The air that you breathe inside your house or apartment each day is likely to be much more polluted than you might think.
Just what causes poor indoor air quality though, what are the most common sources and what can you do to improve it for you and your family?
Also ahead, surprising symptoms of breathing in allergens like mold spores and dust mite waste products, long term negative health effects and simple ways to dramatically reduce airborne contaminants and pollutants within your home.
What Is Indoor Air Pollution?
A simple definition of indoor air pollution is physical, biological and chemical contaminants found in the air in your home, office or other indoor areas.
Most of us think of air pollution as being more of a problem outdoors, especially in busy cities with their smog and traffic fumes. In fact, the air inside your house is usually much more polluted than the air outside.
If you live in a built-up area like most people, the air coming into your home when you open the window will already usually contain atmospheric pollutants like particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and ozone.
Most indoor air pollution though comes from a wide variety of surprising sources within your house or apartment.
The fact that modern homes are so tightly sealed, allowing for little ventilation, only makes matters worse and can concentrate allergens and contaminants in the air you breathe even further.
Ahead we will cover some of the most common sources of indoor air pollution and how to deal with them in detail. First though, what are some of the potential health dangers of breathing in bad household air.
Negative Health Effects of Indoor Air Pollutants
You breathe air into your lungs around 22,000 times each day and the majority of people spend around 90% of their time in just a few enclosed spaces within their home and workplace.
Clearly the indoor air quality of the places you spend the most time in, like your bedroom, living room and office, can have a significant effect on your health.
Common Poor Air Quality Symptoms
The impact of breathing in polluted air will affect each person in different ways, depending on their own individual circumstances, body chemistry and immune function.
People who suffer from asthma, allergies or chemical sensitivities can experience immediate negative effects from breathing in airborne irritants like particulate matter, pollen, mold spores, volatile organic compounds and dust mite allergens.
Asthmatic and allergic reactions can include:
- Shortness of breath and wheezing.
- Chest pain and tightening.
- Chronic sneezing and coughing.
- Itchy and watery eyes.
- Severe nasal irritation and sinus congestion.
- Migraines and fatigue.
- Skin rashes and other allergic outbreaks.
For most people though, signs of indoor air pollution exposure are more subtle, yet can still be quite debilitating, even though you might not immediately recognize them as the cause of how bad you feel.
Poor indoor air quality may be responsible for the following symptoms:
- A runny nose, sinus congestion and irritation.
- Coughing and sneezing.
- Tiredness, trouble concentrating and headaches.
- Nausea, dizziness and feeling unwell.
- A sore throat, dry eyes and strained vision.
Children More Affected by Bad Household Air
Toddlers and young children are particularly susceptible to developing health conditions due to constant exposure to polluted indoor air.
This is because they spend much more time close to the floor, a common source of contaminants, and they have both a faster breathing and metabolic rate than adults.
Additionally, their narrower airways, smaller lungs and less-developed immune systems all increase their exposure risk and chances of developing asthma, allergies or other respiratory problems later in life.
If you have young children that spend a lot of time indoors, a high-quality air purifier is a smart investment in your family’s health and long-term well-being.
Increased Disease Risk from Long-Term Exposure to Airborne Contaminants
Health authorities classify household air pollution as a far greater risk factor in many serious diseases that outdoor pollution. This is due to most people’s much higher exposure.
In fact, the World Health Organization estimates 3.8 million people die prematurely around the world from regularly breathing in the contaminated air within their homes.
While many of these deaths are attributed to cooking with solid fuels, a wide variety of other indoor air pollutants are recognized as contributing factors in many serious diseases, such as lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, pneumonia, heart disease and stroke.
Lack of clean air and a high concentration of indoor particulate matter is even recognized as increasing your risk of seemingly unrelated diseases like diabetes, cataracts and high blood pressure.
5 Common Sources of Indoor Air Pollution
Even though you can’t see them, these 5 types of air pollution are usually found in most modern living spaces and workplaces to varying degrees.
