Many common products and furnishings in your home, often ones used on a daily basis, can be hidden sources of chemical contamination in the air you breathe.
Poor air quality indoors directly affects your energy levels, mood and ability to concentrate. Breathing polluted air also lowers your immunity, damages your lungs and diminishes your daily well being.
In the longer term it can lead to asthma, allergies and other respiratory problems like bronchitis and increase the risk of many serious diseases.
Clearly, improving the air within your home and reducing indoor chemical pollutants is important to you and your family’s health, but how do you get started?
Ahead are 10 lesser known sources of household air pollution and chemical contamination, why they are dangerous and how to reduce or remove them in your home.
1. Cleaning Products
It’s very important to keep your home clean to maintain healthy indoor air quality. Dirty floors, kitchens, living rooms and bathrooms breed bacteria and attract cockroaches with their toxic allergens.
However, many modern cleaning products actually contribute to household air pollution with their harsh chemical ingredients, like bleach, ammonia, glycol esters, fragrances, surfactants and solvents.
A wide variety of harmful volatile organic compounds are also released by cleaning products, not just during use but also at lower levels wherever they are stored.
Volatile organic compounds, also known as VOCs, are serious indoor allergens and pollutants, responsible for many health problems, and they can become concentrated within enclosed houses and apartments.
The worst offenders for polluting indoor air quality appear to be chlorine bleach, ammonia-based cleaning sprays, floor and furniture polish and chemical spray cleaners for the bathroom and kitchen.
Switch to simple natural cleaners, like white vinegar in hot water for cleaning floors, tabletops, kitchen benches and glass.
Baking soda on a damp sponge will often scrub away stains just as well as toxic chemical cleaners, without releasing dangerous VOCs into the air.
Like cleaning products, cosmetics, deodorants and fragrances can be a significant source of damaging volatile organic compounds and other chemical gases in household air.
Hairspray, nail polish, perfumes and deodorant sprays are some of the most toxic, but many other bathroom products pollute the air in your home with harmful chemicals.
If you must use hairspray or aerosol deodorant, try to avoid breathing it in, open a window and leave the bathroom quickly afterwards, shutting the door behind you.
3. Dry Cleaned Clothes
Another surprising source of air pollution in your home are clothes that have been recently dry cleaned.
The dry-cleaning process uses a carcinogenic VOC called perchloroethylene that persists in clothing fibers and off-gasses for many days after it is applied.
If your clothes need to be dry cleaned then it is best to allow them to air for as long as possible afterwards by a window.
Also, think twice about storing them in a cupboard near where you sleep to avoid breathing in harmful perchloroethylene gas.
4. Air Fresheners
While they often market themselves as providing a breath of fresh air, so called air fresheners are in fact a surprisingly harmful source of volatile organic compounds that contribute to indoor allergies and poor air quality.
Recent research has even found that the chemicals they release into the air can react with ozone from outside to form cancer-causing formaldehyde and increase fine particle pollution within your home.
Plug-in air fresheners are particularly bad as they are constantly polluting the air with VOCs. Babies and young children are especially vulnerable to this little-known form of household air pollution.
Unfortunately, even paraffin candles and incense sticks release airborne allergens and toxic contaminants, such as benzene, styrene, acetone, toluene, xylene, aldehydes and particulate matter.
Regularly burning them within your house or apartment is not recommended, especially if you or a family member suffers from asthma, allergies or other respiratory problems.
The best advice for healthy indoor air quality is to avoid air fresheners altogether. The amount of pollution they release into household air makes them anything but ‘freshening’.
Scented candles and incense sticks should only be used on special occasions and preferably with good ventilation. While they may smell nice, they are actually quite toxic to breathe in.
A good air purifier with a deodorizing carbon filter is a much more effective way to freshen and clean the air in your home than masking odors with harmful chemicals.
New carpets are a heavy emitter of toxic gases, like ethylbenzene, styrene, formaldehyde, acetaldehyde and other hazardous VOCs.
While they are at their worst in the first 72 hours after being laid, this chemical off-gassing has actually been measured to continue for up to five years after installation.
