A look at some sources of indoor air pollution

July 13, 2022

On this day and age, we spend nearly 90% of our time indoors. It is convenient to look closely at some of the most common indoor air pollutants behind closed doors and see what can be done about them.

Knowing the enemy

We do not exaggerate by saying that roughly 90% of our time is spent indoors. Distributed between our homes, offices, restaurants, subway, and bus stations (among many others), we could easily say that we conduct most of our lives inside public and private spaces. Do not be tricked, however, into thinking that this means we are safe from the effects of air pollution. This is an issue that is bigger than it seems, and it pervades both the skies above our cities and the air we breathe inside our homes and workspaces. Air pollution is just as real inside as it is outside.

Some sources of indoors air pollution

It might be a good idea to start this list by first pointing at one of the major culprits behind allergies and general bad health indoors: carpets. These beautiful fabrics that decorate many homes, and even offices, are major attractors for all kinds of pollutants. Within their fibers, they can trap particles of smoke, mold spores and other toxins produced by indoors materials, or brought in whenever we open the window.

Carpets behave very similar to sea sponges: they catch and keep for themselves any pollutants or crumbs of food that fall over them. You may think that this is a good thing, but, the opposite is the truth. Just by walking over them, you will release into the air many, if not most, of the fine pollutants trapped within the carpet’s fibers.

A dirty carpet is no joke. It may look elegant, but if you don’t keep it clean, you are looking at a source of bad breathing and constant coughing. Eczema, rashes, and other skin irritations can be directly blamed to its presence. Your immune system may even be compromised, and do not even think about all the dust mites and germs that make of a carpet the perfect ecosystem to thrive on.

Heavy drapes, too, can be as pollutant as carpets, so you may want to think about that next time you think about redecorating your home or office

Another source of indoors air pollution is radon (Rn). We do not think too much about it, but this odorless noble gas can easily enter any house or office. It is naturally produced by the soil and will sip inside through the cracks that always form in any building’s foundations. Like all elements with an atomic number greater than 83, radon’s (86) nucleus is unstable, so it decays. In the process of doing so, it emits radiation that attaches to other dust particles hanging in the air indoors.

Dangerous buildups of it may even lead to lung cancerChest pain, fatigue, weight loss and coughing up blood are some of the signs of a body suffering of radon poisoning. If you find yourself in a situation like this, it is best to stop reading this article and consult a medic.

Tobacco smoke is another obvious guilty cause of indoors air pollution. Very obvious, but worth mentioning here. Even though these days smoking indoors is forbidden in most bars, restaurants and offices, there are times when this is not the case. Cigarette smoke contains thousands of nasty chemicals, not to mention at least 70 types of carcinogens. Tobacco smoke is known as a leading cause of acute respiratory infections and even asthma, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and heart attacks.

And then there are the sources of air pollution that are not so obvious, such as appliances of all kinds. You can find these in almost every home or office, things like gas and oil cookers, water heaters, HVACs and furnaces. Most of these machines are rigorously tested to guarantee their safety. However, like everything else, they eventually fall into disrepair.

A faulty appliance like any of these can be a major source of carbon monoxide (CO) and sulfur dioxide (SO2). Dangerous buildups of the former may cause impaired vision and coordination, headaches, and chest pain in those who suffer of heart diseaseHigh concentrations of the latter can result in irritation of the eyes, tract infections and impaired lung function. Think about this next time your espresso machine does a weird noise.

What can we do about it?

We all must deal with at least one of these, either at home or the office. Fortunately, there are both passive and active methods to reduce, and even eliminate, the pollution in the air we breathe indoors.

Houseplants are a good and effective passive method to do so. NASA has compiled a list of them that can be used to clean contaminated air indoors. Peace lilies, weeping figs, and English ivies are among them. Not only will they help in keeping air pollution at bay, but they will also give a nice, modern, look at any home or office. Their range of action, however, is not very wide.

On the other hand, High Efficiency Particulate Air filters (HEPA), are a powerful active method that guarantees a clean and fresh indoors air. As defined by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, these filters can remove at least 99.97% of all bacteria, mold, pollen, and air particles, thus creating a sanitary atmosphere inside homes and work spaces.

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