Month: June 2021

Travel Prep for Now (and the Foreseeable Future)

how to stay healthy while traveling

This summer, we all need to understand how to stay healthy while traveling.

After returning home from her recent trip to Europe, my friend Dee seemed a bit cloudy. I chalked it up to jet lag. But then she told me she had a fever and was worried she’d caught COVID-19 on her trip. I knew she had been vaccinated, and although it was unlikely that she had gotten the disease, her concern was justified: Vaccinations aren’t 100% preventative for catching the disease. I asked her if she had taken any Vitamin C while she was away, but she had not. 

She then said to me, “You should write a blog about travel preparation for those of us who have been vaccinated.” 

So I thought, why not?!

I love to travel — but preparing for it has become more complicated in recent years. This may, in part, be because I’m older, but it also has to do with changes in the quality of hotels, evolving airline services, and the ever increasing cloud of seemingly ubiquitous radio-frequency radiation. 

During the next few weeks, I’ll be taking my two teenagers to East Africa for an extended vacation. We will be out in the bush searching for chimpanzees, gorillas, and the usual safari fare of lions, hippos, giraffes, elephants, and more. This trip required A LOT of preparation. Aside from the COVID-19 vaccinations, we were required to get vaccinated for yellow fever. I thought hepatitis A vaccines were a good idea too. I am not fond of vaccinations, but they are a useful tool and sometimes necessary. Choosing malaria prophylaxis was another important decision. We decided on malarone, a decision based on our specific travel destination and the types of malaria endemic there. 

Wherever you’re headed this summer, you’ll want to do your homework. The rules and regulations — whether those imposed by airlines or your destination — are changing often, even weekly. Flight times unexpectedly change. Some countries require COVID PCR antigen testing right before you leave for your trip and again after you arrive. In some countries, COVID tests are required every couple of days while you’re there! Masks are mandatory on planes and in many other countries, even if you have been vaccinated. It’s important to be flexible and patient. Or as we used to say in high school … be cool.

Domestic travel is a lot easier. But regardless of where I go, I bring along a a few necessities that make traveling much more pleasant and keep me healthy.

The List

  • A sleep mask

Hotel chains often have shades that “almost fit” the window. When glaring flood lights illuminate the outside of the building at night, they often light up the interior of the room, too. In addition, digital displays from the microwave, smoke detector, light switches, and clock further increase the ambient light in the room. Because melatonin production is dependent on being in darkness at night, the sleep mask is extremely helpful!

  • A pair of high performance ear plugs – NRR of 32 dB or greater.

The ears never turn off, so ear plugs can be extremely useful. This is especially true when you get a room near an elevator, or if hotel guests come in late at night and party in the hallway or in a nearby room. Please opt for the silicone or gel variety of ear plugs and STAY AWAY from noise cancelling ear buds which work via Bluetooth. There’s no reason to expose your brain to radiofrequency radiation when you are trying to sleep.

  • Supplements

I am in the habit of taking vitamin supplementation daily, and I take them with me on vacation — they’re an essential part of knowing how to stay healthy while traveling. At a minimum, I take 1000 mg of Vitamin C and 5000 iu of Vitamin D daily. These vitamins both offer important antioxidant properties that help the immune system stay in shape even if it gets hit hard by jet lag and late nights partying.

  • A portable water purifier

Although you can purchase plastic water bottles pretty much anywhere, I bring a portable water filtration system that allows me to drink the tap water in the airport, in the hotel, or anywhere else without worrying about ingesting contaminants such as lead, organic compounds and chlorine/ chloramine. I prefer the PiMag Sports Bottle offered by Nikken. They have redesigned the cap in the last few years, and now it works great! If I’m heading to the beach, I’ll also pack a silicone-wrapped glass or stainless steel canister to transport my purified water to the beach. It’s not a good idea to bring plastic water bottles to the beach, as sunlight and heat can cause the toxins in the plastic to leach out into the water.

Know that this water purification system and others like it do not sanitize the water, so if you are drinking water from a source that could have bacterial contamination, like a stream or an untreated well, you need to treat the water first, with either iodine tablets or a SteriPen before putting the water through the filtration bottle.

  • Sunscreen

In a recent blog post, I wrote about sunscreens. Sunblock and lip protection should be chosen with care (and in advance!) 

  • EMF shield

Too often, we don’t think about radiation while considering how to stay healthy while traveling. When I check into the hotel room, the first thing I do is unplug the clock radio and the heavy-duty outlets that now come adherent to the night stands on either side of the bed. I’ve taken my EMF detector into too many rooms only to see that the bed is often flanked by powerful electromagnetic fields until these devices are unplugged. During one hotel stay, I took the following videos showing the electric field strength and magnetic field strength emitted by a clock radio (electric fields)(magnetic fields).

