6 Pollutants That Can Harm You Over Time
When you think “pollution,” you likely think about what occurs outside your front door. The reality is that pollution occurs inside and out. It’s time we take a closer look at common air pollutants.
What Are Pollutants?
The Clean Air Act requires the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for six common air pollutants, or criteria air pollutants.
Common outdoor pollutants include nitrogen dioxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, ground-level ozone, and methane.
But it’s not just what’s outside your home that matters. Many pollutants take up residence inside your home and largely go unnoticed — yet can lead to serious health issues over time.
From setting off indoor allergies to triggering asthma, pollutants simply aren’t welcome guests.
How Are Pollutants Classified?
Pollutants can be divided into three main categories based on an ecological viewpoint. These categories include pollutants that are degradable, slowly degradable, and non-degradable. Pollutants can also be categorized as either quantitative or qualitative.
Quantitative pollutants refer to naturally-occurring substances that become pollutants of concern due to human activities, increasing concentration. In other words, our own daily activities can contribute to quantitative pollutants.
Carbon dioxide is a common example of a quantitative pollutant — think of smog due to motor vehicle emissions and fossil fuel consumption in urban areas.
Qualitative pollutants are non-naturally occurring pollutants, such as insecticides. These types of pollutants can be further broken down into primary and secondary pollutants.
Primary pollutants remain as they were when first released, whereas secondary pollutants result from chemical interactions that form new pollutants.
This can get confusing and complex, so today we’ll focus on common indoor air pollutants that the average person might find inside their home — and the health effects that can occur as a result.
1. Biological Pollutants
Biological contaminants can range from some of the smallest organisms, like bacteria, mold, and fungi, all the way to common pests, such as lice and cockroaches. Levels of these contaminants can rise due to increases in humidity or moisture resulting from sources like standing water, low-quality ventilation, and poor ambient air.
Other impacts on air quality can include particulate matter from our pets, such as dander or airborne protein from dried pet urine. These air pollutants are small enough to be inhaled and may adversely affect human health.
Initially, these pollutants may only cause a mild allergic reaction, but over time, they can severely impact mental and cardiovascular health.
2. Home Furnishings
The Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, states that people spend nearly 90% of their time indoors, so manufacturing methods and exposure to specific furnishings may be a public health concern.
Manufacturers are not always required to state what chemicals were used to make their furnishings. Some manufacturers use different solvents that emit volatile organic compounds (VOC), such as formaldehyde, to help construct certain pieces, such as particle boards — and these VOCs are possible carcinogens.
Some companies test off-gassing to help produce low-emission furniture and minimize health risks.
Look for Greenguard Certification, for example, to see if a piece you’re considering meets their low off-gassing criteria.
You can also browse SPOT and view the certifications awarded to a specific product.
And, for the ultimate sustainability, consider buying used furniture — it’s better for the environment and furniture doesn’t just end up in another landfill.
Second-hand furniture will have off-gassed its manufacturing product and won’t continue leaching hazardous chemicals into your home. However, note that some products can leach noxious gasses into the air for years, so it’s still best to do your research to ensure your home’s safety.
Lead is one of the most toxic heavy metals — and even though initiatives took the lead out of gasoline, the many years of vehicle emissions have caused lead to stick around in the soil in many regions. These leaded areas disrupt ecosystems and, when disturbed, can become airborne.
That said, the most common cause of lead-based indoor air pollution is actually old lead-based paint. When lead paint is either scratched, sanded, or exposed to high heat or flame, it has the potential to become airborne — at which point it can be accidentally ingested due to flakes or dust coming into contact with the mouth. Fortunately, lead content has been heavily regulated in the last decades.
4. Carbon Monoxide (CO)
Carbon monoxide is a colorless and odorless gas that is one of the most dangerous pollutants. Carbon monoxide is highly toxic, even at low concentrations.
While a carbon monoxide detector can alert you of rising CO levels, you’ll need to keep your CO detector up to date and be sure to swap out the batteries once or twice a year.
And even when you do just that, there may still be sources of carbon monoxide in your home.
CO is a by-product of combustion, so whenever something burns, CO can accumulate. Several appliances can generate carbon monoxide, including gas stoves, clothes dryers, and water heaters.
Keeping your home well-ventilated is a great first step, and regularly inspecting and performing maintenance on your appliances can also help minimize the risks.
5. Indoor Particulate Matter
Indoor particulate matter (indoor PM) is sort of an umbrella term for complex solid or liquid particles suspended in the air. Indoor PM is measured at 10 micrometers or smaller and is constantly inhaled.
Although tiny, these pollutants are a significant concern for human health because they can affect the lungs and enter the bloodstream, increasing the risk of cardiovascular health issues. Both inorganic and organic sources can cause indoor PM, and it is easily found in all indoor spaces.
6. Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
Various indoor sources can off-gas volatile organic compounds, and concentrations of VOCs are typically higher indoors than they are outdoors. VOCs include compounds such as formaldehyde, benzene, and toluene.
VOCs can be emitted by furniture, paints, paint strippers, and cleaning supplies. While not always the case, the higher volatility of VOCs can be a fire hazard in certain cases. If a VOC is combustible, it can burst into flames even at low concentrations.
VOCs are particularly harmful because they can lead to both short-term and long-term health effects. This means that you don’t need to be exposed to a VOC for very long before it affects you. And in some cases, the damage can get very serious.
While short-term effects of VOCs can include momentary symptoms like difficulty breathing, dizziness, and nausea, chronic exposure to VOCs can lead to organ damage, chronic headaches and nausea, and even life-threatening illness later in life.
Additionally, indoor concentrations of VOCs are reported to be two to five times higher than outdoor concentrations. Not only are you exposed to pollutants in your own home, but the air in your home is likely more harmful than the air outside.
How Can You Minimize the Effects of Indoor Pollution?
Open Your Windows
One of the easiest ways to prevent the accumulation of pollutants is to have good ventilation in your indoor spaces. A regular exchange of indoor and outdoor air can help balance concentrations that build up in most contained spaces, provided the outside air is nice and clean.
Opening your windows, running fans, and checking your filters for any particulate matter buildup or growth can minimize indoor pollution. If you're using any kind of tool or equipment that emits fumes, take it outside to minimize your risks.
It’s generally best practice to open your windows as wide as they can go for at least 20 minutes a day.
However, even this isn’t enough to meaningfully improve your indoor air quality, as recent studies suggest that the level of VOC shoots back up shortly after you close your windows. And, since opening your windows allows harmful pollutants from outside air to enter your home, you can only get down to outdoor pollution levels, which is still high in many urban environments.
Only opening your window in the early morning or late evening when outdoor pollution tends to dip, but ultimately you will need a more efficient and effective solution.
When dealing with biological pollutants, keeping an eye on humidity and the mold growth that can come with it is key. Bacteria thrive in high humidity and damp environments, and when the right growing conditions include heat, harmful bacteria can rapidly spin out of control.
Increasing ventilation and using dehumidifiers can decrease the likelihood of mold and fungal growth — both of which are major allergens for many people. Keeping your home clean can also help you minimize mold or fungal growth.
Use Organic Products
Instead of using inorganic, chemical-filled, and potentially toxic products for cleaning or household maintenance, opt for more natural and organic alternatives.
To help fight climate change and to improve indoor air and human health in the process, many companies are developing new ways to improve and create sustainable cleaning products.
More green and environmentally-friendly cleaners and other products are available than ever. However, it should be noted that not all products that are currently marketed as “organic” are also free of harmful VOCs. Scented products and other “natural” cleaners may still contain various VOCs. Read the labels carefully, and look for Toxic Free, Made Safe, or general non-toxic certifications.
Consider Air Purifying Plants
If you want to continue on the green and natural route, look no further than Neoplants to help purify and clean the air in your home. We know what you’re thinking — don’t regular houseplants do that?
While there are many studies that prove that plants do possess some capacity to remediate air pollution, called phytoremediation, these are done in small static containers and do not translate well to real life environments.. Long story short, conventional houseplants simply don’t have the filtration power to effectively purify the air in a typical indoor environment.
The future of plants is here — Neoplants are good for the world and gorgeous in your home, and they work hard to recycle some of the most dangerous pollutants.
The Bottom Line
No matter where you go, it’s impossible to escape pollution. Fortunately, you do have the ability to improve your own indoor living spaces. Be the first in line to meet Neoplants — the world’s first bio-engineered plants created to help fight air pollution inside and out up to 30 times better than the best plants tested by the NASA Clean Air study. Neo P1 helps take harmful VOCs and turn them into water, sugar, amino acids, and oxygen — that’s one powerful plant.
Intrigued? We don’t blame you. Check out the Neoplants blog to learn more, and join the waiting list to be the first in the know to pre-order Neo P1.
Summary of the Clean Air Act | US EPA
Biological Pollutants' Impact on Indoor Air Quality | US EPA
Lead & Health | California Air Resources Board
Carbon Monoxide (CO) Poisoning in Your Home | Minnesota Department of Health
Indoor Particulate Matter | U.S. EPA
Toxic VOCs and Confined Space Entry | Occupational Health & Safety
Scented Products Emit a Bouquet of VOCs | PMC
Air Pollution and Cardiovascular Disease Basics | US EPA
What are volatile organic compounds (VOCs)? | US EPA