All posts by Rob Brown

Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About Digesting Food

how food is digested

Ever wonder how food is digested?

We eat it every day, but you may not have asked your why your body actually needs food. Yes, food can taste good, especially processed foods that have been designed to tweak your salt and sweet taste buds. (Do you think the flavor “salted caramel” is an accident?) But food has much more importance to us than the sensual pleasure of taste.

The food industry developed to feed people who were unable to grow their own food. As populations grew and more people moved to cities, the need to feed larger numbers of people increased. With increasing competition, food companies began to develop strategies to gain market share. Markets and supermarkets opened, providing all the food that had previously been purchased from individual vendors like the milkman, the farmer’s market, the butcher, etc. The results of this evolution are delicious, visually appealing food products that last a very long time on store shelves. The industrialization and “perfection” of whole foods like fruits and vegetables has also occurred over time. The oversized, perfectly shaped, shiny bright apple is by human design, not by natural selection.

But as biological organisms who developed in a natural world, our digestive systems are adapted to eat foods in their natural state or processed through heat or fermentation, not by industrial chemistry. Organs such as the pancreas have evolved to produce specific proteins called enzymes, which are secreted into the intestine to help us digest the food we eat. Chemically altered food may or may not be able to be digested by this set of enzymes and instead may be evacuated partially digested or undigested. Synthetic chemicals can create havoc on the beneficial bacteria lining the system. In addition, depending on the integrity of the cells lining the tract, some of these manmade molecules may be absorbed into the bloodstream.

How Food Is Digested: The Anatomy/Physiology

The system responsible for how food is digested is called the digestive system. The digestive system typically begins as food enters a long tube at an orifice in your face called a mouth. From there, food passes through many compartments, including the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and large intestine. Waste material typically exits your body through the anus. Surgical techniques can alter this arrangement at any step along the way. The digestive tract is not pretty, but its basic function isn’t too complicated to understand.

In your mouth, the mechanical process of chewing grinds and macerates food into smaller bits. While chewing, food is moistened with saliva, which not only softens the food, but also begins the digestion of starches. Your tongue, given the presence of numerous taste buds all along its surface, is able to provide sensation to your brain about the quality of the food in your mouth before you swallow it. Is it sweet? Sour? Salty? Bitter? A combination of these?

Once swallowed, the food travels through the esophagus and into the stomach, where it usually sits for several hours while it contracts and churns, mixing with acid and enzymes to begin the digestion of proteins. A muscular ring, called a sphincter, which separates the top of the stomach from the esophagus, is normally tightly closed during this process to prevent refluxing of the acids and food material back into the esophagus.

Once the food is sufficiently mashed up, the chyme, as it is now referred to, passes out of the stomach, a bit at a time, and into the first portion of the small intestine, called the duodenum. As this happens, two different fluids, bile and pancreatic juice, empty into the duodenum through a duct. Both fluids mix with the chyme to help further digest it. Bile emulsifies fats, breaking them down into their components, fatty acids and glycerol. The pancreatic enzymes work on breaking down proteins, fats, and starches into their building-block components. Lactase, the enzyme able to break down the milk protein lactose, is one of the pancreatic enzymes released.

The resulting mixture passes through many feet of small intestine, which provides plenty of time and surface area for the food materials to break down into their molecular components. Once these molecules are small enough, the resulting peptides (or amino acids), sugars, and fatty acids are able to pass through the lining of the small intestine and into a bloodstream that leads directly to the liver.

The liver is a very complex organ with hundreds of functions, but you can think of it as a gatekeeper that regulates the amounts of sugar, fat, and protein that are allowed to pass into the bloodstream. From the components it receives from the small intestine, the liver assembles various proteins, fats, and cholesterol. Along with the pancreas, the liver is also involved with carbohydrate metabolism, or the storage and release of sugars into the bloodstream. The liver also very importantly acts as a toxin waste dump for those materials that pass through the lining of our intestines but aren’t supposed to gain access to the rest of our body. We can survive without portions of the liver, but our bodies cannot survive without some functioning liver tissue.

Materials that are not able to pass through the wall of the small intestine collect in the large intestine, also referred to as the colon. The large intestine has three main functions. One is to act like a sponge and absorb excess water so we don’t dehydrate. When the colon is irritated and not functioning properly, it doesn’t absorb as it should and we can end up with diarrhea. Billions of bacteria also live in the large intestine, making it a very important part of the microbiome (the individual collection of bacteria that lines our guts, airways, and skin). These bacteria consume the food residue that passes by, and in exchange provide us with important minerals and vitamins including vitamin K and biotin. The third important function of the colon is to absorb these vitamins, which are important for good health. The colon creates a solid material from the undigested remainder, referred to as stool, which passes into the rectum, where it is stored in preparation for evacuation through the anus.

In short, the answer to the question of how food is digested is this: Our digestive systems, by utilizing chemical and mechanical processes, enable our bodies to break down foods into their components, absorb the nutrients, and expel the waste. Nutrients from the food we eat are absorbed through the small intestine, and the large intestine absorbs water, along with the vitamins and minerals released by bacteria.

Our bodies are composed of trillions of cells which are continually performing their daily functions: making proteins, reproducing, and dying. Nutrients, including fatty acids, cholesterol, amino acids/peptides, sugars, vitamins, and minerals, are needed to create more DNA and the material to build more cells. Without the influx of nutrients, our cells cannot function or reproduce and will eventually die. With prolonged starvation, organs fail and eventually, the whole body will die. Dietary sugars, fats, and proteins are all important foodstuffs we need for normal metabolism.

See all our posts on food safety here

Indoor Air Toxins 101: The Benefits of Aromatherapy

benefits of aromatherapy

Aromatherapy is not used to hide unpleasant odors. Rather, it is a form of alternative medicine that uses plant extracts and aromatic plant oils to alter one’s mood and improve cognitive, psychological, and physical well-being. Among the other benefits of aromatherapy, it allows the body’s immune system to strengthen and improves one’s ability to heal. Aromatherapy has become a large field of study, with the goal of creating balance of the body, mind, and spirit.

Many companies capitalizing on the “fad” of aromatherapy have created synthetic fragrances and infused their oils and candles with them, instead of using genuine plant material. Chemists may tell you that the active ingredient in the synthetic variety is the same as in the plant extract, but those who use these products will tell you that the physiological effects are not the same. Not only are the benefits of the aromatherapy reportedly lost in synthetic production, the synthetic varieties generate VOCs, which can degrade air quality instead of enhancing it!

Medical research on the benefits of aromatherapy is limited, but growing. These products are not regulated by the FDA, so if you decide to try out aromatherapy for your home, make sure you purchase genuine plant extract materials and essential oils. Aromatherapy oils can be placed on dryer balls, placed into diffusers, mixed with beeswax in candles, or dripped onto potpourri.

The Lampe Berger is a unique form of diffuser which has been around since 1898, when it was first created by a Parisian pharmacist named Maurice Berger. According to its manufacturer’s website, this diffuser was initially conceived as a way to limit the spread of sepsis within hospitals by purifying the air. These products are not used in hospitals anymore but are mainly used in businesses and in homes, where they rid a room of undesirable odors and produce a subtle relaxing fragrance. I have enjoyed using a Lampe Berger for many years. Different fragrances can be used to create different moods in different rooms. These diffusers have not been found to produce benzene, styrene, naphthalene, formaldehyde, or acetaldehyde. They do produce some ozone, but at safe levels.

I’d recommend investigating the benefits of aromatherapy. Choose an appealing fragrance and pick a method of dispersion. Try it and see how you feel with its use. With clean, optimized air, your home will truly become a refuge, a place to relax.

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

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