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Improving Indoor Air Quality

Sometimes the air inside is worse than the air outside. Although experts, like the ones in Southern California during the recent wildfires, suggest citizens stay inside rather than expose themselves to harsh outdoor air conditions, individuals may face similar air conditions inside their homes.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), indoor air quality is usually much worse than outdoor air. Sometimes indoor air can be two to five times more polluted than the outdoors. Culprits of poor indoor air quality are flooring, furnishings, poor cleaning, and poor ventilation.

Many traditional products like bookcases and upholstered furniture outgas dangerous fumes into the interior of a home. Finishes, sealers, adhesives, and some fabrics contain chemicals such as benzene, toluene, formaldehyde, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that contribute to poor indoor air quality. Some of these compounds have been known to cause a variety of health problems including cancer.

Furniture out-gassing, or off-gassing, can last from a few weeks to many years, and exposes consumers and their families to dangerous chemicals that can potentially lead to chronic health conditions. Without proper ventilation, these gases contribute up to 60% of the air in a closed environment. Paint, floors, furniture, rugs and even clothes contribute to the polluted indoor air.

Many of the chemicals used in manufacturing furniture and building materials are relatively untested as to their long-term health effects. Indoor air quality (IAQ) is becoming a larger topic due to these unknowns. Individuals suffering from chronic headaches, sensitivities, nausea, and other seemingly common complaints are finding that their home’s poor indoor air quality may play a significant role in their health problems.

Manufacturers are beginning to realize the problems associated with some of the traditional chemicals and consumers are demanding more choices. Paint manufacturers, for example, are creating low-VOC paints and flooring now comes in formaldehyde-free finishes.

Although VOCs are common, formaldehyde is the most common indoor air pollutant and is used in the binding elements in plywood, particleboard, and medium density fiberboard. These products are used in everything from basic walls to cabinetry, bookcases, furniture, and flooring. Due to the negative health effects associated with formaldehyde, the California Air Resources Board capped the use of urea formaldehyde in home products. The cap will go into effect in 2009.

Even “green” products might contain some formaldehyde. A cork veneer, widely used by architects, was found to have formaldehyde levels that were 30 times the recommended limits set by the state of California. Although cork is generally considered a renewable resource, the high levels of formaldehyde needed to bind the material were deemed unsafe.

Besides formaldehyde, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) also create major health hazards in both office and residential spaces. These carbon-based chains turn into gases at room temperature and mix with the air, decreasing indoor air quality. Although many “green” paints claim to have no or low levels of VOCs, the compounds used in the paints in lieu of VOCs might also outgas and cause indoor air pollution. Some paints, for example, use glycols as opposed to volatile organic compounds. Although glycols are not considered hazardous in the paint, they do eventually evaporate and become a hazard to inhabitants of the space. Basically, manufacturers can say that paints are low in volatile organic compounds but they might still be off-gassing other chemicals.

Another pollutant, semivolatile organic compounds (SVOCs), have a higher boiling point, but can still cause birth defects, cancer, damage to nervous systems, and other problems according to the EPA. Because they are difficult to analyze, SVOCs are generally ignored.

According to Levin, a consultant with the World Health Organization, SVOCs can pose an even greater threat than VOCs due to their higher boiling point. Although these compounds may not penetrate the air as heavily as VOCs, SVOCs tend to outgas more slowly, sticking to floors, furniture, and clothing and remaining in the surroundings for longer periods of time.

Newer homes have a greater potential to outgas chemicals and cause more indoor air pollution. New building materials need to outgas chemicals and the newer the materials, the stronger the off-gassing. Newer homes also tend to be less drafty and more energy-efficient, creating a greater opportunity for these VOCs and air pollutants to circulate within the home. Although better ventilation prevents heat and air conditioning from escaping, it also helps keep air pollutants inside.

Healthy building choices can make a big difference. Approximately 13% of the population has chemical sensitivities to their surroundings and an even greater number can feel slight effects from the off-gassing of products. Although some of these changes can be more expensive, they ultimately make a home safer and greatly improve indoor air quality.

The ex-Dodger Brent Mayne recently renovated a home and made building decisions that were safer for his family. When it was finished he said that his wife slept better, his children felt healthier and the heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) system has provided them with clean air. During the recent wildfires in California, Mayne was able to retreat to the clean, healthy air inside his own home. The choices he made during the building process combined with an efficient HVAC system provides him with a safe breathing oasis.

Resource article:  http://www.latimes.com/features/home/la-hm-air15nov15,0,6333956.story?coll=la-home-middleright