The Inside Story About Indoor Air Quality

We can cut off our supplies of water and food for days or even weeks without dying, but our bodies cannot go more than a few minutes without oxygen and still survive. Sadly, in today’s world the oxygen we breathe is becoming contaminated with more and more pollutants. We breathe these in through our lungs as well as absorbing them through the skin, the largest organ in the body. Becoming aware of the sources of air pollution around us is the first step to knowing how to eliminate them from our lives, both indoors and out.

A major contributor to air pollution is chemicals. The EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention approves without restrictions approximately 90% of the 1,700 new compounds submitted each year for PMN (premanufacture notice)1, applying statues from the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976 and the Pollution Prevention Act of 1990. Only a quarter of the 82,000 chemicals in use in the US have been tested for toxicity.2

In September, 2009, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson announced efforts underway in Congress to reauthorize and significantly strengthen the effectiveness of TSCA, citing:

…not only has the TSCA fallen behind the industry it’s supposed to regulate, it’s been proven an inadequate tool for providing protection against chemical risks that the public rightfully expects….Manufacturers of existing chemicals aren’t required to develop the data on toxicity and exposure needed to assess potential risks and demonstrate that the chemicals meet risk-based safety standards. As a result, there are troubling gaps in the available data on many widely used chemicals in commerce….On new chemicals, companies have no legal obligation to develop new information, only to supply data that may already exist.”3

In “The Pollution Within” (National Geographic, Oct. 2006), author David Ewing Duncan reports on an analysis of chemicals found in his body and their possible sources. This fascinating, yet alarming description of his “collection of chemicals” gathered throughout his lifetime reveals how the body continues to store dangerous toxins such as PCBs and DDT, even long after they are banned, accumulating as a toxic body burden. More troubling is the ominous PBDE (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) levels detected during the analysis. Since they were introduced 30 years ago as fire retardants in drapes, mattresses, furniture, carpeting, construction materials, clothing and more, our world has become saturated with PBDEs, which have been linked to impaired reproductive health and cognitive functioning. Whether PBDE toxicity will eventually be tied to our rising rates of adult infertility and autism in children remains to be seen.

Another dangerously pervasive chemical air pollutant is the class of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) found in paint, upholstery, carpets, plastics, cleaning products, pressed wood, cosmetics, air fresheners, dry-cleaning products and more. They off-gas toxic vapors that cause symptoms such as headaches, eye, nose and throat irritation and dizziness. You can get an idea of the effects of off-gassing by taking a whiff of gasoline when you fill up your car. The accumulation of VOCs in the body can become a health burden, contributing to more serious health issues from asthma to cancer to central nervous system damage.

In the past several years, a growing body of scientific evidence indicates that indoor air can be more seriously polluted than outdoor air in even the most industrialized cities. There are several reasons for this. Increased energy efficiency measures have resulted in some buildings being sealed up too tightly to provide adequate indoor ventilation while the amount of chemical contaminants we are exposed to indoors on a daily basis has multiplied exponentially. With the introduction of organophosphates (chemical crop fertilizers) in the 1940s, chemicals began invading our indoor lives as additives in cleaning and household products, building materials and home furnishings of all kinds. Organophosphates are known neurotoxins that affect the brain and nervous system. With people spending approximately 90 percent of their time indoors, the health risks posed by indoor air pollution are far greater than previously considered.

Indoor Air Solutions

The most effective way to improve indoor air quality is to eliminate individual sources of pollution, reduce their emissions and to increase ventilation.


Ventilation is a must for every building. Some newer houses have an elaborate mechanical heat recovery system that is automatic (and expensive), but there are also simple ventilation fixes to improve indoor air quality. Sleep with a window cracked open in your bedroom. Run a ventilation fan while cooking or open a window close to the stove. Most houses have an attic or crawl space where an inexpensive whole-house fan can be installed. This will ventilate your entire house with even a couple of windows open an inch. Open all doors and windows for about 1 hour per day. We may be reluctant during the heating season to open windows but remember that most heating systems contribute to some pollution in the house as well as use the valuable oxygen. As we tighten up our houses for energy efficiency, this is even a better reason to ventilate.

