The Inside Scoop on Indoor Air Pollution

Indoor air pollution caused by volatile gases escaping from consumer products was an unrecognized problem until recently. Now it's a known hazard, and you can do something about it.
By Destinée-Chariss Royal
December 1998/January 1999
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Long out of public awareness, the problem of indoor air pollution has recently drawn attention from both private groups and federal regulators.
ILLUSTRATION: RODNEY A. OKYNE


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You've got the sniffles. Your eyes are watery and you've got a sore throat, too. But, hey, it's winter; what else can you expect in the thick of cold and flu season, right?

Maybe. But while you're downing zinc lozenges and chicken soup, consider this: eye, nose, and throat irritations, wheezing, coughing, skin rashes, and severe allergic reactions may result from extensive exposure to indoor air pollution. Elevated levels of indoor air pollution have also been linked to headaches, dizziness, and fatigue.

Think you're not at risk 'cause you live where the air is fresh and clean? Think again. Recent studies have shown that the air within homes (even country homes) and other buildings can actually be more seriously polluted than the outdoor air in even the largest cities. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) counts indoor air pollution among the five most urgent environmental problems facing the United States. But there are ways to combat indoor air pollution. And at least one organization, the New York-based Mothers & Others for a Livable Planet (M&O), is committed to showing you how.

A national nonprofit advocacy group started in 1989 by actress Meryl Streep, M&O is dedicated to teaching consumers — and particularly women, who do much of the household buying — how to shop "green."

"Consumers can [prompt] environmental changes through their pocketbooks and by making manufacturers aware of their environmental concerns," says Aisha Ikramuddin, research editor of M&O's The Green Guide, a monthly newsletter, designed to raise consumer awareness of toxic products and their eco-friendly alternatives, that goes out to the group's 35,000 members.

The Green Guide recently tackled the issue of indoor air pollution — a problem exacerbated during the winter months when windows and doors are shut tight against the cold. "The big problem in winter is that there is not good ventilation," says Ikramuddin, who notes that today's homes are being made increasingly airtight to conserve energy — trapping not only heat, but also potentially harmful pollutants. "It's a tradeoff," admits Ikramuddin. "If you open your windows, you improve ventilation and air quality, but you lose energy efficiency."

Among the biggest indoor-air-polluting culprits identified by M&O are pressed-wood products like plywood and particleboard, which are assembled using urea-formaldehyde (UF) glues and adhesives. Formaldehyde has been deemed a probable human carcinogen by the EPA. It's also a known irritant that can cause or exacerbate allergic reactions. Nevertheless, it continues to be widely used to manufacture construction materials and household furniture and is commonly found in cabinets and paneling, walls, floors, textiles, and roofs. Formaldehyde is also used to produce permanent-press clothing and curtains, as well as to preserve some paints. All of these products can "offgas" formaldehyde, contributing to poor indoor air quality.

"All of us are exposed to a certain amount of formaldehyde everyday," says George Semeniuk, EPA Formaldehyde Project Manager in the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics. "What concerns us are elevated levels."

Perhaps the scariest thing about indoor air pollution is that you don't have to do anything in particular to put yourself in harm's way. Just going about your daily business is enough. The chairs on which you sit, the desk at which you work, and the kitchen in which you eat are all possible sources of formaldehyde.

Because formaldehyde and other indoor air pollutants can induce symptoms that look very much like the common cold or flu, faulty diagnoses are not uncommon. To avoid this pitfall, the EPA's Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) division recommends that you pay particular attention to where and when you experience symptoms. If you find yourself sniffling or coughing only after you come indoors, you may want to start investigating your home for possible contaminants.

Improve Your Indoor Air

While as individuals each of us may not be able to have a huge impact on the outdoor air we breathe, we can control the quality of air under our own roofs.

To lower your risk of exposure to formaldehyde, increase ventilation in your home. Use humidifiers to maintain moderate temperature and humidity levels, as hot moist air can intensify formaldehyde offgassing, worsening conditions.

Another way to rid your home of irritants is through source control. Says Semeniuk, "You take away the irritant, and the symptoms should disappear."

Fortunately, there are a growing number of alternatives to plywood and particleboard. "New products are coming out everyday," says Ikramuddin. Whether you are building a house from scratch, making light renovations, or simply redecorating, you can make your indoor air more breathable.

M&O suggests that you choose certified-sustainable hardwood furniture and cabinetry that uses stainless steel drawer bottoms, salvaged wood, UF-free fiberboard, or baked-enamel metal, all of which emit less chemical vapor than traditional pressed-wood materials. If you do buy plywood products, look for an "exterior glue" stamp, indicating that it contains phenol formaldehyde (PF), which offgasses at a slower rate than UF. Low- and non-VOC adhesives, sealants, and grouts can be used to prevent harmful emissions from painted or varnished surfaces. (VOCs are man-made chemicals that evaporate readily.)

A Concerted Effort

While Mothers & Others may be among the more vocal opponents of indoor air pollution in general and formaldehyde use in particular, the group is not alone in its worry. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has also shown concern over indoor air quality and exposure to UF glues, and it has taken steps to protect individuals at high risks — specifically, people who live in prefabricated and mobile homes. Because of the relatively small interior space and the large volume of pressed-wood products used in their construction, these homes have historically been plagued by elevated levels of formaldehyde. To remedy the problem, HUD passed regulations as early as 1985 requiring that all plywood and particleboard used in the construction of such homes meet special formaldehyde-emission limits.

Many private businesses have also voluntarily modified the way that they make their furniture products. But the unfortunate fact is that far more continue to use formaldehyde-based glues indiscriminately. Why? Says Ikramuddin, "They don't think it's a problem!"


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