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  • Writer's pictureCorey Provencal

Are You Breathing Clean Air?

Winter means a rise in respiratory illness. What’s in the Air You Breathe?

Let’s face it. We don’t get out much anymore. Estimates are that we spend over 80 percent of our time indoors with some estimates as high as 90 percent. That may be in a vehicle, in the office or at home. For some people all three of those may mean the same thing, but Indoor air isn’t all the same, and the real menace isn’t just outdoor pollutants that make their way inside.

Indoor pollution sources that release gases or particles into the air are the primary cause of indoor air quality problems in homes. Inadequate ventilation can increase indoor pollutant levels by not bringing in enough outdoor air to dilute emissions from indoor sources and by not carrying indoor air pollutants out of the home. High temperature and humidity levels can also increase concentrations of some pollutants.

Your Indoor air has three types of pollutants:

1. Gases/VOC’s, 2. Particulate Matter, and 3. Dust Mites

1. Gases Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids. VOCs include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have short- and long-term adverse health effects. Concentrations of many VOCs are consistently higher indoors (up to ten times higher) than outdoors. VOCs are emitted by a wide array of products numbering in the thousands. Examples include: paints and lacquers, paint strippers, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials and furnishings, office equipment such as copiers and printers, correction fluids and carbonless copy paper, graphics and craft materials including glues and adhesives, permanent markers, and photographic solutions.

Organic chemicals are widely used as ingredients in household products. Paints, varnishes, and wax all contain organic solvents, as do many cleaning, disinfecting, cosmetic, degreasing, and hobby products. Fuels are made up of organic chemicals. All of these products can release organic compounds while you are using them, and, to some degree, when they are stored.

2. Particulate Matter, also known as particle pollution or PM, is a complex mixture of extremely small particles and liquid droplets. Particle pollution is made up of a number of components, including acids (such as nitrates and sulfates), organic chemicals, metals, and soil or dust particles. The size of particles is directly linked to their potential for causing health problems. EPA is concerned about particles that are 10 micrometers in diameter or smaller because those are the particles that generally pass through the throat and nose and enter the lungs. Once inhaled, these particles can affect the heart and lungs and cause serious health effects. EPA groups particle pollution into two categories:

“Inhalable coarse particles,” such as those found near roadways and dusty industries, are larger than 2.5 micrometers and smaller than 10 micrometers in diameter.

“Fine particles,” such as those found in smoke and haze, are 2.5 micrometers in diameter and smaller. These particles can be directly emitted from sources such as forest fires, or they can form when gases emitted from power plants, industries and automobiles react in the air.

These cause an array of health problems including asthma and heart disease but are the easiest to control indoors. If the air outside is highly polluted, keep your windows closed and use an air exchanger or air conditioner with filters you regularly change.

The least obvious but most insidious of the three types of pollutants are microbes. Important to consider when tackling indoor microbes is that you should keep your indoor humidity low. Recommendations are that the humidity (measured by a hygrometer) should be less than 50 percent in summer and less than 30 percent in winter. Fungus grows as mold in high moisture. Fungal spores can trigger asthma attacks and cause respiratory infections in the elderly.

3. Dust Mites are tiny insects that are invisible to the naked eye. Every home has dust mites. They feed on human skin flakes and are found in mattresses, pillows, carpets, upholstered furniture, bedcovers, clothes, stuffed toys and fabric and fabric-covered items. Body parts and feces from dust mites can trigger asthma in individuals with allergic reactions to dust mites, and exposure to dust mites can cause asthma in children who have not previously exhibited asthma symptoms.

Actions You Can Take • Cover mattresses and pillows with dust proof (“allergen-impermeable”) zippered covers. • Wash bedding (sheets, blankets and bedcovers) once per week in hot water. • Choose washable stuffed toys, wash them often in hot water and dry them thoroughly. • Keep stuffed toys off beds. • Maintain low indoor humidity, ideally between 30-50% relative humidity. Humidity levels can be measured by hygrometers which are available at local hardware stores.

Common house dust may contain asthma triggers. When you are treating your house for dust mites, try these simple steps as well.

• Remove dust often with a damp cloth. • Vacuum carpet and fabric-covered furniture to reduce dust build-up. • Using vacuums with high efficiency filters or central vacuums may be helpful. • People with asthma or allergies should leave the area being vacuumed.

Take the EPA “Care for Your Air” Tour

• John P. Lapotaire, CIEC • Certified Indoor Environmental Consultant • Microshield Environmental Services, LLC

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