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The enemy within
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You sit at your desk, lean back, and take a long, relaxing breath. Reclining on your sofa, you inhale deeply and release a sigh of contentment, thinking how safe and healthy you are.

You might want to catch your breath. Indoor air quality is a problem of growing concern among scientists and health officials across the country. In most cases you cannot actually see or smell the problem, which leads to potentially health threatening situations.

Indeed, the perception that all air is healthy is an exacerbation of the problem. In a widely cited study performed by the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, scientists and the general public were each asked to rank the danger of environmental problems to human health.

Whereas the items that topped the scientists’ lists as high risks to human health were ambient air pollution and indoor air quality, indoor air pollution ranked near the bottom of the general public’s perception of risk.

In fact, only 27 percent responded that indoor air quality was a dangerous risk to human healthy. Hazardous waste, oil spills and nuclear waste all were perceived by over 75 percent of the public respondents as higher risks to human health, which conversely ranked low on the scientists’ list.

The quality of indoor air can be degraded by a multitude of sources leading to a multitude of health risks. Contributing to the potential danger is that, on average, Americans spend 90 percent of their time indoors. That results in over 21.5 hours exposed to air that according to the EPA is two to five times as polluted as outside air and is one of the top five environmental risks to public health.

And the World Health Organization, in its 1999 Air Quality Guidelines, states that most of a person’s daily exposure to many air pollutants comes through inhalation of indoor air. Many of these pollutants can cause health reactions in the estimated 17 million Americans who suffer from asthma and contribute to millions of days absent from school and work. This is not refreshing news.

If you cannot see it or smell it, where is this indoor air pollution coming from? Actually, there are a variety of sources of potential household air contaminants (not including pollens and other natural allergy sources) that can be found in the vast majority of households and commercial buildings across the country. Indoor pollution sources that release gases or particles into the air are the primary cause of indoor air quality problems in homes.

Without knowing it, you may be looking at some right now. Paints and primers are a source of indoor air pollutants found in almost every building you walk into. That lasting smell of a freshly painted room is the reason you find a warning on the label of every paint can warning of the need for good ventilation.

Paints contain a variety of chemicals harmful to the human body. Many, in fact, carry the warning label “WARNING: This product contains a chemical known to the state of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.” That new coat of paint in your house is starting to smell a little fishy.

Paints release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) for weeks after they are applied. VOCs are compounds that vaporize at room temperature, and are of a health concern because they react with sunlight and nitrogen in the atmosphere to form ground level ozone, a chemical that has a detrimental effect on human health, agricultural crops, forests, and ecosystems.

Ozone damages lung tissue, reduces lung function, and sensitizes the lungs to other irritants and can cause eye, nose, and throat irritations, headaches, dizziness, visual disorders, and memory impairment. Some are even known to cause cancer in animals; some are suspected of causing, or are known to cause, cancer in humans.

VOCs are present in a assortment of other products that are commonly used in either building construction or maintenance. Carpets, primers, sealants, and adhesives that are used to secure flooring, caulk gaps, and prep surfaces all are sources of volatile organic compounds.

Other sources come from under your sink. All the bottles that may have had the green “Mr. Yuck” symbol on them when you were a child are no better for your health now. Household and glass cleaners are two primary sources that get sprayed throughout houses, often in poorly ventilated, closed spaces. Hobby glues and adhesives also contain high levels of volatile organic compounds.

Another source of indoor air pollution is prevalent in many households. Formaldehyde, a naturally occurring VOC, is often found in fiberglass insulation, and also in carpet adhesives and wooden furniture.

Formaldehyde is carcinogenic and an irritant to most people when present in high concentrations—causing headaches, dizziness, mental impairment, and other symptoms. Houses often have formaldehyde-containing insulation in the floors, walls and ceilings, and sit in office furniture held together by glues emitting it.

Fortunately a host of alternatives exist that can work just as well as the paints, cleaners and insulation that can be poisoning your house or office. When selecting paints and primers for interior paint jobs, look for products marked “low-VOC” or zero-VOC.

As indoor air concerns continue to grow, more and more manufacturers are creating these types of paints. For example, Sherwin Williams Harmony line and Benjamin Moore’s EcoSpec line both contain low or zero VOCs.

A helpful tool is an organization called GreenSeal. Green Seal is a nonprofit organization that promotes the manufacture and sale of environmentally responsible consumer products. There are GreenSeal approved products ranging from paints to cleaners to windows and doors. They also have an approved product list that include office products, lights, carpet and much more. Check the cans of your paints to see if they meet GreenSeal standards, which are 50 mg/L of VOCs for flat paint and 150 mg/L for non-flat. For more information on GreenSeal, visit

Numerous healthy cleaning alternatives exist and can replace most products under your sink. In fact, one bottle of all-purpose cleaner from Seventh Generation can replace your surface cleaner, glass cleaner and disinfectant.

Brighter Day Natural Food store on Park Avenue has a wide selection of green cleaners. This products work as well as traditional chemicals but without the health risks.

Another brand, Simple Green can be found at Home Depot and other area stores, and Target has their own brand of “green” cleaners called Method.

When choosing insulation, look for brands that advertise “formaldehyde-free”. The leader in this field is John Mansfield, which does not use formaldehyde in any of their fiberglass insulation.

Owens-Corning and others offer formaldehyde free options, but make sure you ask for that at the store. Other options, such as cellulose insulation (made from recycled newspaper) and cotton insulation (made from recycled blue jeans) do not contain harmful chemicals and are made from recycled materials, further increasing their “greenness.”


Tommy Linstroth works to promote sustainable development in the

Southeast. He is the Sustainability Associate for Melaver, Inc and can

be reached at