We often worry about the air quality outside but what about in our homes? Indoor air pollution can be a big problem but there are ways to fix it.
This post was written by Katie Matthews, founder of GreenActiveFamily.com
If you’re like me, you probably spend more time worrying about outdoor air pollution than indoors. I even have an app that sends air quality alerts to my phone.
Whenever I get a red or orange notification indicating a less-than-ideal AQI (air quality index) outside, I think twice about taking my daughter out to play that day.
But what if this is all wrong? What if it’s indoor air pollution I should be focusing on when it comes to my family’s health (and that of the planet). In fact, indoor air pollution is no joke.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) estimates, “the average person receives 72 percent of their chemical exposure at home.” (source).
Add to that, experts have found indoor air quality to be on average two to five times more polluted than the air outside our four walls.
What is Indoor Air Pollution?
Indoor air pollution is pollution inside our homes, workplaces, and other indoor spaces. Often, it’s created from our everyday lives – the things we do and the products we use.
Do you know that “new carpet smell” when you’ve had your flooring replaced? Well – turns out that’s due to volatile organic chemicals that off-gas into the air in your home.
And that super fancy cedar-rosemary liquid hand soap you put in the guest bathroom? Sorry to say – that scent probably comes with an unwanted serving of phthalates.
As we go about our day-to-day life, the products we use emit fumes and chemicals. Those end up in our air and in our household dust…and some of them have been shown to be pretty darn harmful.
What Contributes to Indoor Air Pollution?
Within our homes, there are some common, well-known offenders contributing to indoor air pollution – both when it comes to actual chemicals, and the products that bring them into our homes.
Here are some common sources of chemicals that may be harming your family’s health – and that of the planet.
One of the biggest enemies to clean indoor air is hiding in a seemingly innocuous spot: your bedroom.
Many big-brand mattresses – even those using innerspring – tend to have some sort of foam within. Whether it’s memory foam, “normal” foam, or plant-based foam, foam manufacturing is environmentally problematic, to say the least.
Polyurethane foam is made by reacting to a petrochemical called isocyanates (MDI and TDI are commonly used isocyanates) with polyols, which can be either petroleum- or plant-based.
In other words, the foam doesn’t come from a renewable resource – which isn’t great news for the planet.
Add to this, isocyanates are linked to a number of health concerns. TDI, in particular, is a suspected carcinogen. And while it’s generally assumed isocyanates are fully reacted during manufacturing (rendering them inert and safe when they reach your bedroom), some studies have detected unreacted isocyanates in foam – which means these harmful chemicals could get into the dust in your home.
Some research has found a correlation between using foam pillows and incidences of asthma and rhinitis – yet another strike against this material.
And that’s not to mention the fire retardants typically used in polyurethane foam (more on that below), and the fact that foam emits volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
While there are many individual chemicals within the umbrella term, VOCs, they have a common characteristic that makes them particularly problematic for indoor air quality: at room temperature, they’re found at room temperature.
These days, there are plenty of “green” mattress companies that use healthy, natural materials that are good for your family and the planet.
For your littlest family members, many of these companies also make non-toxic crib mattresses and toddler mattresses.
And if you’re concerned about buying low-VOC products, specifically, look for those with GreenGuard Gold certification, which independently certifies products as low emissions.
Your Makeup Drawer
If you’re a beauty junkie, you might not want to read this section.
Unfortunately, when it comes to indoor air pollution – and reducing your exposure to potentially harmful chemicals, more generally – fewer personal care products are better.
Nail polish is a top offender in our beauty cupboards, and most nail polish contains what’s known as the toxic trio: dibutyl phthalate, toluene, and formaldehyde. A 2015 study also found biomarkers for triphenyl phosphate in the urine of women who painted their nails for the study.
Altogether, the chemicals in your average nail polish bottles come with risks such as cancer; endocrine disruption; skin, eye and respiratory irritation; organ and neurotoxicity; bioaccumulation; cellular changes, and more.
If you decide to use nail polish, choose “3-free” or “5-free” brands. Paint your nails in a well-ventilated space, and open up your home’s windows and doors to ensure good airflow.
Your Bathroom and Laundry Room
Phthalates aren’t just in your nail polish. Often used as a plasticizer to transform hard, rigid plastics into something soft and pliable (like a vinyl raincoat, for example), phthalates are also used in fragrance.
These probable endocrine disruptors are found in perfumes and colognes, laundry detergent, hand soap, and more. And because the FDA doesn’t require companies to disclose individual fragrance ingredients, consumers are often left in the dark when it comes to knowing whether their favorite product contains phthalates or not.
Because women tend to use more scented personal care products than men, women are also exposed to certain phthalates more often. Indeed, researchers have found higher levels of phthalate metabolites in women, as compared to men.
Next time you reach for scented air fresheners, lotions, cleaners, detergents, and soaps, look for a label that specifies the product is “phthalate-free.” And if you use scented products regularly, spray them outdoors, or open up your home’s windows and doors when you do.
Manufacturers add fire retardants to electronics to protect consumers and meet federal flammability standards.
But with many fire retardants coming with negative health effects, I have to wonder: are these chemicals really protecting us?
Besides being toxic, a big problem with fire retardants is the fact they’re not chemically bound to products. Over time, fire retardant chemicals “escape,” and make their way into our indoor air, before settling into household dust.
If you have little kids crawling around, this can be a big problem. Small kids’ unique “hand-to-mouth” behavior means they could foreseeably get toxic household dust on their hands, and then put those hands into their mouth.
Since we’re living in a digital age, it’s not reasonable to give up our electronics. However, there are a few ways to reduce your family’s risk:
- Keep electronics for longer. Newer products tend to release more fire-retardant chemicals than older products (simply because the older products can “run out” of the chemicals after years of releasing them). Holding onto our electronics for longer is also great news for the planet!
- Wash your hands after touching electronics, and ensure your kids do the same. Don’t touch your face or food after handling electronics.
- Monitor babies and young kids closely to ensure they don’t put small electronics like smartphones in their mouths.
- Dust regularly, using a wet cloth, and wet mop your floors or use a vacuum with a HEPA filter.
The more energy-efficient (read: airtight and sealed) our buildings become, the bigger the problem Indoor air pollution has become.
You can tackle the problem by slowly replacing problematic products, and making smart choices when you shop. In the meantime, open up your house regularly, use fans to bring outdoor air in, and circulate the indoor air you have.
If you can afford it, look for air filters and vacuum cleaners with a HEPA filter, which will help to trap some of the chemicals in your air and dust. It will also help reduce allergens in your home.