5 Dangerous Indoor Air Pollutants and How to Avoid Them

carbon monoxide from a gas stoveCertain kinds of homes can be particularly vulnerable to some of the most damaging forms of indoor air pollution.

These are airborne contaminants that you can’t see or smell, yet exposure to them can cause serious disease and greatly reduce your quality of life.

Learn about 5 of the most dangerous types of household pollutants ahead, how they get into the air inside your house or apartment, negative health effects and how to avoid them.

1. Carbon Monoxide

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a highly toxic and potentially deadly gas. It is colorless, odorless and tasteless, but breathing it in impairs blood oxygenation and can lead to a wide variety of health problems.

Even in small amounts, carbon monoxide exposure can cause the following symptoms:

  • Headaches and mental fatigue.
  • Nausea, dizziness and disorientation.
  • Muscle weakness and impaired motor control.
  • Blurred vision and pain behind the eyes.
  • Stress, anxiety and sleeplessness.

Ongoing low level exposure to carbon monoxide can cause permanent physical and neurological damage. High levels in a confined space can even lead to unconsciousness and death.

Clearly, carbon monoxide is not something you want polluting the air in your home, but where does it come from?

Potential Sources of Carbon Monoxide in or Around Your Home

  • Gas appliances, like ovens and gas burners, water heaters, furnaces and dryers.
  • Kerosene heaters and small room space heaters.
  • Wood-burning stoves and fireplaces.
  • Coal and charcoal grills and stoves.
  • Tobacco smoke from cigarettes, pipes and cigars.
  • Car exhaust fumes from the garage, driveway or passing traffic.
  • Lawnmowers, generators and other equipment and tools powered by gas.

How to Prevent Indoor Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Carbon monoxide is one of the most dangerous kinds of indoor air pollution, especially because you can’t smell it and there are no obvious signs until it’s already doing damage.

Follow these important precautions to limit your risk of carbon monoxide exposure:

  • Always use a range hood to ventilate your kitchen if you cook with a gas burner. Studies regularly show carbon monoxide levels above the 9 ppm safe limit recommended by the EPA in unventilated kitchens using gas hot plates.
  • Ensure all heating appliances are properly installed and fully vented to the outdoors. Furnaces and heating systems should be cleaned and checked yearly.
  • Never sleep in a bedroom with an unvented kerosene or gas heater. You may not wake up again.
  • During a power outage do not use unvented heating appliances. Gas ovens, camp stoves, kerosene lanterns or other fuel-burning heaters should never be used inside an unventilated space due to the high risk of CO poisoning.
  • Refuse to allow smoking inside your home. Carbon monoxide is just one of the hundreds of toxic chemicals diffused into the air by cigarette smoke.
  • Keep fumes from cars, lawnmowers, generators and other gas-powered equipment well away from open windows. Never leave a car, lawnmower or other carbon monoxide emitter running in your garage or basement. CO can quickly reach deadly levels.

It’s highly recommended to install inexpensive CO detectors with alarms like this in homes with gas heating or attached garages due to the higher risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Don’t rely on air purifiers to absorb carbon monoxide. Follow the tips above, install detectors and if you suspect CO poisoning get the person affected outside and seek medical attention immediately.

2. Nitrogen Dioxide

Nitrogen dioxide (N02) is a harmful air pollutant formed when various types of fuels are burnt. It is even more of a problem in outdoor air pollution, but can still be a significant indoor contaminant in certain homes.

Breathing in nitrogen dioxide can have the following negative health effects:

  • Airway inflammation and impaired breathing function.
  • Coughing and wheezing.
  • Irritation of the eyes, nose, throat and respiratory tract.
  • Increase the likelihood of cold and flu.
  • More frequent asthma attacks for asthmatics.

Ongoing exposure to N02 increases your risk of respiratory infections, chronic bronchitis and possibly lung cancer so it’s important to avoid breathing it in.

Possible Sources of Nitrogen Dioxide Exposure In and Around Your Home

Vehicle emissions are the biggest source of nitrogen dioxide pollution. You are most likely to have problems with N02 as an indoor air pollutant if you live near a busy road.

However, nitrogen dioxide can also be produced indoors. Kerosene or gas-based heaters and gas burners on stoves create N02 at significant levels if not properly vented.

Charcoal burning and wood fireplaces can also produce large amounts of nitrogen dioxide in an enclosed space.

How to Prevent Indoor Nitrogen Dioxide Poisoning

The recommendations for avoiding nitrogen dioxide exposure in your home are similar to those for carbon monoxide as these two indoor air pollutants are often produced by the same sources.

  • Take extra care to ensure that all gas or kerosene powered heating appliances are fully vented to the outside to avoid poisoning the air you and your family breathe.
  • If you cook with gas stove burners always use a range hood to filter away both nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide gases.
  • Keep burning wood and charcoal smoke well away from your home if cooking outdoors and make sure indoor fireplaces are enclosed and well vented to the outside.
  • Never idle your car in the garage or driveway for any longer than is necessary, especially with nearby doors or windows open.
  • If you have a garage attached to your house, keep the garage door open until you’ve turned off the ignition and fully ventilate N02 and C0 before opening a door into your home.
  • If you live near a busy street only open windows furthest away from the road and preferably during low traffic periods.

