Air Quality In Home From Toxic Home Products & Building Materials
Find out if these common home products and building materials may be polluting your indoor air.
Though most of us consider our home to be a clean, safe environment, the unseen dust particles and gasses that contribute to indoor air pollution can cause you serious health problems.
One reason is that people inhale or ingest small particles of dust. You can even absorb these particles through your skin. Infants and small children are especially exposed because they crawl on the dusty floors and constantly put their hands in their mouths.
It’s not only dust that can be dangerous to your health. Building materials that contain lead, such as lead paint, are harmful. This is especially true of homes built before 1978, the year the federal government banned lead-based paint.
And volatile organic compounds (VOCs) may be a problem in both older and newer homes. VOCs are gasses, including formaldehyde, emitted from paint, particle board, wood flooring, household cleaners, and other products typical of homes and offices. Even popular scented candles and air fresheners may cause harm.
So, what are the toxic chemicals that get into our indoor air? And what are some of the common home products and building materials that are the sources of these chemicals?
Dust in the House
These are chemicals known to link people, especially infants and young children, to serious health problems. The 10 harmful chemicals were found in 90% of the dust samples collected. Four classes of harmful chemicals were found in high amounts during this study. They are phthalates, phenols, flame retardants, and highly fluorinated chemicals.
Let’s take a look at each of these groups of chemicals found in the air of a typical house…
Phthalates are used to make plastic softer and more flexible. Products containing phthalates include vinyl flooring and vinyl blinds. They are also used in the manufacture of cosmetics and personal care products like nail polish. Also in toys, paints, and food packaging.
Phthalates were found in higher concentrations than any other substances sampled. The health hazards associated with phthalates are in the reproductive system, developmental toxicity, and hormone disruption. Declines in IQ and respiratory problems in children are also linked to phthalates.
These toxic chemicals are in treated furniture, carpet padding, building insulation, electronics, and baby products. Anything that contains polyurethane foam also contains flame retardants. As the products break down, the flame retardants bind to the dust in the room.
Flame retardants contain the chemicals TPHP, TDCIPP, and HBCDD. These chemicals are toxic to reproductive and nervous systems in humans. They also cause hormone disruption and cancer. Regular dusting and vacuuming is your best defense.
Manufacturers of shampoos, lotions, cosmetics, and deodorants use phenol to preserve their products. Phenols are also found in plastic materials such as water bottles and in household cleaning products. They can cause reproductive system toxicity and hormone disruption.
These are the chemicals that make your non-stick cookware so easy to clean. They are basically stain and water repellent treatments that even make your pizza boxes and popcorn bags grease-proof. You’ll also find them in upholstery, carpets, clothes, and shoes.
Fluorinated chemicals have been associated with testicular and kidney cancer, liver malfunction, obesity, and other diseases. Because they are resistant to breakdown, they can stay in our bodies for years.
Lead Poisoning in Your Home
Lead-based paint is where most people are exposed to lead poisoning. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), at least 4 million households have children exposed to high levels of lead. And there are approximately 500,000 U. S. children ages 1-5 with blood lead levels dangerously high.
Lead primarily enters children’s bodies through ingestion. They eat peeling lead paint and put objects in their mouths contaminated with lead dust. For adults, inhalation is a primary cause of lead in the body as the lead paint in their homes breaks down. Or when they are involved in home renovation, dislodging lead in old building materials.
Besides paint, exposure to lead can come from gasoline, solder, and consumer products. But as we have seen in the news recently with Flint, Michigan, lead can also appear in a municipality’s water supply. Even without a community disaster, lead can wind up in old pipes and even new brass or chrome faucet filters.
As most consumers know, particle board products are strong but less expensive than solid grain lumber. The good thing about particle board is that it’s made from recycled wood pieces such as saw dust, wood chips, and sawmill shavings. So in addition to being cheaper, it’s environmentally friendly.
The problem with particleboard is that the resins used to manufacture and hold the particleboard together may contain formaldehyde. The formaldehyde is released into the air as a gas, dissipating over time.
Particleboard is used to construct a home’s outside shell before the siding and walls go up. It is used to make kitcken cabinets and all types of furniture.
Studies have found that exposure to formaldehyde may cause some types of cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, the EPA has classified formaldehyde as a “probable human carcinogen.” The National Toxicology Program (NTP) lists it as “known to be a human carcinogen.” Several studies have linked formaldehyde to leukemia for people exposed to it in the workplace.
Because the formaldehyde in particleboard dissipates, the threat to humans is usually fairly low. But to minimize the effects of formaldehyde indoors, ensure good ventilation, moderate temperatures, and reduced humidity.
Scented Candles and Air Fresheners
The problem is that some candle makers strengthen the wick with a core of lead. The lead settles in the home and can be dangerous, especially for children. On top of that, the paraffin wax that most candles are made of is a petroleum based product. A burning candle releases toxins from the wax including benzene and toluene, both known carcinogens.
The solution is to burn unleaded wicks and beeswax candles. It turns out that beeswax candles are not only cleaner, they actually freshen your indoor air. That’s because beeswax candles emit negative ions. These negative ions bind with pollution causing positive ions, removing them from the air.
What About Your Air Freshener?
People use scented air sprays and plug in air fresheners to make their home smell better. But the chemicals in these products don’t usually clean the air, they only hide the odor. This survey found that the chemicals in scented consumer goods emitted more than 100 VOCs (volatile organic compounds), including some classified as toxic by federal law.
Besides air fresheners, scented products studied included laundry detergents, fabric softeners, dryer sheets, and more. One of the toxins found in fragrance products was limonene, which reacts with ozone in ambient air to form secondary pollutants such as formaldehyde. Other hazardous chemicals found in these fragrances include acetaldehyde, dioxane, and methylene chloride.
Claudia Miller, MD, MS, an allergist/immunologist at the University of Texas, School of Medicine, says of the results of this study, “…products intended to keep homes smelling fresh can set people up for a lifetime of chemically induced illness…” So the best defense against these toxic chemicals in your home is not to use them in the first place. But quality air purifiers are also a viable solution.
How to Reduce Your Exposure to Indoor Air Pollution
You can take a few simple steps to reduce the toxic elements in your indoor air. Dust frequently and use a quality vacuum with a HEPA filter. This will help eliminate dust containing all the chemicals listed above, including lead.
Controlling the fumes in your home is a matter of better ventilation and air purification. Try to paint or use paint products with the windows open. Get rid of paint products you’re not using. Use beeswax candles with lead-free wicks.
Milken Institute School of Public Health: The George Washington University, www.publichealth.gwu.edu/
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, www.cdc.gov/
American Cancer Society, www.cancer.org
PubMed Central at the U. S. National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/
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“I could already see a difference in the mornings. I always wake up stopped up and I haven’t these past couple of days. We’re already beginning to see some improvements. I know that it’s going to improve our lives, that it’s going to improve the quality of air in our home, and that does make me feel very comforted.”
— Andy and Willa Spivey, North Carolina