Unfortunately, hotels have become anything but relaxing for many people due to the increasing demand for radiofrequency radiation from wireless devices. Hotel rooms are filled with radiofrequency radiation as you can see from this demonstration. If you are sensitive to EMF, there are several options for you to choose from, depending on your degree of sensitivity. A portable bed canopy is available and although it is an expensive item, I highly recommend it for someone with moderate to severe EMF sensitivity. 

Another product to consider is the Blushield. I use their portable travel device. Although I don’t think a device like this can prevent all of the potentially harmful effects of EMF, it does create an energetic calmness in a room, making it more conducive to sleep. 

I hope you find this guide helpful and that it helps you understand how to stay healthy while traveling this summer. We are all ready to go on vacation after being cooped up for more than a year. Have fun this summer and stay healthy!

Indoor Air Toxins 101: Houseplants and VOCs

vocs houseplants

There’s an important relationship between VOCs and houseplants.

My personal favorite solution for reducing indoor VOC concentration is to introduce houseplants. Growing indoor plants is an excellent, inexpensive method for removing VOCs from the indoor air through a process known as phytoremediation. Studies by many scientists, including those from NASA, Penn State University, the University of Georgia, and other institutions, have shown that plants can absorb a long list of VOCs, including benzene, toluene, xylene, and formaldehyde. Once absorbed, bacteria on the plant roots convert the VOCs into nutrients for the plant. Most leafy plants can purify indoor air, and different plant species absorb different VOCs, so it is optimal to have several varieties within your home to cover all bases. Many plants have proven to be effective at removing VOCs from inside air (see below).

Common houseplants able to remove VOCs:

crotons
spider plants
Schefflera plants
purple waffle plants
English ivy
golden pothos
Aloe vera
snake plants (mother-in-law’s tongue)
peace lilies
corn plants
sentry palms

Choose a few plants to place in the kitchen, bedrooms, and living room. Take care of your plants as if they were pets. In return, they will protect you by producing oxygen and by absorbing VOCs from the air.

See all the posts in this series on airborne toxins in your home:
Indoor Air Toxins 101: The Basics of Indoor Pollution
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Understanding How We Breathe
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Understanding Indoor Air Pollution
Indoor Air Toxins 101: The Dangers of Candles
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Reducing Indoor Black Soot
Indoor Air Toxins 101: VOCs, Asbestos and Lead
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Understanding Mold & Health

Indoor Air Toxins 101: Do You Need an Air Filter?

which air filter

Wondering which air filter to buy — or if you need one? Here’s where to start.

Air-cleaning devices remove particles from the air. The easiest way to lower the concentration of particulates in your home is to vacuum and dust regularly. Air cleaners will remove suspended particulates while dusting will remove settled material that can become transiently airborne by shuffling papers, walking, etc. For those with chronic lung disease, such as asthma, a dose of dust that contains allergens can set off an asthmatic attack.

Air filters are the most common form of air cleaner. They may be placed inline with your home HVAC system, or on a free-standing air purifier unit where they remove particulates from the airstream passing through the filter. Air filters are rated according to a minimum efficiency reporting value (MERV) unit ranging from 1 to 20. The higher the rating, the smaller the particles that will be trapped by the air filter. The most commonly used air filters used in residential homes to fit inline with air conditioners and furnaces typically have a MERV value of 1 to 4. These filters protect the HVAC equipment from the buildup of unwanted materials on the surfaces of the system, but don’t improve indoor air quality. Pleated filters with a MERV value between 5 and 16 will remove both small and large airborne particles. Filters with MERV values over 7 are increasingly effective at removing particulates. Filters with a MERV value between 14 and 16 are almost as efficient as HEPA filters at absorbing PM2.5 particles, but may require increased fan and motor capacities if they are used with your home HVAC.

A true high-efficiency particulate arrestance (HEPA) filter is designated with a MERV value over 17. These filters will effectively remove PM2.5 particulates from your indoor air, but are not normally installed in residential HVAC systems, as they require modifications to the air- handling system. HEPA filters are more commonly available as portable units that can be moved from room to room. If your home is drafty and is located in a region with significant outdoor air pollution, consider that PM2.5 particles are being brought into your home daily, and invest in a HEPA filter. Removing PM2.5 particles from your indoor air will improve your health and longevity.

