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Your home... Air quality

Fast & Easy Info

  • We spend about 90% of our time indoors. For many of us, health risks due to indoor air pollution are much greater than they are from the air outside.
  • What pollutes our indoor air? Oil, gas, kerosene, coal, wood, tobacco products, pressed wood products, carpet, household cleaners, pesticides, mold, mildew and radon, depending on what's in the house.
  • Indoor air pollution can irritate eyes, nose and throat, and cause headaches, dizziness and fatigue. More susceptible people may suffer asthma attacks or even flu-like symptoms.
  • Long-term effects can include respiratory illness, heart disease, and even cancer (which has been linked to second-hand tobacco smoke, for example).
  • While many sources of indoor air pollution can be detected simply by sight or smell, radon, which causes cancer, is a colorless, odorless radioactive gas that must be measured to determine whether it is present in your home. Inexpensive devices are available for measuring radon.

Want to see indoor air pollution in action? Take this tour, sponsored by:

Healthy Indoor Air


Dollars & Sense Options


Three Ways You Can Improve Your Indoor Air Quality

  • Control the Source: This is the cheapest, most obvious way to protect indoor air quality. Identify what's polluting your air and contain it, reduce it, or remove it. Carbon monoxide, smoke, and radon detectors will help you identify what problems you need to address.
  • Improve Ventilation: Open windows and doors, turn on fans, use range hoods and furnace filters. Another option: an air-to-air heat exchanger, which mechanically ventilates and dehumidifies homes. Air-to-air heat exchangers can be installed as part of a central heating and cooling system or in walls or windows like room air conditioners.
  • Clean the Air - Though air cleaners are readily available, the EPA does not recommend using them to reduce indoor air pollution, especially radon. Says EPA, "No air-cleaning system is available that will effectively remove all pollutants from indoor air. As such, the use of air cleaners should only be considered when the use of other methods to reduce indoor air pollutants (e.g., controlling specific sources of pollutants or increasing the supply of outdoor air) are not successful in reducing pollutants to acceptable levels." EPA's booklet, Residential Air-Cleaning Devices , provides further information.

For most indoor air quality problems, EPA says source control is the most effective solution.

Want to know more? Read The Inside Story: A Guide to Indoor Air Quality from EPA .

For information specifically helpful in your state, look here.

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For Your Shopping List:

Common indoor potted plants may improve indoor air by reducing levels of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs.

VOCs, which include benzene and hexane, exist at low levels in many indoor environments. Some, like benzene, find their way inside buildings through pollution from traffic outside. Others emerge as a result of their use in paints, carpeting, and furniture fabric, especially in new or recently refurbished buildings. VOCs can contribute to 'sick building syndrome,' a phenomenon which causes dry eyes, nose and throat, headache, lethargy, and nausea.

Recycling Bin

In his book How to Grow Fresh Air, Dr. B. C. Wolverton shares his NASA research on cleaning indoor air using house plants. The research was originally conducted for NASA as a way of improving air quality in space stations and long manned missions.

The book lists fifty plants, with easy charts for choosing the right type, based on their abilities and requirements for light, temperature, and water. Some of the best overall plants are the Areca Palm and Lady Palm, as well as Dracaenas and Chrysanthemums.

In My House

With kids coming in and out all the time and the dog and cat going to and fro, we seem to have plenty of air exchange in our house. Still, we're careful to minimize indoor air pollution, especially since chemicals and fragrances give me an immediate headache. No one in our house wears perfume or cologne. We use flowers instead of artificial fragrances to freshen up our living space. Our cleansers are fragrance-free. We have a few big plants in the living room and kitchen, though they probably have minimal impact on our air quality. None of us smokes, and no guests are allowed to smoke in the house. Fortunately, we haven't had a problem with mold or mildew - just dust, and a lot of it. We dust weekly, which seems to keep the housecleaning under control. No one has dust allergies, so we haven't looked into anything more elaborate, like an air purifying system. I do have wall-to-wall carpeting in the living room, which I get steam-cleaned a couple of times a year. I don't get any kind of stain protection treatment put on it, though. I tried that once or twice, and I had a headache for the week it took to air out the house afterwards!

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Building a New Home?

  • Use radon-resistant construction techniques. 
  • Get a copy of EPA's Model Standards and Techniques for Control of Radon in New Residential Buildings from your state radon office or health agency, your state homebuilders' association, or your EPA regional office. [You can also visit EPA's Radon Resistant New Construction (RRNC)].
  • Choose building materials and furnishings that will keep indoor air pollution to a minimum. Select solid wood products rather than pressed wood for floors, cabinets and wall surfaces. If installing wall-to-wall carpet on concrete that's in contact with the ground, place an effective moisture barrier in between to reduce mold and mildew.
  • Provide proper drainage and seal foundations in new construction.
  • Properly vent combustion appliances, including furnaces, fireplaces, woodstoves, and heaters to the outside.

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Message for Moms

Coloring used to be so simple, didn't it? Nowadays, arts and crafts supplies can contain toxic substances that pose health hazards to our kids. A lot of art supplies come in forms that are perfect for sneaking into their bodies: dusts, powders, vapors, gases, and aerosols may be inhaled, accidentally eaten, or absorbed through the skin. What can you do to bring out the Picasso in your Paul or Paula, yet keep them healthy at the same time?

  • Safely store all your art supplies in covered jars or containers.
  • Keep dust to a minimum by damp mopping rather than sweeping.
  • Clean up thoroughly after the kids finish playing
  • Don't serve snacks while the kids are creating their masterpieces.
  • Keep the "art" room well ventilated, especially if the kids are working with glues, paints, or other volatile ingredients.
  • Work outside whenever possible.
  • Avoid hazardous solvent-based products like rubber cement, turpentine, paint thinners, and any lead-based materials; substitute water-based glues, paints, and markers.

For more tips, see GUIDELINES FOR THE SAFE USE OF ART AND CRAFT MATERIALS, created by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment

Here's a catalogue of arts and craft supplies that minimize indoor air pollution.

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