By Jane Frobose
Colorado State University Cooperative Extension agent
When we think of air pollution, outdoor air comes to mind, but air inside our homes can be more contaminated than the air outside.
That's important when we consider that we spend about 90% of our time indoors-even more during winter months.
Many homes were built or remodeled for energy efficiency, with little consideration for fresh and healthy indoor air. Various furnishings, combustion appliances and household products can compromise indoor air quality.
Lead-based paint can produce serious health problems. Lead has been banned in gasoline and household paint, but it's still present, especially in older homes. It can cause delayed development, learning problems, hyperactivity and other difficulties in children who ingest small but regular amounts.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimated 57 million homes in the United States still contain some lead paint. Before 1950, paint contained as much as 50% lead.
Paint in good condition poses little risk, but paint that is peeling or is deteriorating on surfaces, is risky. Dust created from the remodeling of an older home can also be a source of lead contamination.
Combustion by-products from wood stoves, fireplaces, unvented space heaters and gas stoves can damage the respiratory tract and irritate the eyes, nose and throat. These appliances must be properly vented.
Carbon monoxide, a component of combustion, can kill. In small amounts, it can cause flu and allergy symptoms.
Excessive amounts of formaldehyde, used as a preservative and adhesive in building products and furnishings, can trigger asthma attacks and damage internal organs, as well as the central nervous system. Take special care when sanding, removing of old paint or exposing existing walls, activities that can release formaldehyde, asbestos, carpet fumes and leaded paint dust.
Some relatively common household products can cause health problems if not properly used. Such products include solvents, paints, paint strippers, wood preservatives, aerosol sprays, moth repellents air fresheners, stored fuels, automotive products, hobby supplies, pesticides and some cleaners and disinfectants.
Improper use and storage can result in short-term effects including eye and respiratory irritation and headaches. Long-term exposure can cause loss of coordination, damage to the liver, kidneys and central nervous system. Too much exposure also increases the risk of cancer in humans and animals.
Watch for products containing volatile organic compounds, which are organic solvents that evaporate easily into the air. Some may be flammable. The following are volatile compounds listed on product labels: petroleum distillates, mineral spirits, chlorinated solvents, carbon tetrachloride, methylene cholide, tricloroethane, toluene and formaldehyde.
To minimize potential health problems:
* Always read labels before buying a product. Note the product's ingredients and beware of warnings for its use.
* Use household products only for their intended purpose and according to manufacturer's directions.
* Use the product in a well-ventilated area.
* Choose products package to reduce the chance of spills, leaks and child tampering.
* Keep household products in their original containers so safety information and directions for use stay with the product.
Although radon and carbon monoxide often are labeled as the most common household contaminants, other pollutants also can affect our health. Particulates-particles so small they float in the air-are ever-present in homes. When we see a shaft of sunlight, dust particles are visibly suspended in the air. These are some of the larger particles; they will settle onto surfaces in a room.
Smaller particulates are not visible to the eye and may stay suspended indefinitely. It is these biological organisms that are most likely to cause health problems. Allergic reactions are most commonly associated with biological pollutants. Symptoms include watery eyes, runny noses and sneezing, nasal congestion, itching, coughing, wheezing and difficulty breathing, headache, dizziness and fatigue.
Molds, mildew pollen, fungi, bacteria and dust mites are the main biological pollutants. Mold and mildew are generated in the home and release spores into the air. Pollen is generated outside the home. Dust mites and animal dander are problematic when they become airborne during vacuuming, making of beds or whenever textiles are disturbed. Dust mites are the single most frequent trigger for asthma attacks.