If you purchase a portable air cleaner, be aware that these machines are rated according to their clean air delivery rate (CADR), a measure of how much contaminant-free air is delivered in cubic feet per minute. Evaluating the CADR will help you determine what size room a given filter will function best in. Although portable units, especially those with HEPA filters, are effective at removing microparticles, most portable air cleaners are ineffective at removing large particles, such as pollen and dust mites, which settle quickly on surfaces. Vacuum cleaners fitted with HEPA filters will draw up both and trap microparticles, removing them from the environment.

Electronic air cleaners and ionizers use a different technology than air filters to remove airborne particulates. Air cleaners draw air through an ionization chamber in which particles accumulate a charge. The charged particles then aggregate on a series of oppositely charged flat plates called collectors. Similarly, ionizers emit charged ions into the air that adhere to airborne particles, giving them a charge. The charged particles attract each other and nearby surfaces, such as walls or furniture, and settle faster.

There is no standard measure to compare the effectiveness of electronic air filters. In general, ionizers and electronic air cleaners are not as effective at removing microparticles as filters are. In addition, they can create more indoor air pollutants by producing toxic ozone and ultra-fine particles (PM2.5) when reacting with VOCs from cleaning products, air fresheners, etc. For these reasons, I would not recommend investing in an electronic air cleaner.

Ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI) cleaners use UV lamps to destroy viruses, bacteria, allergens, and molds, which are all pathogens that can grow on HVAC surfaces such as ductwork, drain pans, and cooling coils. UVGI cleaners need to be used in combination with a filtration system.

Unless you live in an area with poor outdoor air quality, an HVAC inline pleated air filter with a MERV value between 5 and 14 should suffice for particulate removal. Remember to change the filter at least once every six months. Consider purchasing a portable HEPA air filter and keep it running in your bedroom or whichever living space you spend most of your time in. If you or your child has asthma, this will further help keep down the level of PM2.5 particles in the treated room. In addition, by vacuuming and dusting the home at least once a week with a vacuum fitted with a HEPA filter, the concentration of dust in home air will significantly diminish. Make sure to steer away from HEPA filters that masquerade as synthetic air fresheners—these actually release VOCs into the air as you vacuum.

Indoor Air Toxins 101: The Basics of Indoor Pollution
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Understanding How We Breathe
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Understanding Indoor Air Pollution
Indoor Air Toxins 101: The Dangers of Candles
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Reducing Indoor Black Soot
Indoor Air Toxins 101: VOCs, Asbestos and Lead
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Understanding Mold & Health
Indoor Air Toxins 101: What Are VOCs?

Indoor Air Toxins 101: Indoor Pesticides

indoor pesticides

Pesticides can significantly degrade indoor air quality. Many of these products are specifically designed for the indoors, including insect killer for ants, termites, bees, and other insects, and rodent killer for mice and rats. Pesticide liquids and collars may be applied to your pets. Pesticides may also be inadvertently tracked into the home after you walk in your garden or on your lawn after the outdoor application of pesticides and/or herbicides. Both the active and inactive ingredients in pesticides can aerosolize in the home and contaminate the air.

Pesticide exposure can cause both acute and chronic health problems. Researchers have found acute toxicity to cause headaches, blurred vision, dizziness, muscle cramping, shortness of breath, and many other symptoms. Chronic exposure can damage the liver, kidneys, and peripheral nerves. Sensory nerves have particularly been shown to be damaged by chronic exposure to pesticides. Some pesticides are associated with causing cancer.

By taking a few precautions, you can significantly reduce the indoor accumulation of pesticides. First of all, have your family and guests remove their footwear upon entering your home. Apply flea and tick solutions to pets outdoors. If you spray or have a pest company spray your indoors with pesticides, ventilate the area afterward as much as possible by opening the windows and running fans until the odors dissipate. Even “non-toxic” products that are pet friendly should be ventilated. Store unused product in the garage or some other protected outside space.

The severity of outdoor air pollution depends on your home’s location. If you live in an area with bad outdoor pollution, opening up the windows and doors in your home can bring small particles and ground-level ozone from car exhaust, smoke, road dust, and factory emissions into the home. Pollen from plants can also contribute to particulate air pollution. Outdoor air pollution levels fluctuate with the weather, industry activity, and the season, worsening with higher air temperatures and air stagnation. A windy day will clean out pollutants and provide cleaner air, but outdoor air will begin to concentrate contaminants again once the wind abates. Bad outdoor air quality can cause a real hardship when trying to achieve optimal indoor air quality. One of the easiest ways to clean up your indoor air is to open the windows and allow cross ventilation, but if the outdoor air is contaminated, this can have the opposite effect.