Older carpet poses a different problem as it is usually full of dust mite and cockroach allergens, mold and pollen spores, pet dander and contaminated dirt and dust. These indoor pollutants can be stirred up whenever the carpet is walked upon and especially during cleaning.
If possible, it’s best to choose hard surface flooring, like ceramic tiles rather than carpet, particularly in houses and apartments with asthma and allergy sufferers.
When this is not an option then carpet should be vacuumed twice a week at a minimum and professionally steam cleaned at least once a year.
Chemical DIY foam carpet cleaners are unfortunately yet another potent source of volatile organic compounds and should be avoided for healthy indoor air.
6. Wood Furniture
Wood varnishes, polishes, stains and waxes will often release volatile organic compounds and other toxic airborne pollutants for long periods after first being applied.
Additionally, engineered wood furniture made from plywood, particleboard and similar compressed wooden products has been shown to off-gas formaldehyde at dangerous levels.
Solid timber furniture, without heavy staining or waxing, is a much better choice for healthy indoor air than manufactured wood products, though costs can be significantly higher.
A VOC filtering air purifier like this is a good solution for removing formaldehyde and other toxic chemicals from the air you breathe in your home. Though it’s best to seek out non-toxic options for any future furniture purchases.
7. Sofas and Chairs
Upholstery on chairs and sofas will also often release VOCs like formaldehyde, particularly when new. Sofas are potentially even more of a problem than wood furnishings as we spend so much time in close contact with them.
Testing has shown manufactured wood and upholstered furniture to be some of the worst sources of volatile organic compounds, while metal and most plastic furniture had much lower emissions.
Most people wouldn’t want to give up their sofa, but if you are in the market for a new one then make sure to look for a brand that advertises low chemical off-gassing.
Furniture with upholstery should also be cleaned regularly as it accumulates dust, dirt, pollen, pet dander and cockroach and dust mite allergens.
One trick is to rub inexpensive baking soda into upholstery and leave it to sit for at least an hour. Then vacuum it up with a powerful vacuum cleaner to remove allergens and potentially reduce off-gassing of VOCs as well.
8. House Paint
Fresh house paint releases a wide variety of volatile organic compounds and toxic chemicals into the air. Newly painted rooms should be sealed off from the rest of the house, well ventilated and avoided for as long as possible.
While the first few days after painting are the worst, it’s estimated that only 50% of the VOCs in regular house paint are released within the first year. The rest can continue to off-gas at lower levels over a much longer period.
Low VOC paints are now available and highly recommended if you plan on painting rooms inside your home in the future.
Also be aware that older homes in America, painted before 1978, could have serious contamination issues with lead-based paint as an indoor air pollutant.
9. Art and Craft Products
Many types of glue, painting products, felt-tipped pens and other art and craft supplies contain toxic chemicals that can be released into the air when using them. This is of particular concern for children with asthma or allergies.
It’s best to choose specifically labeled non-toxic art and craft products and confine painting and other art and craft activities to a special well-ventilated room well away from sleeping areas.
10. Home Office Equipment
Laser and inkjet printers, photocopiers, computers and even correction fluid and paper products can all contribute to household pollution and poor indoor air quality.
Airborne pollutants from home offices can include ozone, particulate matter, VOCs and semivolatile organic chemicals like phthalate esters and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
Paper dust, while not as hazardous as chemicals from office equipment, can easily spread throughout your home and become a problematic airborne allergen.
Like regular commercial offices, your home office is likely to have poor air quality, especially if a printer or photocopier are regularly running.
Keeping it well ventilated with open windows can help, but it’s best to shut the door connecting the rest of your house to avoid spreading air pollutants.
A desktop air purifier with a negative ion generator can dramatically improve the air in your home office. As an added bonus, increased negative ion concentrations can even enhance your mood and help you to concentrate.
Healthier Household Air
Modern homes, filled with chemical cleaning products, off-gassing furniture and carpets, and hidden VOCs from air fresheners, cosmetics, dry-cleaning and house paint, certainly make it challenging to breath clean air.
You can improve indoor air quality with natural options and low VOC replacements, but with such a wide variety of potential household pollutants you really need a way to filter and clean the air directly.
A well designed air purifier is the most effective way to combat indoor air pollution and protect your family’s health.