Coronavirus & indoor air pollutants: quarantine safely!

This is the first part of a 4 part series on reducing indoor air pollutants. Our home air quality is important, particularly during shelter in place while we are spending significant time indoors. You can find part 2 here!

formaldehye and flame retardants off gassing from furniture, carpets, and pressed woods
How can we optimize indoor air quality during shelter in place?

Sheltering in place to flatten the curve gives us a valuable opportunity to reduce indoor air pollutants

We inhale roughly 3,000 gallons of air every day, and this represents an enormous exposure to compounds in the air that can reach our lungs and bloodstream. You may ask why this matters? Think of anesthesia gases: you inhale them and within seconds they reach your brain, making you fall asleep!

Furthermore, during shelter in place we are all spending more time in our homes, increasing our exposure to these indoor air pollutants.

Everything you inhale can potentially enter your blood stream and reach every inch of your body!

In 2019 our EPA warned that our indoor air quality may be significantly more polluted than our outdoor air quality – even in industrial cities. Their studies cited 5-10x greater concentration of particular pollutants (over 1000x for others!) indoors versus outdoors, raising concern for the impact of indoor air pollutants.

We can use our time during shelter in place to improve our indoor air quality while staying safe against COVID-19. A double benefit!

Changes in home products and manufacturing processes introduce toxins into our home air

Over the last hundred years, the products that we bring into our homes has changed significantly, and the manufacturing processes used to make them have also significantly changed. For example, consider this brief list of toxic compounds that are ubiquitous in many homes:

  • Formaldehyde from particleboard, pressed wood, and many more items in the house
  • Lead paint: not only paint chips but in dust and even aerosols
  • Asbestos
  • Flame retardants in furniture and electronics
  • Pesticides from food, pet and human insect repellents, cotton products in our clothes and in the bedroom
  • Naphthalene in mothballs
  • Items in storage: solvents paint strippers, wood preservatives, hobby supplies
  • Dry-cleaned clothing
  • Incense, candles, and wood burning apparatuses
  • Fragranced products
  • Disinfecting products (see my previous post)
  • Ozone
  • Carbon dioxide

Note that this list of indoor air pollutants does not include naturally occurring compounds, such as radon gas, mold, animal allergens, etc. Also, recognize that this list does not contain toxins that are not necessarily airborne or air pollutants, such as toxins from food, water, and plastics, or EMF exposure.

Formaldehyde and flame retardants from furniture and carpeting, in addition to volatile organic compounds from paints and carpet
Carpet, paints, furniture, wood flooring.. sources to consider of indoor air pollution

Shelter in place against coronavirus as a double benefit: quarantine against COVID-19 and clean your indoor air

The broad swath of these chemicals may be alarming, but my approach is to transform “overwhelming” to “actionable”. We can pragmatically go through our homes to minimize our exposure. The approach is simple:

  1. Identify where the toxins are in our homes
  2. Determine the risk of exposure from the toxins
  3. According to your personal value and risk-benefit assessment, consider removing the ones that are realistic to replace
  4. Learn strategies to mitigate toxin exposures from remaining items or those naturally occurring

Step 1: identify toxic culprits while you are sheltering in place from COVID-19

This can be a valuable and fun activity to do with children. Doing this with children not only confers a sense of control to them (valuable when under stressful conditions like the pandemic), but can also be informative and give them lifelong skills to protect their own health in the future.

Start at one end of your house to be systematic, look for the following, and write them down:

  • Anything that you ignite or burn (candles, wood burning stoves, incense, cigarettes, etc.)
  • Other items that ignite using gas or kerosene (gas stoves, space heaters, leaks from furnaces or from the garage letting in car exhaust)
  • Wood products with deep chips or peeled outer layer (pressed woods, particleboard/chipboard): consider furniture and cabinets
  • Flooring
  • Carpets (consider a baby crawling on new carpets!)
  • Furniture and foam products (look for labels on the furniture listing inclusion of flame retardants)
  • Electronics and kitchen appliances
  • Printers
  • Paint: if possible, try to find the type of paint used
  • Clothes: are there mothballs in them? Do they use organic cotton?
  • Bedding: material? If cotton, is it organic?
  • Smokers: do they smoke indoors?
  • Stored volatile solutions or volatile gases: solvents, paints, paint thinners, etc.
  • Hobby items: correction fluids, adhesives, permanent markers, arts/crafts materials, sprays, aerosols
  • Outdoor items: DEET or insect repellents, pet protection (flea or tick collars)
  • Personal care products: particularly ones that give off any odor or parfume
  • Exposed insulation in walls
  • Any fragrances (air fresheners, etc.)
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in painting supplies, paint thinners, solvents
Hobby supplies, paints, and solvents can be high emitters of harmful VOCs (volatile organic compounds)

Inventory of possible indoor air pollutant sources

Once you have gone through your home and identified these items, the next step is to determine the risk of exposure from the resulting air pollution. We’ll use your list to systematically determine what the potential risk from each item is. To not get overwhelmed by this long list, we will take a pragmatic approach to reduce the anxiety that this inventory might otherwise produce.

Stay tuned for the next step!

In the meantime, keep practicing shelter in place, good hand hygiene, and never touch your face! If you found this helpful, please share with your friends and family!

If you have any specific questions, let me know!

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