Indoor Air Quality: Can Your Home or Office Make You Sick?

Every home has a distinct smell. When you walk into your own home, you may not notice it, but your friends probably do. Just like you can tell whose house you’re in by its unique smell inside. Your office smells different than your home and that hotel you stayed last summer has a very different smell from your grandma’s house. But there’s more to indoor air than we are able to detect with our rather inadequate noses (for instance, black bears have been observed to travel 18 miles in a straight line to a food source).  

Considering that we spend a lot of time in our homes and offices, indoor air quality is a subject that should not be taken lightly; it directly affects the health, productivity and comfort of building occupants. Both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the World Health Organization recognize “Sick Building Syndrome” and “Building-Related Illness” as serious conditions occurring from new and remodeled buildings worldwide.

Stuff that we have inside our homes, like furniture, can also have a negative effect on indoor air quality if they leach dangerous chemicals in the air.

So what makes air indoors harmful? One of the most common causes is the presence of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. VOCs are chemicals that have a high vapor pressure at ordinary room temperature. This way VOCs can be released into indoor air from materials found in many buildings.

A study published in Occupational & Environmental Medicine concluded that even exposure to standard office building supplies (i.e., carbonless copy paper, photocopier/printer fumes) could cause Sick Building Syndrome symptoms such as respiratory infections, eye irritation, breathlessness and more.  Similarly, an Indoor Air Journal study found that indoor residential chemical emissions were risk factors for respiratory and allergic effects in children – something school maintenance professionals in particular must address.

According to EPA, symptoms of sick building syndrome include eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches, loss of coordination, nausea; damage to liver, kidney, and central nervous system. Some VOCs can cause cancer in animals; some are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans. Key signs or symptoms associated with exposure to VOCs include conjunctival irritation, nose and throat discomfort, headache, allergic skin reaction, dyspnea, declines in serum cholinesterase levels, nausea, emesis, epistaxis, fatigue, dizziness.

Many chemicals today are known or suspected to be links to cancer, early puberty, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obesity, autism, and other serious health issues.

The following are top three chemicals that can be lurking in your home and should be avoided at all costs.

1. Arsenic.

Arsenic is a known carcinogen that has been linked particularly to skin, bladder, kidney, and lung cancers.  Arsenic is found in pressure-treated wood made or manufactured before 2003, when the industry agreed to stop using arsenic-treated wood for residential purposes.

2. Formaldehyde.

Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen (it has been linked to nasal squamous cell cancer) and a skin irritant that can cause allergy-like reactions including watery, burning eyes and throats, stuffy noses, and skin rashes.  It can be found in pressed wood medium density fiberboard (MDF) furniture (used for drawer fronts, cabinets, and furniture tops), permanent press clothing and draperies, as a component of glues and adhesives, and in cleaning and beauty products, including some brands of baby wipes.

3. Bisphenol A (BPA) and Phthalates.

Both BPA and phthalates are endocrine disrupters, products that mimic natural hormones and can affect reproductive development and health. BPA is linked to early puberty in girls and phthalates are linked to low testosterone and to male reproductive problems. BPA and phthalates are additives in plastics; BPA creates a rigid plastic and phthalates make plastic more flexible. Even though major manufacturers are no longer making baby bottles and children’s drinking cups with BPA, it can still be found in the lining of food and beverage cans, in bottled formula, and even on shopping receipts. And even though three types of phthalates have been banned in toys for young children, they are still used to soften vinyl plastics (raincoats, backpacks, shower curtains, blow-up toys) and preserve scents (soaps, lotions, and perfumes).