The problem of smog and other outdoor air pollutants has been tackled head-on by many state and local governments wanting to clean up their towns. What sometimes gets lost in the shuffle, however, is indoor air quality.
Though you don't have to worry about pollutants like car exhaust or coal smoke indoors, other toxins can build up in the air, especially if the building's ventilation is poor. The toxins listed below may not necessarily make you sick in a matter of days, but chronic exposure to them can have devastating health effects. Luckily, a little awareness of the substances and how to dispose of them can help protect the health of everyone under your roof.
Though use of asbestos, a fibrous mineral once prized for its heat resistance, was largely discontinued in the 1980s, many homes built prior to that period still contain significant amounts of asbestos in roofing shingles, ceiling or floor tiles, or insulation. Exposure to asbestos is known to cause lung problems such as pleural plaques, asbestosis, and even mesothelioma, a rare and aggressive cancer of the lining of the chest or abdomen.
Despite these dire health consequences, asbestos is usually not harmful if the material containing it is intact, so if you suspect you have asbestos-containing materials in your home, they may not need to be immediately removed if they are in good condition. However, if they appear damaged or frayed, asbestos fibers can escape into the air, so contact a licensed abatement team to properly remove and dispose of the materials. Though it usually takes between 20 and 50 years after exposure for symptoms to appear, mesothelioma life expectancy is low, and asbestos should be treated with extreme caution.
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) represent a large class of vaporous chemicals, both natural and manmade, that includes formaldehyde, benzene, acetone, chlorofluorocarbons, and many others. These substances can be found in fuels, paints, carpets, cleaning solutions, disinfectants, and even some cosmetics and office equipment. One EPA study showed that VOC levels were two to five times higher indoors than out, and levels can remain high long after the paints or cleaners are put away.
The most common health effects posed by these ubiquitous chemicals include eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, and nausea, though more serious damage to the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system can result as well. Some VOCs, like benzene, have been shown to cause specific types of leukemia. Fortunately, low-VOC or no-VOC alternatives are available for many of these products, including paint and cleansers. When shopping for home repair supplies, ask an employee if the product's packaging is unclear.
Keep in mind that as you are removing these materials from your home (except for asbestos, which should be removed by professionals to avoid the threat of mesothelioma symptoms) that many of them can be recycled. Visit Earth911.com to find a recycling center near your home that will take the material. Even if it can't be recycled, these centers will dispose of it properly so that harmful chemicals are not released into the air, water, or soil.