See all the posts in this series on airborne toxins in your home:
Indoor Air Toxins 101: The Basics of Indoor Pollution
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Understanding How We Breathe
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Understanding Indoor Air Pollution
Indoor Air Toxins 101: The Dangers of Candles
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Reducing Indoor Black Soot
Indoor Air Toxins 101: VOCs, Asbestos and Lead
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Understanding Mold & Health

Indoor Air Toxins 101: What You Need to Know About Radon

radon risks - sofa in living room

Radon risks should be top of mind for every homeowner.

If you do only one thing for your home, my hope would be that you will have your home tested for radon gas. Exposure to and inhalation of radon gas is the number-one cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers. In 2009, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared radon gas in homes to be a worldwide health risk.

Radon gas is odorless, tasteless, and invisible, and therefore cannot be sensed by your brain. Radon risks are so high because it is radioactive; it is produced by the slow decay of uranium found naturally in soil and water. Radon is found in outdoor air in very low levels—0.4 pCi/L (picocuries per liter)—but can infiltrate your home through foundation cracks and accumulate in the indoor air. The average radon concentration inside American homes has been estimated to be 1.3 pCi/L, but may be much higher. The EPA has designated 4 pCi/L as the acceptable upper limit for radon concentration of indoor air.

Radon is breathed in with air and can wreak havoc on the cells that line the airways in your lung. As with many types of radiation, the development of cancer isn’t dose dependent. Therefore, it is best to limit radon risks in your home as much as possible.

Every home, everywhere, should be tested for radon gas, particularly in the basement. For many home buyers, mortgage companies require a radon inspection before approving a mortgage. Radon tests can be performed as either short-term or long-term tests. Short-term tests range from 2 to 90 days whereas the long-term tests accumulate data for over 90 days. A long-term test will provide information regarding your home’s year-round average radon level. A long-term test is ideal, but a short-term test should suffice. If radon levels in your home lie between 2 and 4 pCi/L or higher, a process called remediation will help reduce the radon concentration in your indoor air. A radon specialist can install venting in the affected areas of your home to allow the gas to diffuse back outside.

Indoor Air Toxins 101: The Basics of Indoor Pollution
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Understanding How We Breathe
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Understanding Indoor Air Pollution
Indoor Air Toxins 101: The Dangers of Candles
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Reducing Indoor Black Soot
Indoor Air Toxins 101: VOCs, Asbestos and Lead
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Understanding Mold & Health
Indoor Air Toxins 101: What Are VOCs?

Indoor Air Toxins 101: What Are VOCs?

what are vocs

There are many other sources of VOCs in your home. The more you are aware of, the more you may be able to remove. These may be in your closets, laundry rooms, or bathrooms. Go around your home and sniff. If your sense of smell is functioning, you will find many of these items on your own.

Do you have a mothball closet or use mothballs to protect your clothes? We had one in our house when I was a kid and it was down in the basement, away from the commonly used living areas. Clothing moths can be very destructive. There are many ways to prevent and rid your home of clothing moths, but using moth balls is one of the least desirable. The chemical paradichlorobenzene is a common active ingredient in moth repellents and is known to cause cancer in animals, but human effects are unclear. It has been suggested that this chemical may even be associated with the development and progression of multiple sclerosis. Instead of creating a mothball closet, use a cedar chest or build a cedar closet. Alternatively, clothing bags and air-tight containers will seal your clothing and protect it from moths. Pheromone traps are also available for the closet. These are different than the ones used for pantry moths – make sure you use the correct trap.

Dry cleaning will rid clothing of moth larvae and eggs and is a preferable method for cleaning many delicate fabrics. But among the chemicals used in the dry cleaning process is perchloroethylene, a potent VOC that has also been shown to cause tissue damage and cancer in animals. Hodgkin’s lymphoma has been associated with occupational exposure to trichloroethylene, a related compound. If your clothing is damp or has a chemical smell when you pick it up from the dry cleaner, you should leave the clothing at the store and tell them that they need to completely dry the clothing before you will take it home. Damp clothes from the dry cleaner will off-gas and fill your bedroom closets with toxic gas.

Dryer sheets and scented detergents contain VOCs that temporarily adhere to your clothing. There are less toxic alternatives to these fragrant products. If you want to make your clothes static-free, place a pair of clean old sneakers or some other type of unscented “laundry ball” into the dryer to reduce static cling. You can also create lavender packs or other dryer bags filled with herbs and essential oils that can make your clothing smell fragrant without using synthetic VOCs.

The same chemical used in moth repellents, paradichlorobenzene, is also used in many air fresheners and deodorizers. If you use these products in your home, it would be a terrific goal if you could slowly wean yourself from them. Proper ventilation and household cleanliness will prevent most unpleasant odors in the home without the need for chemical air fresheners. As you take steps to reduce the particulates in your air and reduce your home’s VOC concentration, you will find that most odors will dissipate. If you do still have an odor problem, you should go on a search for mold.

