We spend a staggering 90% of our time indoors.¹ Let’s look at what that means for our mental and physical health.
Why Indoor Air Pollution Levels Matter
Due to restricted ventilation, pollutants concentrate inside buildings. These pollutants don’t only come from outdoors – the majority are created from within.
There are a number of causes of air pollution in our homes, offices, and stores. Thus, we often experience worse air quality indoors than outdoors. Some pollutants are found in concentrations 2 – 5 times higher indoors than outdoors. Other pollutant levels can be 10 to 1,000 times as high after certain pollution causing activities.² These indoor air pollutants have both short-term and long-term effects on our health. Recently, we’re only beginning to understand the effects air pollution has on our brains and cognitive function. The good news is, once we understand where indoor air pollutants are coming from, we can act to minimize and eventually eliminate them.
How Does Indoor Air Quality Affect My Brain?
Indoor air quality affects (or is it e-ffects?!) your brain in a big way. In 2015, a group of researchers at the Harvard University and SUNY Upstate Medical University and Syracuse University performed a revealing study on brain function in relation to indoor air quality. They found that there was significant impairment in subjects’ cognitive development when air quality was compromised.
The group’s method included creating three test atmospheres. They created atmospheres to simulate workspaces in a conventional building (which has a higher level of VOCs), a green certified building (which has a lower level of VOCs), and a green certified building with enhanced outdoor ventilation. Twenty-four participants spent six full work days from 9 am – 5 pm in these different conditions – without any knowledge of which conditions they were in each day. The results are significant. On average, when participants spent days in the green certified workspace with a lower level of VOCs, their cognitive performance scored 61% higher than days they were in a less ventilated workspace. On days participants spent in the better ventilated green workspace, they clocked in with cognitive scores that were an average of 101% higher than days spent in a conventional space. Take a look at the full study here.
Further studies to examine the connection between air pollution and other neurological effects such as dementia are underway.
So now that you know how indoor air quality a-ffects you, what steps can you take to improve your environment?
How Does Indoor Air Quality Affect My Body?
Beyond affecting your brain, air pollution is detrimental to your body in two main ways: through your respiratory (breathing) and vascular (blood) systems. Particulate matter and many types of VOCs can be very disruptive to these two systems.
Air pollution is suspected to be the cause of 30% of all strokes. This is due to increasing prevalance of particulate matter and gasses including ozone and nitrogen dioxide in the air. As we have learned, particulate matter in the air and gases such as ozone and nitrogen dioxide have a negative effect on our bodies. Namely, exposure to these air pollutants cause oxidative stress and inflammation of the vascular system. The vascular system is what carries our blood throughout our body.
Where Does Indoor Air Pollution Come From?
Indoor air pollution comes from building materials, furniture, cooking, heating, appliances, cleaning products, and us. Here we’ll touch on a few of the most common indoor pollutants and their sources.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) is a term that describes one of the most common forms of indoor air pollution. This term describes chemicals that contain carbon and vaporize easily. Not vaporize as in disappear, but vaporize as in become a gas and enter the surrounding air. There are both natural and manmade VOCs. Usually, if we’re exposed to VOCs at low levels for short periods of time, we won’t see big effects. But VOCs are most concentrated indoors and as we now know, we spend 90% of our time indoors.
VOCs emit from:
- coatings and solvents such as paint, protective films, & laminates
- fossil fuels (both directly, such as gas, and indirectly from emissions)
- beauty products such as aerosol sprays
- building material and furniture including sofas and beds
Let’s explore three of the more common VOCs.
Benzene – a VOC that is a known carcinogen – comes from:
- tobacco smoke
- stored supplies such as paint and fuel
- vehicle exhaust from garages attached to homes
Perchloroethylene (perc) is a chemical that causes respiratory problems to humans. It is also a known carcinogen. Commercial dry cleaners use perc more than any other chemical. Significant levels of the hazardous chemical remain in the clothing after cleaning. When you bring the dry cleaned clothing into your car and home, you’re bringing the perc with it. Perc off-gasses from dry cleaned clothing long after the cleaning process and actually accumulates the chemical every time it goes through the process.
Formaldehyde is another VOC that is a known carcinogen. Exposure to the chemical also causes a number of short-term health issues including severe headaches, nose bleeds, and respiratory problems. Formaldehyde can be in:
- paints, paint thinner, glues, sealants, and stains
- furniture and textiles including: carpeting, curtains, couches, and beds
- installations made with particle board such as cabinets, shelving, and counters
How to Improve the Indoor Air Quality of Your Home
First, identify sources of indoor pollutants. If the source is something you can easily remove from your home, then do so. Otherwise, make sure to get plenty of fresh air and ventilate the indoor space frequently. If you’re interested in testing the indoor air quality in your home to track improvements, purchase a handheld air quality monitor. Use the monitor to test the air while you’re making changes in your home.
In addition to removing sources, you can use air purifiers to clean the air in your indoor space. Just like pollutants, purifiers can be both natural and artificial. There are a number of quality air purifying appliances on the market now. But before reaching for another appliance to plug in, try using natural air filters: houseplants.
¹European Commission (2003): Indoor air pollution: new EU research reveals higher risk than previously thought
²US Environmental Protection Agency: Indoor Air Quality (IAQ)