Addressing Indoor Air in Homes, Schools, & Offices: Why Does it Matter?
Air pollution is hard to fend off, no matter where you live. This global crisis is a huge threat to human health and welfare, claiming nearly 4.5 million lives every year.
While most people lose sleep over outdoor air pollution, the unfortunate reality is that indoor air is often just as contaminated. In fact, it may be worse in some cases as indoor air is often up to five times more polluted than outdoor air.
The last thing you’d want is to put you and your family’s health on the line. To prevent this, you must constantly check your indoor air quality and ensure it doesn’t fall beyond safe limits.
In this post, we’ll share a few tips on how to test indoor air quality. But first, let’s take a deeper dive into what it means and how it impacts adult and children.
1. What is Indoor Air Quality?
By definition, Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) measures how the air inside a building affects its residents’ health and comfort.
Given that Americans spend about 90% of their time indoors, it’s easy to see why IAQ is important. Good-quality air that’s free from toxic contaminants is crucial to a robust and hazard-free interior environment.
Usually, IAQ compromises airborne pollutants that get trapped inside poorly ventilated structures. Here are a few elements that can impair indoor air quality.
A) Chemicals and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
Toxic volatile organic compounds from new paint, furnishings and cleaning products may cause severe health problems in children and adults. These chemicals evaporate at room temperature and can easily infiltrate the respiratory system.
B) Biological Contaminants
Biological contaminants like mold release spores to reproduce. These spores spread through the air and are present in almost all indoor spaces. When mold spores land on a damp or water-damaged surface, they can grow within 24-48 hours.
Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that enters residential facilities through cracks and gaps in foundations, doors, or windows. Long-term radon exposure can be extremely dangerous as it is the second leading cause of lung cancer following cigarette smoke. Radon concentrations are generally higher in basements, cellars, and other spaces in contact with the ground.
D) Combustion Pollutants
Fuel-burning appliances such as space heaters, wooden stoves, gas stoves, heaters, dryers, and fireplaces release a variety of toxic gases, including:
- Carbon Monoxide (CO): Infamously known as the ‘silent killer’, carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless, tasteless, and flammable gas that can kill you if not removed in time.
- Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2): Prolonged exposure to nitrogen dioxide can damage your respiratory tract and pave the way for chronic lung diseases.
E) Poor Temperature and Humidity Control
Although humidity isn’t a pollutant itself, it can directly impact your IAQ. High indoor humidity levels encourage mold outbreaks and bacterial growth. On the other hand, low indoor humidity dries out your mucus membranes and causes wood furniture to splinter.
The same applies to indoor temperature. Apart from being a serious health hazard, extreme indoor temperature variations can influence viral and bacterial transmissions.
2. Common Sources of Indoor Air Pollution
Indoor air contaminants can either originate within buildings or migrate from the outside. Let’s start by looking at a few indoor sources:
Besides leaving you prone to frostbite, an underperforming heater can easily sabotage your center’s IAQ. Old furnaces run the risk of releasing dangerous emissions, including carbon monoxide.
B) Air Fresheners
Did you know that most store-bought air fresheners contain toxic pollutants? What seems to be an innocent product is essentially a dangerous mix of formaldehyde, benzene, toluene, phthalates, and more. Think about that the next time you freshen up your center.
C) Cleaning Products
Many conventional home-cleaning solutions use alcohol, chlorine, ammonia, or petroleum-based solvents. Additionally, aerosol sprays, chlorine bleach, and rug cleaners are potent VOC sources.
If you just bought a new carpet, it’s recommended to leave the room vacant for a few days. The infamous ‘new carpet smell’ actually comes from VOCs off-gassing. Having said that, old carpets aren’t all that great either. In most cases, they host dust mites, contaminated dirt, pesticides, and the heavy metals you track in from outside.
You probably wouldn’t expect items like tables and cupboards to affect your IAQ. But as it turns out, they do. Paneling and pressed-wood furniture are known to emit toxic formaldehyde gas. They also contain chemical fire retardants, which create poisonous emissions and soot.
