Indoor Air Toxins 101: Understanding How We Breathe

indoor air toxins with curtain

The quality of our indoor air is of paramount importance to our health.

We need to breathe air that has an adequate percentage of oxygen. In the atmosphere, air is composed of approximately 21% oxygen and 78% nitrogen. Carbon dioxide, water vapor, and other miscellaneous gases make up the remainder.

Indoor air is quite different, and the percentages of oxygen and other gases can vary dramatically, as many products in the home can emit gases and particulates that “pollute” the air. When we breath polluted air, some health effects can be felt immediately (acute) while others occur over the long term (chronic). The physical effects of air pollution may depend on the specific type of pollutant, its concentration, and an individual’s propensity for disease or underlying immune status. For instance, a similar dose of pollen or cat dander may not have any effect on one person, while for another, it may cause a hypersensitivity immune response.

Acute health effects from indoor air pollution can include irritation of the mucous membranes, particularly in the eyes, nose, and throat. Indoor air pollution can carry allergens, thereby increasing the occurrence of allergic reactions and asthmatic exacerbations. Headaches, dizziness, fatigue, and fever are some additional generalized symptoms that may develop following exposure to some indoor air pollutants.

Chronic exposure to indoor air pollutants is more insidious and includes various lung diseases, heart disease, and cancer.5 The exact concentration of a pollutant, such as benzene, and the duration of exposure needed to cause chronic disease are not clearly defined. A healthy immune system can help prevent the development of chronic disease, but a weak immune system may be ineffective at preventing the chronic adverse health effects from ongoing exposure to air pollution. With this in mind, for your own health and the health of others living in or visiting your home, it is best to reduce the concentration of your indoor air pollutants as much as possible.

Asthma is a chronic health condition in which the lungs’ airways become hypersensitive to chronic, repeated exposure of pollutants and other “triggers” that cause an allergic response. Triggers cause a transient narrowing or tightening down of the airways, reducing the flow of air into the lungs. If the airways are given a chance to relax for a prolonged period of time without irritation, the hypersensitivity response can lessen and even go away on its own.

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