Indoor Air Toxins 101: The Basics of Indoor Pollution
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Understanding How We Breathe
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Understanding Indoor Air Pollution
Indoor Air Toxins 101: The Dangers of Candles
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Reducing Indoor Black Soot
Indoor Air Toxins 101: VOCs, Asbestos and Lead
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Understanding Mold & Health
Indoor Air Toxins 101: What Are VOCs?

Indoor Air Toxins 101: Understanding Mold & Health

mold health - clean bathroom

It’s important to understand the relationship between exposure to mold and health.

Mold is a category of plant life that includes mushrooms and other wonderful organisms that are used to make many types of food, including bread, cheeses, sausages, and some types of medicine, including penicillin. Molds and fungi are an extraordinarily important component of the soil and for the outdoors.

Mold usually only becomes a health concern when it colonizes indoors, creating a musty, unpleasant odor by secreting microbial volatile organic compounds (MVOCs). Depending on the extent of the colonization, removal may be as simple as wiping down the area colonized and removing any source of moisture, such as a leaky pipe, and by opening windows or using fans to increase ventilation. If you have a significant amount of mold growing in your home, cleanup can be tricky and may require the help of a professional. Ceiling tiles, upholstered furniture, and carpets that have become moldy may need to be thrown out and replaced, as mold can lie dormant for long periods of time if the environment becomes dry. The mold will then awaken when humidity levels again increase.

Some molds may at times produce harmful toxins, called mycotoxins. One type of mold, referred to as toxic black mold, can grow in moist, dark places in your home, usually in an area where there has been a hidden water leak, such as inside a wall or under a floor. This mold has a greenish- black gelatinous appearance when wet, and dries to a black powder. If disturbed, this mold can release huge numbers of spores and mycotoxins throughout your home. Toxic black mold is thought to be very dangerous and has been associated with mental impairment, breathing problems, and damage to internal organs. If you find it in your home, you need to hire a professional black mold removal service to eradicate it. The longer you are around mold, and in particular, toxic black mold, the greater the chance it can damage your health.

Molds grow locally in areas where there is excessive moisture caused by a leak, but a much larger area of mold growth can occur in your home if the air is too humid. There are packets and buckets containing anhydrous materials that will absorb moisture from the air and can help decrease local humidity in a small area of excessive dampness. If you live in an environment where the outdoor humidity is high or if you have underground living spaces that are damp, a dehumidifier is the easiest way to remedy excessive moisture from the air. Indoor air humidity should ideally be between 30% and 50%. If humidity is too high, molds will grow on many, if not all, surfaces in the room, producing millions of tiny spores that will be released and will float through the air. If the spores land on damp areas, they will stick, grow, spread, and reproduce, creating yet more spores. Molds may produce allergens, irritants, and sometimes toxins that, when inhaled, can cause allergies. Reducing the number of mold spores in your home requires both removing the existing colonies of mold and eliminating sources of moisture. An exhaust fan or an open window will help reduce moisture in the bathroom during and after your shower. An open window in the kitchen will also help water vapor escape if you are boiling liquids or washing dishes. Another potential area of mold accumulation is the laundry room. Front-loading washing machines sometimes hold on to moisture and can become breeding grounds for mold that can then attach to your clothing. Keeping the washing machine door open after each wash will allow the interior to completely dry out in between washes.

It is impossible to completely remove mold from your home, as mold spores are ubiquitous. But eliminating excessive moisture in the home will significantly reduce the quantity of mold spores and toxins, improving your health and eliminating odors.

See all the posts in this series on airborne toxins in your home:
Indoor Air Toxins 101: The Basics of Indoor Pollution
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Understanding How We Breathe
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Understanding Indoor Air Pollution
Indoor Air Toxins 101: The Dangers of Candles
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Reducing Indoor Black Soot
Indoor Air Toxins 101: VOCs, Asbestos and Lead
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Understanding Mold & Health

Indoor Air Toxins 101: VOCs, Asbestos, and Lead

what are vocs - empty room

The most common airborne pollutants associated with building material include asbestos, lead, and VOCs. Many people don’t realize that asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral fiber that exists in rock and soil. Because of its strength and its high resistance to heat, it has been used in a variety of building materials for insulation and as a fire retardant. When it is disturbed by cutting, sanding, or drilling, the fibers can become transiently airborne and inhaled. These tiny needle-like fibrils get trapped in the lungs, where they cause inflammation. The cilia and mucous in the lung are unable to clear away the fibrils. Chronic exposure can lead to asbestosis, a disease characterized by lung scarring. The lining of the lung (the pleura) develops sheet-like regions of calcification, called pleural plaques, characteristic of asbestos-related disease. The lung and pleura both become at risk for cancer in the forms of lung carcinoma and mesothelioma. If you suspect there are products containing asbestos in your home, have them inspected and removed by a trained contractor. Under no circumstance should you attempt to remove asbestos yourself, unless you are certified to do so.