Indoor contaminants aside, several external sources can heavily influence indoor air quality. They include:
- Contaminated outdoor air contains pollen, dust, fungal spores, and industrial pollutants, among other things.
- Exhaust from vehicles, parking lots, or garages
- Unsanitary debris near HVAC systems
- Standing water on rooftops or crawlspaces
- Harmful smoke from chimneys that reenters homes
- Volatile chemicals in water supplies
3. How Does Poor Indoor Air Quality Affect You and Your Family?
Everyone is at risk for indoor air pollution, depending on their health and immediate surroundings. Residents in polluted buildings may also suffer from ‘sick building syndrome’ (SBS), a condition in which spending time indoors leads to acute health problems and discomfort.
However, children are often more vulnerable to the adverse effects of polluted indoor air.
Since children are growing and developing, they have a higher resting metabolic rate and consume more air per unit body weight than adults. Plus, they spend most of their time inside, either in child care centers or at home. This increases their chances of being highly impacted by poor IAQ.
To put things into perspective, here’s how children react to a few common indoor pollutants:
VOCs are a common cause of throat and eye irritation in children. They may also cause:
- Irritated eyes
- Nausea and vomiting
- Allergic reactions
- Worsening of asthma symptoms
- Liver and kidney damage
- Damage to the central nervous system
Perhaps more alarmingly, several VOCs in indoor air have carcinogenic properties and can cause cancer if inhaled in excess.
B) Particulate Matter
Particles measuring less than 2.5 microns in diameter can enter a child’s lungs and bloodstream, effectively leading to:
- Irregular heartbeat
- Aggravated asthma
- Reduced lung function
- Increased respiratory distress
That’s not all. Studies have found that particulate matter may cause neuro-inflammation by damaging the Blood-Brain Barrier (BBB): a delicate membrane protecting the brain against toxic contaminants. This can lead to permanent brain injuries.
C) Carbon Monoxide
Children show signs of CO poisoning sooner than adults. In case the kids at your center complain of the following, you probably have a carbon monoxide leak on your hands.
- Blurred vision, dizziness, and headaches
- Vomiting and loss of appetite
- Troubled breathing
- Weakness and muscle pain
- Chest pain
- Confusion or seizures
- Tremors and trouble walking
- Loss of control on facial muscles
Mold exposure in children can lead to a wide range of devastating consequences. Children who are allergic to mold may experience symptoms such as:
- Congested sinuses
- Dry, hacking cough
- Skin rashes
- Sore throat
- Watery eyes
In more severe cases, toxic black mold can hamper a child’s cognitive function, leading to a slew of neurological issues.
4. How to Test Indoor Air Quality?
As you can see, children are highly sensitive to indoor air pollutants. Consequently, you should never cut corners with your indoor air quality. Monitoring IAQ at regular intervals will help you protect your children and staff in the long run.
If you’re looking for answers on how to test indoor air quality, we have a few suggestions.
A) Invest in an Indoor Air Quality Monitor
An indoor air quality monitor reports on indoor pollution in real-time. Most of these devices test for indoor particulate matter, chemical pollutants, and humidity. Some can also track temperature, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and formaldehyde concentrations.
Depending on the model you choose, an IAQ monitor will alert you to unsafe contaminant levels through an indicator panel or push notifications on your smartphone. This can help you stay on top of your center’s IAQ levels without breaking a sweat!
B) Run a Mold Test
Not all mold is toxic, and most buildings will have some traces of mold. But if your children or staff show signs of black mold illness, or if you spot greenish-black patches around your center, you should conduct a mold test as quickly as possible.
Nipping mold in the bud can save you and your children from a ton of health complications down the line. We recommend reaching out to a professional mold inspection and testing company before seeking remediation.
C) Install a Carbon Monoxide Detector
It’s impossible to identify a CO leak with the naked eye, as it has no smell, visual appearance, or taste. This is where carbon monoxide detectors come in. These safety devices warn people against elevated levels of CO in their homes, helping them escape a potentially life-threatening situation.
