During my teen years, I worked part-time at a new car dealership. During my breaks I would sit inside the new cars because I loved that new car smell. Many years later, I found out what I was enjoyably smelling was really the out-gassing of harmful volatile organic compounds (VOC) from the new carpeting, plastics and other materials that make up new vehicle interiors. These same types of potentially harmful emissions often occur in our own homes when we make uneducated decisions in the selection of building materials, products, furniture, furnishings and especially household cleaning products. Unfortunately, people with disabilities such as spinal-cord injury or disease (SCI/D) often have compromised immune systems. This can make them more susceptible to the harmful effects of VOCs, pollutants, mold spores and certain bacteria.

The Sick Home

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Research and Development’s “Total Exposure Assessment Methodology Study” found levels of about a dozen common organic pollutants to be two to five times higher inside homes than outside (epa.gov/iaq/voc.html). It’s scary to think the air in our own homes could actually be worse than what we breathe outside.

Getting sick at home by doing nothing more than breathing can sound a bit off, but it’s something the American Lung Association (ALA) says can happen. The ALA Web page on Indoor Air Quality states, “Poor indoor air quality can cause or contribute to the development of infections, lung cancer and chronic lung diseases such as asthma. In addition, it can cause headaches, dry eyes, nasal congestion, nausea and fatigue” (lung.org/associations/ charters/mid-atlantic/air-quality/ indoor-air-quality.html).

It’s really not that hard to see how this can happen when you think about it. Besides the potential VOCs from household cleaners, plastics and other items found in the home, simple daily activities can add up to possible air problems.

Daily living inside most homes generates moisture from cooking, washing, bathing and showering. This moisture can condense on windows and walls, becoming a breeding ground for mold, mildew, fungi, mites and bacteria.

The mold spores and dust easily become airborne and circulate freely throughout our home, often resulting in allergic reactions and other harmful health challenges.

Keeping all that dirty air in mind, it’s easy to see why doing what you can to keep it as clean as possible can help you stay healthier.

Make a Healthy Home

There are several things you can do to help keep the air in your home as clean as possible.

  • Have your home inspected for mold, especially around windows, and in the bathrooms, kitchen, etc. If any is found, have it removed.
  • Seal air leaks between your attic and the conditioned interior space of your home.
  • Select low- or no-VOC materials and products such as flooring, carpeting, paints, furniture, furnishings and cabinetry that collect minimal dust and dirt and can be easily cleaned.
  • Consider buying high-quality and reasonably-priced contract or commercial grade carpeting that is low in VOCs, wheelchair user-friendly and also has a great waterproof backing in case of accidental bladder-bag spillage.
  • Use motion-sensing or moisture sensing bathroom wall switches with motion- and moisture-sensing features that run long enough to remove mold-producing moisture after you have showered or bathed.
  • Install a quality, energy efficient, energy recovery ventilator unit or heat recovery ventilator unit to bring in clean-filtered, outside air while also removing stale and contaminated inside air.
  • Have periodic heating and cooling system filters changed at least every three to four months, using only high-quality, “high efficiency” replacement filters. Consider periodic professional air duct cleaning and make sure all duct seams are properly sealed.
  • Check out the labels on the products you plan to buy. We tend to overlook sources of harmful VOC’s in some personal care items such as hairsprays and room fresheners.
  • Choose non-toxic cleaning products in non-aerosol containers, such as soap and water, vinegar, lemon and baking soda. When you have no choice but to use harsher cleaning products, be certain to open a window, and where possible, run a nearby exhaust fan until all of the harmful air contaminants are removed.
  • Wash bed linens regularly in hot water of at least 120 degrees to kill dust mites. Consider an allergen free, full mattress cover and pad.

Do I Have a Problem?

When it comes to figuring out if you’re having trouble with your indoor air quality there are a few things to watch. Check for condensation on window interiors, dampness under sink cabinetry, stuffy air and musty odors, visual mildew and mold and uncomfortable chemical odors. Be especially aware of ongoing breathing and sinus discomfort or illness. All too often what may seem like the flu, a cold or allergies may instead be the result of poor indoor air quality.