Learn what is the most common form of air pollution ahead, plus symptoms, main sources and how to reduce them in your home.
1. Dust and Indoor Air Particulates
You’re probably used to seeing dust settle and surfaces in your home. What most people don’t realize is just how much is circulating in the air and what it is actually made of.
While you can’t see them, there is a multitude of microscopic particles floating in the air around you right now.
This air pollution, also known as particulate matter (PM) or air particulates, is the most common form of indoor air pollution. It is composed of both tiny solid particles and airborne water droplets.
Sometimes, in sunlight or bright light, you can see the largest of these particles floating in the air, but mostly they are invisible to the naked eye.
What Is Dust Made of and Common Sources?
Indoor dust is more of a coverall term for any particles in your home small enough to be lofted into the air.
While it sounds like one of the more benign forms of air pollution, dust can actually contain many irritants and allergens, particularly for asthma and allergy sufferers.
The composition of dust found indoors can vary greatly depending on your individual lifestyle and outdoor environment.
Primarily though, it is composed of textile and paper fibers, soil and ash, plant pollen, food particles, mold and fungi, microscopic decomposing organisms and dead skin cells and hair.
If you have a pet there is likely to be a much higher proportion of fine pet dander as an airborne contaminant as well.
Additionally, the air from outside that blows into your home when you open the windows will play a large part in the makeup of household dust.
Someone living near pollinating trees will often have high concentrations of allergenic pollen within their house or apartment. While another person living close to a construction site would likely have much more fine dirt dust as indoor air pollution.
Combating Dust in Your Home
You can walk in dirt from outside with your shoes, but much more indoor dust comes from the outdoor air when you open the windows.
However, regular ventilation for fresh oxygen is necessary and important for good health, so keeping your windows closed all the time isn’t recommended.
Besides outside sources, carpets, upholstery, curtains, food from the kitchen and dining room, clothing and bedding, and human hair and skin cells all also contribute to dust composition and accumulation.
You can’t really avoid dust in your home, but regularly cleaning with non-toxic cleaning products helps to reduce it and the allergens it contains.
Better still, using a powerful HEPA air filter and purifier can dramatically reduce how much indoor particulate matter you breathe into your lungs each day.
2. Mold Spores
Mold is an extremely common biological contaminant that lives on many kinds of household surfaces.
It especially thrives in moist environments like bathrooms, kitchens, laundries, basements and behind furniture and appliances when the air is damp and humid.
In these conditions, molds become especially problematic as they will grow quickly and release millions of microscopic and potentially toxic mold spores into household air.
Symptoms of Mold Spore Contamination
The colder and wetter months, when indoor dampness is at its worst and closed up houses provide little ventilation, tend to be the worst time for mold exposure.
Breathing in mold spores and getting them into your lungs and eyes can have the following negative effects:
- Coughing, sneezing, a runny nose and other forms of nasal irritation.
- Chest tightening, painful lungs and difficulty breathing.
- Itchy and watery eyes with eyelid swelling and discoloration.
- Nausea, headaches and fatigue.
Mold is even more of a health problem for people with asthma, allergies and other respiratory problems as it is a significant but often invisible trigger.
Certain strains of indoor mold, like the notorious black mold, have highly toxic spores and can be a serious health risk, especially for babies, young children, the elderly and those already suffering from illness and compromised immune systems.
Combating Mold in Your Home
If you have a mold problem in your house or apartment it’s important to minimize dampness and humidity. In areas with a lot of rain and moisture circulating in the air, a dehumidifier is a wise investment in the battle against mold.
Be vigilant about cleaning the areas where mold grows. Vinegar and baking soda is a natural and non-toxic mold killer that won’t release chemicals into the air. Using a breathing mask while cleaning away mold is also highly recommended.
While most air purifiers capture and filter out mold spores from the air you breathe, certain types are much more effective against mold and other airborne biological contaminants.
3. Dust Mite Allergens
One of the most common causes of indoor air pollution, especially in your bedroom is dust mite allergens.