If your CO detector starts beeping, evacuate the premises without delay. Call fire services and do not step inside until they give you the all-clear.
D) Check for Radon
There’s a reason why New Jersey laws require child care centers, for example, to test for radon every five years. Like carbon monoxide, radon is completely undetectable.
If you suspect high radon levels in your building, schedule a radon test without delay. Consider letting the professionals at Paul Sakson take on the task. We have the experience and equipment needed to do things right the first time around!
5. How to Improve Indoor Air Quality?
While you have little control over outdoor air pollution, there are plenty of things you can do to improve your indoor air quality.
A) Remove Potential Air Pollutants
The first step is to remove any item that may be degrading your interior air quality. For this, you can store cleaning supplies or other chemicals in a separate space outside your offices and playrooms. Next, make sure there aren’t any unattended paint cans lying around in the storage closet and fix any broken heaters without delay. Remember, a little vigilance can go a long way!
B) Ventilate, Ventilate, Ventilate
Poor ventilation is a key culprit of low IAQ. Unless outdoor air can circulate, it gets trapped inside, which then leads to a buildup of pollen, bacteria, and similar allergens.
You can prevent this by airing out your center as often as you can. Keep the windows open to encourage an exchange of indoor and outdoor air. Also, if possible, install exhaust fans in moisture-rich zones to help them dry faster.
C) Get a Few Houseplants
Apart from acting as great accessories for your classrooms and office spaces, houseplants can help increase oxygen levels and purify the air you breathe. In addition, many houseplants are known to filter out dangerous toxins, VOCs, and chemicals from the air. Think visual appeal combined with functionality!
D) Add a Microfiber Doormat Outside Your Center
It seems easy enough, doesn’t it? But this small change can drastically improve your indoor air quality. Ask your kids and staff to wipe their feet on the doormat before stepping inside the center. Better still, make your center a shoe-free zone. This should keep them from bringing in potentially dangerous outdoor contaminants.
E) Change Your HVAC Filters Regularly
Using HVAC systems is a great way to improve indoor air quality, provided you clean them regularly. Otherwise, the systems can choke and trap air pollutants, further exacerbating the problem. For central HVAC systems, give pre-filters a try.
F) Get Your Carpets and Floor Coverings Cleaned
Since carpets are a breeding ground for dust mites and bacteria, you should get them cleaned to minimize buildup. You can also vacuum them regularly to draw out surface pollutants like dust and pollen.
G) Invest in Aerosol-Free Products
Scentless cleaning products often contain lower amounts of VOCs and fewer pollutants. So, you can try switching your usual cleaners with aerosol-free products to assess the results.
H) Use an Air Purifier
Most air purifiers have paper, mesh, or fiberglass filters that trap and neutralize contaminants in polluted air. While a purifier alone cannot eliminate all indoor pollutants, you can use one to supplement other efforts.
Here are a few other things you can do to control your indoor air quality:
- Forbid parents and staff from smoking around your center. Second-hand smoke can easily travel inside and threaten your indoor air quality.
- Only buy the cleaning agents you need. The fewer number of pollutant-packed substances, the better.
- Leave new curtains out in the open for a while before hanging them. This will help remove the formaldehyde layer.
- Try and keep indoor humidity levels within 30-50%. Use a humidifier or a dehumidifier wherever required.
- Keep windows closed during peak pollen times or when the outdoor pollution is high.
- Check asbestos pipe wraps and furnace insulations for wear and tear. Hire a professional to make repairs immediately.
The Bottom Line
As you’ve probably guessed by now, indoor air pollution is unavoidable. Hence, it’s up to you to take control of your center’s IAQ and ensure clean, breathable air for your children and staff. Hopefully, these tips will help you take a step in the right direction and make the necessary changes!
Still confused about how to test indoor air quality? Leave it to the experts at Paul Sakson Environmental. As veterans in the field, we’ve been conducting indoor air quality tests for child care centers, private schools, and homes across New Jersey. Moreover, we’re aware of state and federal regulations and can help keep you compliant. For more information, call us today!