According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the air we breathe inside our homes and offices can be up to five times more polluted than the air outside. This is because contained areas enable pollutants to build up more than open spaces do.
But unlike secondhand smoke, radon gas and molds which are airborne toxins we cannot readily control, most indoor air pollution comes from products we willingly bring into our home.
Here are eight sources of indoor air pollution that might surprise you.
As lovely as they can be, most candles will pollute your home with harmful gases and sediments. It doesn’t matter whether the candle is made from paraffin, vegetable oil, soy or beeswax. While burning, all candles release some soot carbon particles that become airborne and can lead to respiratory problems.
Paraffin candles are the worst. Paraffin is a byproduct of petroleum, coal or shale that has been whitened using bleach that infuses it with dioxins—one of the most toxic substances ever produced. Another chemical, acrolein, is linked to the risk of lung cancer from cigarette smoke, and is added to the wax as a solidifying agent.
Studies have shown that burning paraffin candles also releases large amounts of benzene and toluene—both known carcinogens—into the air. Most candles that you can buy at major retailers are made of paraffin.
Other toxins in candles include artificial dyes and synthetic fragrances, especially those used for aromatherapy. These ingredients often contain toxic plasticizers and solvents that are released when you burn the candle.
A safer choice is to buy candles made of beeswax or vegetable oils, and with natural dyes and perfumes. (These are my favorite candles.)
2. Air Fresheners
Most store-bought air fresheners emit toxic pollutants at levels that may lead to health risks. Many clean-air advocates compare their toxicity to that of secondhand smoke.
According to scientists at U.C. Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, many top-selling fresheners contain significant amounts of ethylene-based glycol ethers, which are known to cause neurological and blood effects, including fatigue, nausea, tremor, and anemia. These ethers are classified as hazardous air pollutants by the EPA and California Air Resources Board.
Many air fresheners also contain phthalates, which are proven endocrine disruptors. These can be specifically harmful to infants and children whose endocrine systems have not yet fully developed. Phthalates effect the developing male sex organs and are linked to abnormally developed male genitalia, poor semen quality and low testosterone levels.
A safer choice for purifying the air would be to keep houseplants. If you prefer fragrance, you safest bet is to diffuse essential oils. (Here are my favorite oil diffusers and my favorite essential oils.)
3. Dryer Sheets
Many people like the smell of warm laundry just pulled from the dryer. But have you ever wondered what makes those dryer sheets work?
When you touch dryer sheets, they feel waxy. That waxy surfactant is made of a mixture of quaternary ammonium salt (which is linked to asthma), silicon oil, or stearic acid (derived from animal fat) which melts in the heat of the dryer to coat your clothes. Basically, your fabrics aren’t really softer—they’re just coated in a fatty film to make you think they are.
Dryer sheets also contain fragrances which contain toxins that get into the air when released from dryer vent emissions.
Findings in a 2011 study show that air vented from machines using the top-selling scented laundry detergents and dryer sheets contains more than 25 volatile organic compounds, including seven hazardous air pollutants. Of those, two chemicals—acetaldehyde and benzene—are classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as known carcinogens, for which the agency has established no safe exposure level.
Your best bet is to not use any dryer sheets. But if you really need something to help fluff your clothes, use a set of dryer balls or a less toxic dryer sheet that contains no fragrances or masking agents. (Here are some safe alternatives to dryer sheets.)
4. Cleaning Products
Many conventional household cleaning products contain harmful chemicals like alcohol, chlorine, ammonia or petroleum-based solvents, all which can have negative effects on your health, irritate your eyes or throat, or cause headaches.
Some cleaning products release dangerous Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) that can contribute to chronic respiratory problems and aggravate allergies, asthma and other respiratory illnesses. Products containing VOCs include most aerosol sprays, chlorine bleach, rug and upholstery cleaners, furniture and floor polish, and oven cleaners.
Chlorine bleach is particularly dangerous. Mixing bleach with any acidic cleaner like ammonia or vinegar can create chlorine gas (the same gas used in chemical warfare) which can cause immediate health problems, even death, when inhaled.
Even “green” or “organic” cleaning products may contain ingredients that can cause health problems. Natural citrus fragrances in particular can produce dangerous indoor pollutants.
The safest bet is to use less toxic, less expensive cleaners such as hydrogen peroxide (for sanitizing, stain removal and bleaching), tea tree oil or Thieve’s oil and water (for mold removal and as a disinfectant), baking soda, and white vinegar (for cleaning glass, counters and tile). Here is my most favorite recipe book for DIY cleaning products.
If DIY just isn’t your thing, or you would prefer to buy something ready-made that works just as well as (or better than) conventional cleaning products, but is safe enough to eat, I wholeheartedly recommend Branch Basics for everything from laundry to windows. I find it works better than conventional cleaning products, but it’s so safe you could drink it.
That famous “new carpet smell” is actually the off-gassing of hazardous volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including toluene, benzene, ethyl benzene, formaldehyde, bromine, styrene, and acetone. Yikes!
Regular exposure to these chemicals is known to cause headaches, throat and eye irritation, allergies, confusion, and drowsiness. Synthetic carpets made from nylon and olefin fibers typically off-gas the most.
Ongoing exposure to these toxins can create long-term health problems, including learning and memory impairment, birth defects, decreased fertility, and diseases of the liver, thyroid, ovaries, kidneys, and blood.
