When you think of air pollution, you most likely don’t conjure up images of the inside of your home or office. But because we spend so much time indoors — especially in colder weather — keeping the air quality as clean as possible in your home, car and workplace is important for your health.
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And, unfortunately, we bring most of those pollutants indoors ourselves.
Experts say that one of the most common indoor air pollutants is cigarette smoke.
“The residual gas and particles from cigarette smoke that settle pose health hazards, particularly in rooms with a lot of fabric or carpeting,” says pulmonologist Sumita Khatri, MD. “We all have heard of second-hand smoke; this is called third-hand smoke.”
She says the risks are disproportionately high in children, who are more likely to be playing on the ground, and in people with chronic heart and lung problems.
Electronic cigarettes are a similar source of pollution to consider, Dr. Khatri adds. The vapors emitted when someone smokes e-cigarettes contain volatile organic compounds, heavy metals and other chemicals linked to lung disease.
“Being smoke-free, including in the home, is your best approach,” she says.
Household cleaning supplies are another common cause of indoor pollution. Harsh chemicals that give off fumes can irritate your nose, mouth and lungs, as well as your skin.
The fumes can cause inflammation that can make it more difficult for people with chronic lung conditions to heal from infections. It can also worsen inflammation due to other triggers, such as allergies.
Dr. Khatri recommends using natural cleaning supplies and elbow grease to minimize risks.
Other indoor pollutants that exacerbate asthma or other chronic lung conditions include:
- Particulates from candles and incense.
- Irritating perfumes.
- Odors from harsh household cleaners.
- Craft and office supplies, such as paints, glues and toner ink.
- Fumes from dry cleaned garments (many solvents used are carcinogenic).
- Allergens, such as mold, pollen, pet dander and dust mites.
- Wood-burning fireplaces or stoves.
- Improper ventilation in homes (can increase levels of radon and carbon monoxide gas).
- Gas stoves that are not well ventilated with hoods to outside (can increase exposure to nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and formaldehyde).
- Materials used in older buildings such as asbestos, formaldehyde and lead.
Illnesses caused by indoor air pollution
Indoor air pollution can increase a person’s chances of having flares of chronic lung problems, such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
“In addition to worsening the symptoms of asthma and other chronic respiratory problems, indoor air pollution can also cause irritation of the nose, throat, eyes and lungs,” Dr. Khatri says. There are also likely longer-term effects from ongoing exposure that are more difficult to measure, such as the likelihood of lung cancer from radon exposure, as well as secondhand and thirdhand smoke.
Role of ventilation and air filters
Although opening windows helps ventilate your home, car or office, that’s not always possible due to allergies or extreme temperatures.
Consider using air filters and getting your HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems) checked regularly.
Also, air purifiers and aromatherapy can often make air quality worse unless they are the right kind, Dr. Khatri says. They need to be HEPA (high-efficiency particulate arresting) air filters.
How to cut down your risk
Fortunately, there are ways you can minimize air pollution in your home, car or at work, Dr. Khatri says. Try these simple steps:
- Avoid smoking indoors (but quitting smoking is the best answer for overall health).
- Use craft supplies in well-ventilated areas.
- Make sure your gas stove is well-ventilated.
- Minimize clutter.
- Remove carpeting if possible.
- Use a dehumidifier and/or air conditioner to reduce moisture.
- Keep trash covered to avoid attracting pests.
- Remove shoes at the door.
- Have car emissions tested regularly.
- Minimize air freshener use.
- Test your home for radon.
- Use carbon monoxide detectors.
- Fix water leaks.
- Dust surfaces and vacuum frequently.
- Wash bedding weekly in hot water.
- Make sure exhaust fans are functioning in your bathrooms and kitchen
- Keep a lid on scented candles.
Taking some simple precautions can help boost air quality in your home and improve your health.