A friend recently wrote in an article: “When I was a kid, I used to hang out of the car window to smell the gasoline as my dad was pumping it into our family car (which might explain a few things!). My mom was not a toxicologist, so she had no idea I was getting a whiff of a chemical mixture that includes benzene, which is now known to be a human carcinogen and quite harmful to human health. Since then I have come to learn enough about toxicology to be quite concerned about it.”

Then there is that seductive “new car smell” most of us love, which is really the out-gassing of harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs) or chemicals from the new carpeting, plastics, and other materials new-vehicle interiors are made of, and can be quite harmful to our health.

This same type of potentially harmful emissions very often occurs in our own homes when we make uneducated decisions in the selection of home improvement materials, products, furniture, furnishings, and especially household cleaning products that emit dangerous chemical out-gassing into the poorly ventilated indoor air we breathe.

Indoor Air Pollutants

Most people spend more than half their entire lifetime in their home. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that levels of indoor air pollution are conservatively often three to eight times higher (and often substantially more) than outside air. Sometimes the poor quality of indoor air in many homes far exceeds polluted outside air quality on a bad smog day. The American Lung Association stated that a vast majority of us are not conscious of the often high levels of indoor air pollutants in our own living environments.

Daily living inside today’s tight homes generates moisture from cooking, washing, showering, and breathing. This moisture can condense on windows, cause structural deterioration, and become a breeding ground for mold, mildew, fungi, dust mites, and bacteria. The mold spores and dust easily become airborne and circulate freely throughout the house, often causing allergic reactions and a range of other harmful symptoms.

The significance of indoor air quality has recently become very important as we build new and remodel existing homes that are more airtight and energy-efficient. If your home is new, many of the products it is made of often off-gas injurious chemicals that negatively affect your comfort and good health. The combination of indoor air pollutants and tighter homes makes it necessary that we select very low or no VOC-producing materials and products, and also install proper equipment to bring in a continuous supply of fresh, filtered air while also removing the stale pollutant-laden indoor air.

It is important to note that many of us, who have some form of disability, also have compromised immune systems. We are, most often, far more susceptible to the harmful effects of air contaminants, pollutants, mold spores, and certain bacteria.

Select Products Carefully

Building practices will make a big difference in your home when building new or remodeling, but so will the new materials and products you use, such as your selection of remodeling materials and products, your smoking habits, your efforts to control mold-producing humidity, and your choices in daily cleaning products. The simplest ways to ensure clean indoor air are to keep pollutants out of your home, control moisture, and ensure proper ventilation.

Following are some of the things you can immediately do:

- Choose materials and products with low or no VOCs or pollutants that can make you sick! Select low or no VOC producing building products and materials such as flooring, carpeting, paints, finishes, and cabinetry that are readily available.

- Select an energy-efficient kitchen exhaust fan and similar bathroom exhaust fans with correct air-flow capacity and a time-delay shut-off feature that will run long enough to remove mold producing moisture after you have showered or bathed and left your bathroom.

- Install a quality, energy-efficient, energy recovery ventilator (ERV) unit or heat recovery ventilator (HRV) 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 a professional duct cleaning, and make sure all duct seams are properly sealed.

- Look at the contents stated on the labels of the products you plan to buy. Often overlooked sources of harmful VOCs include personal-care items such as hair sprays, and some room fresheners.

- Choose nontoxic cleaning products in nonaerosol 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 harmful air contaminants are removed.

- Select flooring products such as tight loop or short cut pile carpeting, hardwood, and hard-surface flooring that collect minimal dust and dirt and can be easily cleaned. Dust, damp mop, and vacuum frequently using a HEPAtype vacuum to remove dust that harbors dust mites and unhealthy allergens.

- Wash bed linens regularly in hot water—at least 120° F—to kill dust mites. Consider an allergen-free full mattress pad.

Rest assured that no home’s air is perfectly clean. So, how do you know if you have indoor air quality (IAQ) problems? Check for condensation on window interiors, stuffy air and musty odors, mildew and mold, sharp chemical odors…and especially be aware of ongoing occupant discomfort or illness. All too often what might seem like the flu or allergies may instead be the result of poor indoor air quality!

Make certain you have proper ventilation and make careful selections of interior materials, products, and daily household cleaners that are free of harmful and often toxic chemicals and fumes, to assure you have a “healthy home.”