Lead was used for many years in the production of paint. When lead paint deteriorates or is removed improperly, the lead dust created can then be inhaled or ingested. Lead toxicity can damage the brain, spinal cord, kidneys, and blood cells. If children are exposed to lead, they can suffer physical and mental delays as well as behavioral problems. As mentioned earlier, lead can also be emitted by some candles. If your home was built before 1978 and there is original paint on the walls, even if the paint is beneath wallpaper, don’t remove the paint until you have it tested for lead. If the paint does contain lead, hire a trained professional to remove the paint. If the paint is in good condition, don’t worry about the lead until it begins to deteriorate or until you want to remove it. If you or your partner work in an industry with lead products, make sure dusty clothes are changed before entering the home. Wash lead-tainted clothes separately from all other laundry. If your occupation exposes you to lead, eating a diet rich in calcium, phosphorus, and iron will help reduce lead absorption.

Most of us are continually exposed to VOCs that emanate from building materials in the home. Any carbon-containing compound that exists as a gas at room temperature is a VOC. There are thousands of VOCs used in the production of building materials and pretty much any other fabricated item you might buy, some of which are listed in Table 2. Many VOCs are innocuous, but others are known carcinogens.

Household consumer products containing VOCs:
– Paints and lacquers
– Paint strippers
– Paper towels
– Carbonless copy paper
– Grocery bags
– Pesticides
– Copier and printer inks
– Permanent markers
– Correction fluids
– Cleaning supplies, including dish detergents and fabric softeners
– Building furnishings, including carpets and vinyl flooring
– Craft materials, including glues and adhesive
– Clothing and dry-cleaning materials

Formaldehyde, one of the most common VOCs, is colorless, with a strong odor. It is used in the resins that make up composite wood products, including hardwood plywood, particleboard, and medium- density fiberboard. Although the emission of formaldehyde from building materials has been decreasing, formaldehyde concentrations in ambient indoor air have been continuously increasing. This is likely due to its ubiquitous presence in household products.

Health consequences of formaldehyde depend on the duration of exposure and the concentration of the gas. Acute exposure can cause irritation of the eyes, coughing, and nausea, while chronic exposure has been associated with cancer, particularly nasopharyngeal carcinoma (throat cancer). As with all VOCs, formaldehyde is a gas at room temperature, and slowly emanates from the products it is mixed into over time, a process referred to as off-gassing. As the air temperature or humidity in the house increases, the rate of off-gassing accelerates.

Although the EPA has set regulations to limit the concentration of formaldehyde in each product, there is no way to control the total amount of formaldehyde a homeowner may be exposed to. Indoor concentrations can rise to unhealthy levels when windows are closed and the heat is turned on. Mobile homes have been shown to off-gas particularly high levels of formaldehyde, especially in the wintertime.

Other common VOCs found in building materials and household goods include methylene chloride, xylene, toluene, and benzene. Like formaldehyde, benzene is a known carcinogen which can damage the bone marrow and cause leukemia.

All materials containing VOCs off-gas continuously. That luxurious new carpet you may have recently purchased is off-gassing, as is the new cabinetry in your kitchen and the fresh new paint applied to your walls. To drive home this point, I’d like to share a quick personal story.

A year ago, I decided to paint my living room with a faux plastering technique I had seen advertised at a local paint store. I purchased the needed supplies and went to work. The base coat went on smoothly, but the plastering layer required a more laborious technique of smearing arcs of dyed plaster material to the freshly painted wall. The instructions said to use the product in a well- ventilated area, so I left the overhead fan on continuously and the windows wide open. The process took me three days to complete, and at the end of the third day, I developed a nosebleed. This was unusual for me, as it was the middle of spring and I had only experienced nosebleeds in the winter when the air is dry for prolonged periods of time. The bleeding stopped without too much effort, but that night, I was awakened by another nosebleed. I applied pressure and it eventually stopped. Over the next two days, I experienced nosebleeds that became progressively more severe, coming out of not only one, but both nostrils simultaneously. I ended up at the emergency room of a local hospital where the staff packed my nose to stop the bleeding. Following this, the physician looked up both nostrils with a scope. He didn’t see much but irritation. He blindly cauterized several areas in the back of my nose and sent me home, prescribing a follow-up appointment with an ear, nose, and throat specialist. I told him that I had just painted a room in my house, but he looked at me skeptically, as if I had given him a piece of history with no relevance. This ER physician, like most doctors, had no idea about the damaging effect that VOCs can have on nasal mucosa. The nosebleeds subsided after a few days and I have not had another one since.