Houseplants are nature’s air filters; they breathe in carbon dioxide and neutralize some pollutants as well as give off healthy oxygen. The most effective indoor air cleaning plants are aloe vera, ficus, elephant ear philodendron, English ivy, golden pathos, peace lily and spider plant.

It’s also a good idea to open your car doors for five minutes before traveling; the sun beating down on the plastic dashboard causes chemicals to break down and outgas into the car. The upholstery is treated with chemical stain inhibitors and more. These produce vapors that are preferable to disperse rather than inhale through the lungs and absorb through the skin.

Home Cleaning Products

Eventually the high tech world of cutting-edge cleaning products will catch up to grandma’s common sense wisdom. Use home cleaning products made with as few chemicals as possible. The basics of baking soda, washing soda, borax, white vinegar, salt, lemon, vegetable soaps, vegetable oils (olive, coconut, linseed) and hydrogen peroxide are excellent cleaners and sanitizers. Many books are now available on safe, green cleaning. Dishwashing products that are plant-based rather than petroleum-based make a big difference as there is residue left on everything, including glassware. Liquid dish soap is a leading cause of poisonings in the home to children under the age of six as most brands contain formaldehyde and ammonia. Health food stores provide safe cleaners in bulk. The number of ingredients in these products is very small and you can bring in your own recycled glass container — a good way to cut down on trash. 

A lesson in chemistry is appropriate here to help understand the mixing of ingredients. We know that bleach and ammonia together produce a gas that can severely burn the lungs, and that mixing white vinegar and baking soda will cut through a slow moving drain by producing heat. Mixing two slightly toxic compounds can create an exponentially toxic compound — a mixture that is more than doubly toxic the levels of each individual ingredient. Use guidance even on the safe products.

Laundry Products

Chemical laundry products leave a residue on any fabric that you are breathing in, whether on clothing or bedding. Common fabric softeners contain several ingredients that are neurotoxins. The EPA even lists some of these ingredients as “no safe exposure limit” or “hazardous waste”4. Any fabric that gets damp (perspiration and humid air) activates a greater release of residue. And remember that cleaners go down the drain and ultimately into the ground water that affects plants, animals, insects and our own water supply.


Our bodies absorb more chlorine during a 15-minute bath or shower than they do when we drink eight glasses of chlorinated tap water. The best solution is a shower water filter. Also consider running the exhaust fan during your shower. And while you’re at it, get rid of the PVC shower curtain.

Personal Care and Beauty Products

Personal care products are a multi-billion dollar industry and most products are in toxic plastic containers. What goes on the skin gets into the tissues and blood. Look at the list of ingredients on your shampoo or other products. Even though the product may be labeled “natural” or “organic,” there may be undisclosed carcinogenic contaminants that are not on the label. Check products and ingredients at and

Impurities on the skin accumulate through pollution and diet. A salt water and baking soda bath on a regular basis helps draw these out. Learn how to make a variety of homemade personal care products from your local herbalist.

Fortunately, synthetic fragrances are becoming less popular as most perfumes are 100 percent chemicals. Natural plant oils are safer. Aromatherapy has become quite popular and is an excellent healing tool as well. 

1. “The Pollution Within,” David Duncan. National Geographic, October, 2006.
2. Ibid
3. “EPA Administrator Jackson Unveils New Administration Framework for Chemical Management Reform,” Sept. 29, 2009.
4. EPA Study Paper #A312, 1991.

“Indoor Air Pollution Fact Sheets, Air Pollution in your Home?” American Lung Association,
“The Hidden Dangers of Fragrances,” Environmental Health Coalition of Western Massachusetts. For a free copy send a business size SASE to Box 187, Northampton, MA 01061-0187.
Anderson, Nina and Albert Benoist, Your Health and Your House. Keats Publishing, 1994.
Berthold-Bond, Anne, Better Basics and More for the Home.Three Rivers Press, 1999.
Rapp, Doris J., M.D., Is This Your Child’s World?Bantam Books, 1996.

Mary Shaffer is a freelance writer and elder living self-sufficiently, sensibly and sustainably. Her approach to health care is self-care first and when help is needed search out more than one discipline. “I’m not a scientist nor have I studied medicine, but my years of research and healthy lifestyle have garnered me a great storehouse of practical information about healthy living on a budget.” Mary can be reached at 413-339-4342.