Dust mites are microscopic pests that live in places like pillows, bedding, mattresses, sofas and carpets. They feed off dead skin cells and the allergenic compounds they produce come from their fecal matter and decaying bodies when they die.
Unfortunately, dust mites are extremely common, with large-scale testing showing that 84% of US homes had detectable levels of dust mite allergens in their beds.
Symptoms of Dust Mite Allergy
Allergic rhinitis is the most common symptom of being allergic to dust mite waste products.
It is similar to hay fever from pollen and in fact, many people who think they are suffering from hay fever are actually experiencing a negative reaction to dust mites.
A runny nose with a stuffy or irritated nasal passage, regular sneezing, itchy skin and rashes, and watery, irritated eyes that can be red and swollen are all signs of exposure to dust mite allergens.
Early morning or during the night are usually when dust mite allergies are triggered due to being in close contact with your pillow and bedding.
Asthmatics should be especially careful to limit dust mite contaminants in their home as they can provoke serious asthma attacks in up to 80% of sufferers. Though many other respiratory disorders can also be triggered by breathing in dust mite feces.
Eczema, skin rashes and other inflammatory disorders can also be made worse for sufferers with large amounts of dust mites in their homes and particularly bedding.
Combating Dust Mites in Your Home
These annoying little creatures can live in all kinds of places, with estimates of up to 500 mites in just a tiny gram of dust and approximately 100,000 in a square meter of old carpet.
Their favorite place to live though is in the pillows, sheets, duvet and mattress of your bed.
A regular pillow is estimated to have around 40,000 dust mites and a mattress can have anywhere from 100,000 to 10 million mites on and in it, depending on its condition and household humidity.
The best way to combat allergic rhinitis from dust mite waste products is to get specially designed antibacterial and dust mite proof pillow and mattress protectors, such as this bestseller on Amazon.
Hypoallergenic latex pillows, like this extremely comfortable one I have, are great protection against dust mites as they cannot live in them.
Bacteria, mold and fungi are also inhibited in a latex pillow and they are a healthy choice for most asthma and allergy sufferers.
Other methods for reducing dust mite breeding and exposure include:
- Washing all bedding in very hot water at least once, preferably twice a week.
- Vacuuming regularly to remove dust, especially in bedrooms and lounge rooms with carpets.
- Getting your mattresses and couches professionally cleaned for dust mites and other allergens every spring and fall.
- Keeping pets out of bedrooms and off couches as their dander provides a significant additional source of food for dust mites.
- And using a HEPA air purifier in your bedroom to filter out airborne dust mite waste products and other irritants while you sleep.
4. Cockroach Contaminants
Cockroaches are ugly and dirty pests but what most people don’t know is that their feces, saliva and body part fragments contain toxins that can contaminate your indoor air.
They are nocturnal and you don’t often see them but, according to research up to 98% of urban homes tested in the USA contained cockroach allergens.
Symptoms of Cockroach Allergen Exposure
The negative effects of breathing in cockroach toxins are similar to those of dust mites, with allergic rhinitis symptoms like sneezing, a dripping nose, itchy and watery eyes and nasal irritation and congestion most common.
Cockroach allergy can also be a strong asthma trigger, particularly for young children and the elderly. Additionally, they spread disease-causing bacteria like E. coli and salmonella as well as parasitic worms.
Combating Cockroaches in Your Home
Cockroaches prefer to live in warm, dark and humid places, particularly hidden areas around your kitchen, laundry and bathroom, and come out at night seeking food.
Here’s a few tips to combat cockroaches within your house or apartment:
- Keeping your kitchen benches clean, trash can lid tight and dishes washed and in the cupboard, rather than left overnight, can help reduce cockroach infestation.
- Vacuuming regularly and cleaning well around the places your family eats will also help discourage cockroaches.
- While air purifiers won’t stop cockroaches directly, they will filter out contaminants from their droppings and decaying bodies in the air, helping to prevent asthma attacks and allergic reactions.
- A good dehumidifier can also reduce household humidity and dampness, making your home much less attractive to cockroaches, as well as dust mites, mold, mildew and other microscopic fungi.