A nosebleed is one physiological effect you can experience from the inhalation of VOCs. Many others are less obvious but can be much more dangerous.

If you are going to use a product such as a paint, plaster, adhesive, or solvent in your home, make sure to use the product in a well-ventilated area. This means to preferably use these products outdoors or in areas with an exhaust fan to the outdoors. If the product needs to be used indoors, as was the case with my paint, open up as many windows as possible and place a large fan in the room to provide as much outdoor air infiltration as possible. Off-gassing will continue for some time after a product has been applied and continued air ventilation is needed for at least a couple of weeks until the VOC levels have dropped sufficiently. Given the different chemicals in each brand of paint and the differing ambient conditions in each individual room, it is impossible to recommend a specific time frame for this. I would recommend ventilating a newly painted room for two or three weeks after painting. In addition, try to purchase paint that is designed to emit a lower concentration of VOCs. Your paint supplier should be able to help guide you to the best brands.

Once you are finished using a product that contains VOCs, move the container outside or into the garage, as these containers continue to leak gases. Please do not put empty containers into a garbage pail in your home to sit until garbage day. Toxic and hazardous household wastes need to be discarded responsibly. Ask your local government for proper disposal procedures.

What are VOCs? Digging Deeper

There are many other sources of VOCs in your home. The more you are aware of, the more you may be able to remove. These may be in your closets, laundry rooms, or bathrooms. Go around your home and sniff. If your sense of smell is functioning, you will find many of these items on your own.

Do you have a mothball closet or use mothballs to protect your clothes? We had one in our house when I was a kid and it was down in the basement, away from the commonly used living areas. Clothing moths can be very destructive. There are many ways to prevent and rid your home of clothing moths, but using moth balls is one of the least desirable. The chemical paradichlorobenzene is a common active ingredient in moth repellents and is known to cause cancer in animals, but human effects are unclear. It has been suggested that this chemical may even be associated with the development and progression of multiple sclerosis. Instead of creating a mothball closet, use a cedar chest or build a cedar closet. Alternatively, clothing bags and air-tight containers will seal your clothing and protect it from moths. Pheromone traps are also available for the closet. These are different than the ones used for pantry moths – make sure you use the correct trap.

Dry cleaning will rid clothing of moth larvae and eggs and is a preferable method for cleaning many delicate fabrics. But among the chemicals used in the dry cleaning process is perchloroethylene, a potent VOC that has also been shown to cause tissue damage and cancer in animals. Hodgkin’s lymphoma has been associated with occupational exposure to trichloroethylene, a related compound. If your clothing is damp or has a chemical smell when you pick it up from the dry cleaner, you should leave the clothing at the store and tell them that they need to completely dry the clothing before you will take it home. Damp clothes from the dry cleaner will off-gas and fill your bedroom closets with toxic gas.

Dryer sheets and scented detergents contain VOCs that temporarily adhere to your clothing. There are less toxic alternatives to these fragrant products. If you want to make your clothes static-free, place a pair of clean old sneakers or some other type of unscented “laundry ball” into the dryer to reduce static cling. You can also create lavender packs or other dryer bags filled with herbs and essential oils that can make your clothing smell fragrant without using synthetic VOCs.

The same chemical used in moth repellents, paradichlorobenzene, is also used in many air fresheners and deodorizers. If you use these products in your home, it would be a terrific goal if you could slowly wean yourself from them. Proper ventilation and household cleanliness will prevent most unpleasant odors in the home without the need for chemical air fresheners. As you take steps to reduce the particulates in your air and reduce your home’s VOC concentration, you will find that most odors will dissipate. If you do still have an odor problem, you should go on a search for mold.

See all the posts in this series on airborne toxins in your home:
Indoor Air Toxins 101: The Basics of Indoor Pollution
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Understanding How We Breathe
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Understanding Indoor Air Pollution
Indoor Air Toxins 101: The Dangers of Candles
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Reducing Indoor Black Soot
Indoor Air Toxins 101: VOCs, Asbestos and Lead
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Understanding Mold & Health

Indoor Air Toxins: Reducing Indoor Soot

remove-soot-fireplace

Black soot and other evidence of pollutants from combustible materials can provide a valuable warning. Reducing these materials is essential for our best health.