Benzene is a well-known human carcinogen and formaldehyde is probable human carcinogen. Some new carpets also contain the moth-proofing chemical naphthalene, which is known to produce toxic reactions, especially in newborns. Some carpets also contain p-Dichlorobenzene, a carcinogen also known to produce fetal abnormalities when tested on animals.
While older carpets no longer off-gas toxins, dust mites (and their droppings) begin will infiltrate your carpet over time. The droppings can cause severe allergic reactions in many people, and scientists are just beginning to correlate dust mite exposure to asthma.
We also add toxins into our carpets when we track in contaminated dirt, heavy metals and pesticides from outside on our shoes. Almost any toxic substance we use near or within the home can settle into carpet fibers and later spread into the air.
A quality HEPA vacuum cleaner can help remove many of the particle-based toxins from your carpet without throwing them into the air where they can be inhaled. You can also buy carpeting certified “Green Label Plus” by the Carpet and Rug Institute, which rates carpeting for low emission of VOCs.
Also consider removing your shoes and leaving them by the door every time you come into the house. Not only will it reduce toxins in your home, but your floors will stay cleaner, too!
6. Kitchen Stove
A poorly ventilated kitchen can cause a huge amount of air pollution in your home.
Gas stoves emit nitrogen dioxide which is created when fuel is burned at high temperatures. Nitrogen dioxide mixes with the air to create nitric acid and toxic organic nitrates. These can irritate the lungs and lower resistance to respiratory infections such as influenza. According to the EPA, frequent exposure to high concentrations of nitrates may cause acute respiratory illnesses in children.
Always make sure your kitchen is well ventilated both during and after any type of cooking—not just if you burn something. Installing a high-quality ventilation fan or range hood can greatly improve air quality. If you don’t have a ventilation fan or range hood, as in some apartments, be sure to cook with nearby windows open.
Even if you haven’t painted in years, if you live in an older home, you may have walls coated in lead paint, which was banned in the late 1970s. Lead can be a powerful neurotoxin even decades after a room is painted, as the paint chips, peels and flakes off surfaces.
Many of these chips get pulverized to microscopic particles that become part of the interior dust you breathe. If you think you might have lead paint on your interior or exterior walls, contact a licensed paint contractor to help you find ways reducing your exposure.
New paint typically contains VOCs, and can off-gas for weeks, even months after a room is painted. Paint fumes can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea, asthma exacerbation, fatigue, skin allergies, confusion, and memory impairment.
When buying paint, choose brands that are Zero-VOC. These paints are just as good as standard interior and exterior paints, and as an added benefit, they tend to dry much more quickly, too.
Chemical fire retardants are common in a wide variety of household items such as furniture, electronics, appliances and even baby products. These chemicals were mandated by a 1975 law called TB 117, but they have since been proven ineffective in preventing fires and are linked to numerous health and environmental problems.
In fact, these chemicals can make fires more toxic by forming deadly gases and soot—which are the real killers in most fires.
Fire retardants are most commonly found in furniture containing polyurethane foam, including couches and upholstered chairs, futons and carpet padding. They can also be found in children’s car seats, changing table pads, portable crib mattresses, nap mats and nursing pillows.
Some flame retardants include:
- TDCPP (chlorinated Tris) – listed as a carcinogen by California in 2011
- PentaBDE (pentabrominated diphenyl ether) – globally banned due to toxicity and environmental persistence
- Firemaster 550 – associated with obesity and anxiety in one animal study
Tests done by the Environmental Working Group found much higher levels of both PBDEs and TDCIPP in young children than in their mothers—probably because children frequently put their hands, toys and other objects in their mouths.
Fire retardants migrate out of products and contaminate house dust, which accumulates on the floor where children play and can also become airborne.
Women with higher levels of flame retardants in their blood take longer to get pregnant and have smaller babies. Children exposed in the womb have lower IQs and attention problems. Other studies have linked flame retardants to cancer, male infertility, male birth defects, and early puberty in girls. Recent studies in animals linked toxic flame retardants to autism and obesity.
So what can you do?
Fire retardants are nearly impossible to avoid completely, but if you take these precautions, you can minimize your exposure:
- Vacuum carpets with a vacuum that contains a HEPA filter.
- Damp mop floors and damp dust furniture on a regular basis.
- Find out before you buy baby products such as crib mattresses and car seats, and choose products that don’t contain any fire retardants.
- If you’re buying a new couch, choose one made without fire retardants. Look for the TB 117-2013 label and verify with the store that the product does not contain flame retardants.
- Use this survey of major furniture stores as a guide to look for flame retardant-free products.
- If you’re planning to reupholster your couch, replace the old foam too because it likely contains fire retardants. Ask your upholstery shop to find retardant-free foam.
- Inspect foam cushioning for damage. Make sure cushion covers are intact since exposed foam can allow fire retardant chemicals to escape more quickly. Items such as car seats and mattress pads should always be completely encased in protective fabric.
- Don’t eat on your couch!
- Vacuum and wipe down your car’s interior regularly.
- Be careful removing old carpeting. The padding is typically made of scrap foam that contains fire retardants. Old carpet padding can break down by the time it’s exposed for replacement. Isolate the work area from the rest of your home.
Improving your indoor air quality involves making a few adjustments to how you run your home, shopping smarter and replacing certain items you use with less toxic versions. Doing so will make a big difference not only for the planet, but also for your family’s health and well-being.
And aren’t you worth it?
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50 Ways to Love Your Mother contains 50 simple, “entry-level” ways to live a more sustainable lifestyle. Not only will these baby steps go easy on the planet, but they will go easy on your wallet, too.