- If you do find you need to combat a cockroach infestation, it’s best to use natural pest control that won’t contribute to further indoor air pollution.
5. Formaldehyde and other VOCs
Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs for short, are toxic gases given off by many products we use in modern households each day.
Common sources include pesticides, cleaning products, air fresheners, hairspray, fabric softener, carpet, upholstery, paint, electronics, cigarette smoke, wooden furniture, building materials and a surprisingly long list of other items within your home.
Many VOCs are classified as irritants, toxicants and potential carcinogens, meaning they are believed to cause cancer with regular exposure.
Formaldehyde, used extensively in wood treatment, floorings, fabrics, paints and lacquers, is one of the worst VOCs and very difficult to avoid exposure to, particularly in households with modern furnishings.
Symptoms of Exposure to Volatile Organic Compounds
Indoor air usually contains a much higher concentration of toxic VOCs like formaldehyde, benzene, ethylene glycol, methylene chloride, tetrachloroethylene and many others than outdoor air.
These volatile organic compounds are a likely culprit behind the development of multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS) and often implicated as a primary cause of sick building syndrome.
Common symptoms of VOCs exposure include:
- Brain fog, fatigue and headaches.
- Airway inflammation, anxiety and elevated stress hormones.
- Nasal irritation, coughing and sneezing.
- Dry eyes and blurred vision.
- Nausea, dizziness and feeling unwell.
More serious health implications of long-term exposure to high levels of volatile organic compounds are listed as:
- Lung, liver and kidney damage.
- Degradation of central nervous system function and fine motor control.
- Repetitive migraines, visual problems and impaired memory.
- And an increased risk of certain types of cancer, particularly from formaldehyde and other suspected carcinogenic VOCs.
Combating VOCs in Your Home
Off-gassing from new furniture, paint, carpets, upholstery, electronics and many other household items is one of the worst forms of indoor air pollution to be exposed to.
Increase ventilation as much as you can, including opening windows overnight if safe to do so. Also try to avoid rooms with fresh paint or new carpet for as long as possible.
While volatile organic compound toxicity is at its worst during the first week or two of unpacking a new timber cabinet, or putting on a fresh coat of paint, it can actually continue at lower levels for many years.
New carpet for instance, with its polypropylene backing, can off-gas and release toxic VOCs like ethylbenzene, styrene and 4-phenylcyclohexene for up to five years.
Consider whether you really need carpet on your floors, heavily lacquered wood products and chemical smelling upholstery on your chairs if there are better low VOCs alternatives.
Minimize or avoid some of the worst sources of volatile organic compounds, like chemical air fresheners, cleaning sprays, insect repellents, mothballs, fabric softeners, hairspray, nail varnish, wood polish, art and craft products and toxic bleach.
Realistically though, VOCs are very hard to avoid completely in most modern houses, apartments and offices.
Using a high-powered air purifier, importantly with an activated carbon filter, can remove the majority of them from the air you breathe in the places you spend the most time in.
This can help to alleviate many ongoing health problems that you didn’t even realize were being caused by VOCs exposure. At very least you’ll give your immune system a break from dealing with these toxic chemicals each day.
Working Towards Better Air in Your Home
Even if you don’t suffer from asthma, allergies or other respiratory problems, breathing in clean air each day is an important factor in serious disease prevention and living a healthier life.
VOCs, mold spores, cockroach and dust mites allergens and dust particles are far from all of the potential causes of indoor air pollution. Though they are some of the most commonly found in the vast majority of homes across the USA.
However, if you use cleaning sprays or air fresheners, aerosol deodorant or hairspray, get your clothes dry cleaned, work in a home office, or even have upholstered chairs or timber furniture, there are some surprising and potentially dangerous air pollutants inside your home as well.
For the majority of indoor air pollution though, regular cleaning, combined with the filtering power of a well-designed air purifier, can dramatically reduce airborne allergens and contaminants and protect your family’s long term health and well-being.