In order to minimize air pollutants from other combustible material in your home, there are a few things you can do. First, make sure that your furnace and hot water heater are properly vented, especially if they are powered by gas. Have your equipment inspected and serviced regularly. Always turn on the range hood exhaust fan when using a stovetop or oven, especially if you are using a gas stove. Importantly, make sure the exhaust is directed via ductwork to the outside. It is ironic, but while writing this chapter I discovered that the exhaust fan over my gas range was directed to a dead space above the kitchen cabinets, and not to the outside! Instead of ridding the house of the gases from the stove and oven, they were being dispersed throughout the house.

If you use a fireplace or burn wood for heat, make sure to open the flue. Have your furnace flue and chimney inspected and cleaned annually. If you use a wood stove, make sure the stove meets EPA standards and that the doors fit tightly on the unit.

If in an emergency situation you find yourself using a generator for energy, don’t operate it in the house, no matter how cold it is outside. Generators should be placed as far away as possible from open windows, vents, and doors so the fumes don’t waft into the house.

Smoking cigarettes, cigars, or pipes causes the release of numerous pollutants into the air. The effects of second-hand smoke are well documented. Vaping an e-cigarette is marketed as a safer alternative to cigarettes, but who really knows? The chemicals that make up e-liquids are proprietary information and manufacturers are not required to label them or disclose the ingredients. Vaping fluids are reported to contain fewer chemicals than cigarettes, but it has been shown that vaping releases propylene glycol as well as other toxic chemicals into the air. Some studies have shown that the “flavors” added to vaping fluid have been discovered to add toxic effects to e-cigarettes, with the most significant health effects attributed to the strawberry flavor. Incredibly, these flavors have not yet undergone extensive testing.

See all the posts in this series on airborne toxins in your home:
Indoor Air Toxins 101: The Basics of Indoor Pollution
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Understanding How We Breathe
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Understanding Indoor Air Pollution
Indoor Air Toxins 101: The Dangers of Candles
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Reducing Indoor Black Soot
Indoor Air Toxins 101: VOCs, Asbestos and Lead
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Understanding Mold & Health

Indoor Air Toxins: The Dangers of Candles

indoor air toxins - candles

I first discovered the hidden danger of candles after bringing home a new pet bird, a cockatoo. One of the instructions given to us, as new bird owners, was not to burn candles in the same room as the bird. I didn’t understand why burning a candle could be so dangerous for a bird. I enjoy the mood created by candles, but I’ve learned that there are many different types of candles on the market, some more toxic than others.

Candles may be paraffin-based or composed of beeswax or soy/ vegetable wax. Paraffin-based candles are most common and are typically the least expensive. Paraffin is a petroleum-based product. Burning paraffin candles in your home can release harmful dioxins and acrolein, a compound also found in cigarette smoke that has been shown to cause lung cancer. Paraffin candles have also been shown to be a major producer of indoor micro particulates, known as PM2.5 particles.11 These can be inhaled deep into the lungs and difficult to eliminate.

Be wary of candles that utilize a metal cone for a wick. These cones may be made of lead, a lead alloy, or zinc. As the burning wick heats up the cone, lead can be emitted into the air.12 These cones have been banned in the US by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) since 2004, but they are still sold in other countries. The aerosolized lead released from these cones can coat the walls, flooring, and furniture in your home. Children who crawl or touch the walls and then put their hands, which may have lead residue on them, into their mouths are at particular risk for lead toxicity.

“Slow burning” candles, artificially scented candles, and incense should also be avoided as they may emit additional chemical pollutants such as acetaldehyde and benzene into your home.13,14 Unfortunately, there are no reliable labels to separate real aromatherapy products from the synthetic competition. The cost of a candle does not indicate the quality of the product. Many high-end stores sell paraffin-based candles with synthetic fragrances.

Avoid paraffin candles, and instead invest in either beeswax or soy candles, which emit fewer harmful emissions.15 According to current labeling laws, candles that are 49% paraffin and 51% beeswax may be labeled beeswax candles, so be aware that if you purchase a beeswax or soy candle, the label should specify 100% soy/vegetable wax or 100% beeswax.

Following a few simple tips will help to reduce indoor air pollution caused by candles. Keep your candle wicks trimmed and avoid burning candles in a drafty space. In addition, use a candle snuffer to extinguish the flame instead of blowing the candle out. With these simple modifications you can significantly reduce the amount of soot.

See all the posts in this series on airborne toxins in your home:
Indoor Air Toxins 101: The Basics of Indoor Pollution
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Understanding How We Breathe
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Understanding Indoor Air Pollution
Indoor Air Toxins 101: The Dangers of Candles
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Reducing Indoor Black Soot
Indoor Air Toxins 101: VOCs, Asbestos and Lead
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Understanding Mold & Health