water during cooking or when showers are running and contaminate the air in homes. A preventive solution: filter your tapwater through activated charcoal, which removes the vast bulk of chlorinated compounds, before you boil it. Shower-head filters that remove chlorine will help to prevent the release of chloroform gas during hot showers.

(9) Refresh the air in your home/office. Laser printers, copiers and fax machines all release VOCs into the air when they operate. Maintain a source of fresh air, like an open window, and run an exhaust fan or an air purifier that contains a charcoal filter. Ordinary air purifiers remove dust and pollen but not chemicals. Don’t make yourself a victim.

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Written by Leo Galland MD FACN

Explore Wellness in 2021