National studies have shown that air pollution in our homes can be more of a health concern than air pollution outside. Indoor pollutant levels may, in fact, be many times higher than outdoor levels. There are three main reasons why indoor air quality is becoming more of a health concern:
- Compared to many years ago, we spend more time indoors. In the U.S., it is estimated that people today spend up to 90% of their time indoors.
- There has been a large increase in the use of human-made building materials and furnishings, as well as household cleaning, personal care, and pesticide products that contain chemicals.
- Over the past few decades, homes and other buildings have been made “tighter” to save on energy use and costs.
An indoor air pollutant is a substance in the air that may affect the health of people who live in the home. Pollutants could come from outside the home—such as an idling car engine in an attached garage, backyard trash burning, or radon entering the house from the ground below. An air pollutant could also come from inside the home—such as carbon monoxide from a faulty furnace, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from a freshly painted room, secondhand smoke, mold growing on damp or wet carpeting, or chemicals from hobbies, household cleaning, or personal care products. Bacteria and viruses, pet dander, and insect parts (dust mites or roaches) are other possible indoor air pollutants.
Breathing air pollutants can lead to allergic and asthmatic reactions, infections, and other health problems that involve the lungs, nose, and throat. For example, pet cats, caged birds and rodents, and dogs can produce dander and other particles that can trigger allergic reactions or asthma symptoms in some people. Secondhand smoke is also harmful to people, especially children.
Exposure to other indoor air pollutants—such as carbon monoxide—can result in headaches, nausea, vomiting, brain damage, and even death. Exposure to radon may increase the risk of lung cancer. Exposure to VOCs may affect the lungs, brain, and nervous system.
The possible health effects depend on the amount of the pollutant inhaled, the length of time the person is exposed, family history, and age and general health of the person. Babies and young children may be especially sensitive, in part because their organs and immune systems are not fully developed. Older people may also be more sensitive to certain pollutants.
- Vermont Asthma Program
- Quit Smoking and Tobacco
- Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
- Consumer Product Safety Commission
- Indoor Air Quality—Environmental Protection Agency
- Indoor Air Quality and Your Health—Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- National Environmental Health Association
- Indoor Air Quality Testing Firms—The Health Department has a list of firms that offer indoor air quality testing using either their own or other labs. It is not a complete list, and inclusion on the list is not a recommendation or endorsement by the Vermont Department of Health. Indoor air testing can be an expensive process. In many cases, the results will show that there are pollutants in the home. However, these results may be confusing to the homeowner because they may not reveal the right information needed to solve the problem that was being tested for. Visit the EPA's Indoor Air Quality website for more information.