Lynn Little


February 01, 2002

Chemicals can pollute indoors

By Lynn F. Little

When we think of air pollution, outdoor air comes to mind, but air inside our homes can be more contaminated than the air outside. That's important when we consider that we spend about 90 percent of our time indoors - even more during winter months.

Many homes were built or remodeled for energy efficiency, with little consideration for fresh and healthy indoor air. Various furnishings, combustion appliances and household products can compromise indoor air quality.

Lead-based paint can produce serious health problems. Lead has been banned in gasoline and household paint, but it's still present, especially in older homes. It can cause delayed development, learning problems, hyperactivity and other difficulties in children who ingest small but regular amounts.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates 57 million homes in the United States still contain some lead paint. Before 1950, paint contained as much as 50 percent lead. Paint in good condition poses little risk, but paint that is peeling or is deteriorating on surfaces is risky. Dust created from the remodeling of an older home also can be a source of lead contamination.


Combustion by-products from wood stoves, fireplaces, unvented space heaters and gas stoves can damage the respiratory tract and irritate the eyes, nose and throat. These appliances must be properly vented. Carbon monoxide, a component of combustion, can kill. In small amounts, it can cause flu and allergy symptoms.

Excessive amounts of formaldehyde, used as a preservative and adhesive in building products and furnishings, can trigger asthma attacks and damage internal organs, as well as the central nervous system. Take special care when sanding, removing old paint or exposing existing walls, activities that can release formaldehyde, asbestos, carpet fumes and leaded paint dust.

Some relatively common household products can cause health problems if not properly used.

Such products include solvents, paints, paint strippers, wood preservatives, aerosol sprays, moth repellents, air fresheners, stored fuels, automotive products, hobby supplies, pesticides and some cleaners and disinfectants.

Improper use and storage of these products can result in short-term effects, including eye and respiratory irritation and headaches. Long-term exposure can cause loss of coordination, damage to the liver, kidneys and central nervous system. Too much exposure also increases the risk of cancer in humans and animals.

Watch for products containing volatile organic compounds, which are organic solvents that evaporate easily into the air. Some may be flammable. The following are volatile compounds listed on product labels: petroleum distillates, mineral spirits, chlorinated solvents, carbon tetrachloride, methylene chloride, trichloroethane, toluene and formaldehyde.

To minimize potential health problems:

* Always read labels before buying a product. Note the product's ingredients and beware of warnings for its use.

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> Use household products only for their intended purpose and according to manufacturer's instructions.

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> Use the product in a well-ventilated area.

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> Choose products packaged to reduce the chance of spills, leaks and child tampering.

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> Keep household products in their original containers so safety information and directions for use stay with the product.

Two useful Internet sites for additional information are:

Healthy Indoor Air for America's Homes and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Lynn F. Little is a Family & Consumer Sciences educator with the Maryland Cooperative Extension, Washington County. Maryland Cooperative Extension programs are open to all citizens without regard to race, color, sex, disability, age, religion or national origin.

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