Other sources of indoor air pollutants
By Deb Risden
The Environmental Protection Agency defines indoor air quality as “the air quality within and around buildings and structures, especially as it relates to the health and comfort of building occupants.” There are indoor pollutants that can affect human health, either immediate or long-term.
The National Institute of Environmental Health Science states indoor air quality is a global issue and exposure can cause a range of health issues. The EPA cites immediate effects as irritation to the eyes, nose and throat, headaches, dizziness and fatigue. Asthma, allergies and other respiratory conditions can be impacted. Long-term effects can appear long after exposure and include respiratory and heart diseases, cancer and cognitive deficits.
Jeffrey Stumpf, certified industrial hygienist and environmental health and safety professional, said, “In Colorado, we hear a lot about radon and carbon monoxide, but not as much about mold. There are many forms of pollutants people are exposed to in their homes, including mold.”
The American Industrial Hygiene Association, a professional organization associated with evaluating and providing recommendations for control of indoor air pollution, reports variability in how populations are affected. Their website lists infants and children, pregnant women, the elderly and infirm and individuals with respiratory conditions, asthma and allergies as being the most impacted. Reactions can vary based on the pollutant.
An unusually high amount of rain in Colorado in recent months could be contributing to mold growth. “Mold is everywhere. It’s probably in your home anyway to a certain extent, but with sufficient water, it serves as a source for mold to grow,” Stumpf said. He said there are multiple sources of water intrusion in the home that might not be obvious. “When it hails, you can have water intrusion through your roof, or you might have poor drainage around the house with water getting into the basement or crawl space,” Stumpf said. “It can get through your windows if they are not properly sealed.” He said the first thing to do after a storm is inspect all those areas to see where there could be seepage and clean up any moisture found.
“It is also important to look for water leakage regularly inside the home that may not be attributed to rainstorms,” Stumpf said. He suggested periodically checking under sinks, near the water heater, humidifiers, shower tile and shower curtains. “Regular cleaning with water and/or a vacuum, and generally good housekeeping will take care of these mold sources,” he said. “Chemicals are generally not necessary.” If not cleaned up, the water might evaporate, leaving mold to emit spores and release mycotoxins.
There are times when it’s important to call a professional remediation company. Stumpf said, “When you’ve found significant flooding, noticed a strong musty smell in a crawl space or basement or significant leakage of a roof, it’s time to call a professional. If you see discoloration in the ceiling or along the baseboards, it’s time for an evaluation.” Stumpf advised contacting the county health department or the homeowner’s insurance company for a list of reputable contractors. “Make sure they have been trained by the EPA or AIHA. There are firms out there that offer remediation, but it’s important to have the appropriate credentials.”
Stumpf said in most cases, once the mold is cleaned up, symptoms of a headache, watery eyes, skin rashes and respiratory issues will clear up. “In extreme situations, if the mold has invaded the home and grown beyond what would be considered easily cleaned up by the resident, then people who are especially sensitive should see their doctor and work with a reputable remediation firm to remove the mold.” He said in some “extreme” cases, people have had to leave their home until it can be completely remediated.
Other sources of indoor air pollution
Stumpf said some of the following sources of pollution can be serious health hazards, such as radon, carbon monoxide and asbestos, along with other chemicals found in the home.
- Radon is a common pollutant in Colorado. Stumpf said periodically and when buying or selling a home, testing for radon is important. He said typically enclosed spaces like basements and crawl spaces are where radon most often can be found.
- Furnaces, gas stoves and fireplaces can emit carbon monoxide if not properly operating and should be inspected every year; and carbon monoxide detectors should be used throughout the home, especially in or near bedrooms.
- Secondhand smoke from burning tobacco products such as cigarettes, pipes and cigars can be especially harmful to children. According to the Environmental Protection Agency website, “To help protect children from secondhand smoke, do not smoke or allow others to smoke inside your home or car.”
- New building syndrome has to do with new building materials, specifically plywood and particleboard that hasn’t been properly seasoned. Stumpf said if not completely cured, it can emit formaldehyde and cause respiratory and eye irritation.
- Home remodeling and redecorating could involve substances that are irritants. Stumpf said, “If you are remodeling your home, that new smell of carpet and furniture may be pleasing to some but can cause problems to those who are susceptible like children and older adults, and people with asthma and allergies. Also, indoor paint can be an irritant until it fully dries, whether it’s latex or enamel, along with the solvents used to clean the brushes, rollers and trays.”
- Cat and dog dander can be a concern to those who have allergies if allowed to accumulate in carpet and furniture.
- Household cleaners, especially oven cleaners or strong disinfectants, can cause irritation. Stumpf said it is important to never mix cleaning agents, including ammonia and bleach.
- Asbestos could be an issue when remodeling older homes built in the early 1960s and earlier. Stumpf said to contact the county health department for assistance on how to proceed.
Along with appropriate inspections and monitors, Stumpf suggested changing furnace filters routinely and using a high-rated filter in a home where a resident has asthma or allergies. “Open up the house for some good ventilation as much as possible.” Stumpf also recommended cleaning out the duct system. “The best duct cleaning is the kind that uses a brush system that cleans out all the residue in the duct, using a HEPA vacuum system. Having it done once is usually sufficient if you are changing your furnace filters frequently.”
EPA.gov states that humidity in the home can affect the concentrations of some indoor air pollutants. “For example, high humidity keeps the air moist and increases the likelihood of mold. Keep indoor humidity between 30% and 50%. Use a moisture or humidity gauge, available at most hardware stores, to see if the humidity in your home is at a good level. To increase humidity, use a vaporizer or humidifier. To decrease humidity, open the windows if it is not humid outdoors. If it is warm, turn on the air conditioner or adjust the humidity setting on the humidifier.”
Stumpf said avoiding some indoor irritants can be as simple as keeping the home clean, including having carpets steam cleaned. “If someone is extremely sensitive, it might be a good idea to take shoes off when entering the home because your shoes will drag anything in from outdoors.”