Certain air purifiers are specifically designed to filter out nitrogen dioxide alongside other indoor air pollutants. This powerful 4 stage purifier, with huge activated carbon and zeolite filter combined with true HEPA air cleaning, would be a good option for homes living near heavy traffic pollution.

3. Lead

Lead from old paintLead is a highly toxic heavy metal that was once used widely in house paints and building construction.

Lead exposure is extremely damaging as it accumulates in your organs, bones and blood and is very difficult to remove. Lead affects liver, kidney and brain function and can contribute to a wide variety of serious diseases, including cancer.

Possible Sources of Lead Contamination in Your Home

Lead-based paints used in homes built prior to 1978 are considered the biggest contributor of lead pollution indoors. As the paint ages, cracks and flakes off, tiny particles can become suspended in the air.

Lead dust can also accumulate on the floor where it can be easily stirred up. Young children are at greater risk of exposure in homes with lead contamination as they spend much more time closer to the floor.

Lead water pipes, old furniture and ornaments and contaminated soil walked indoors can also contribute to lead pollution inside homes.

How to Avoid Indoor Lead Particle Exposure

  • If you live in an older home and suspect lead paint was used it’s best to hire professionals to remove it. Attempting to scrape it off yourself is very dangerous.
  • Some older houses may also use lead pipes for drinking water. There are often government grants given to replace this potential source of lead exposure.
  • Old furniture and decorations may contain lead based paints or glazes that can flake off into lead dust, particularly if the surfaces are degraded.
  • Remove shoes at the door of your home to avoid walking in lead-contaminated soil and vacuum regularly.

A HEPA air purifier can filter out dust containing lead particles, but it’s best to remove all and any potential sources to avoid exposure to this extremely damaging indoor air pollutant.

4. Radon

radon from old cracked concreteRadon is an odorless, tasteless and invisible radioactive gas. It forms naturally due to the breakdown of uranium into radium in soils and rocks and is a common yet very dangerous indoor air pollutant across the USA.

Radon exposure is considered the second largest cause of lung cancer in America after cigarette smoke. Over 21,000 people are estimated to die of radon-related lung cancer each year according to the EPA.

How Does Radon Get Inside Your Home?

Radon gas rises up through the ground soil and enters your home through cracks in floors and walls, drains and other openings in housing construction. It may even penetrate through certain types of porous concrete.

Water supplies and building materials can also be a source of radon exposure, though these are considered secondary to localized radon emissions.

While older houses with basements are often associated with radon pollution, the truth is radon can be a health risk in virtually any home, new or old, in any US state.

Radon Testing

Every ground floor home in the USA should be tested for indoor radon pollution. The risk of lung cancer and respiratory damage from this invisible killer are simply too high to ignore.

An inexpensive radon testing kit, like this bestseller, is an easy way to determine if you have elevated levels of radon in your home.

While an air purifier with an activated carbon filter may help to reduce radon levels while operating, radon pollution above 4 pCi/L requires specialist attention.

The first step is to get your home tested for this hidden indoor pollutant. You can find out more about the dangers of radon and how to deal with it on the EPA’s website.

5. Asbestos

close up of asbestos fibersA mineral fiber with high heat resistance, asbestos was once used widely in home insulation and other building materials like paints, pipes, floor tiles and heat proof panelling.

The use of asbestos has been largely banned in the USA as a can cause mesothelioma, lung cancer and other life threatening respiratory diseases.

However, it can still be found in many older buildings and is particularly dangerous when asbestos-containing materials are disturbed or damaged and their fibers drift into the air.

Asbestos Removal

Breathing in airborne asbestos particles can be extremely damaging to your lungs. Just one exposure can significantly increase your risk of the malignant cancer mesothelioma and lung cancer.

If you live in or are renovating an older home where you suspect asbestos-based insulation was used it is very important to hire professionals to remove it. Asbestos is at its most deadly when moved.

While a HEPA-based air purifier can filter out airborne asbestos particles, this is a high risk indoor air pollutant that requires prompt professional removal from older homes.

Protect Your Home from Indoor Air Pollutants

Carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, lead dust, radon gas and asbestos particles are some of the most deadly indoor air pollutants found in homes across America.

Homes that use gas or kerosene heating or have wood burning fireplaces should make sure they are fully venting carbon monoxide to the outside and are cleaned and checked at least once a year.

Remember to always use your range hood if you cook with gas and never idle your car in your garage or near open windows to avoid both nitrogen dioxide and C0 exposure.

Professional removal of asbestos or lead paint in older homes is essential if you value your health. Exposure to airborne asbestos and lead dust can cause serious diseases like cancer and should be avoided at all cost.

Due to the randomness of radon levels across the USA and the real risk of lung cancer, it’s highly recommended that any ground level home is tested for radon with an inexpensive testing kit like this.

While not all homes will be affected by the dangerous indoor air pollutants covered here, there are other forms of airborne pollution that do affect the vast majority of houses and apartments across America.

Learn about the 5 most common forms of indoor air pollution here, where they come from, how they affect your health and how air purifiers remove them.


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