Indoor air pollutants pose health risks

Emily Dalnodar

Lethargy isn’t necessarily due to a boring text book, dizziness might not be the result of a beer and lung cancer might not always come from smoking.
Even when everything inside a home looks clean, indoor air pollution can be a deadly killer.
The Minnesota Public Interest Research Group recently completed a six-month study on indoor air pollution. The result is a folder bulging with information on almost every type of pollutant swimming inside a building.
This information is essential for University students renting or owning homes, said MPIRG administrator Sheila Williams, who headed the study, especially since there are no laws requiring landlords to test for these pollutants.
Air pollution inside a home, office or any indoor area can take many forms and is caused by a number of common sources. During winter, people spend most time indoors with little air circulation. This is the time of increased exposure to the air inside a building.
MPIRG officials conducted the study based on an earlier survey, where they found most students were uneducated about indoor air pollution.
The most typical kinds of air contaminants are radon gas, carbon monoxide, second-hand smoke and mold, Williams said.
“What worried me the most was second-hand smoke,” Williams said.
Being a mother, Williams said she was shocked to learn that children exposed to second-hand smoke are at high risk for asthma. In addition, these children are more likely to have reduced lung capacity, respiratory tract infections and inner-ear infections.
Not only is smoking bad for children, but smoking can actually increase one’s sensitivity to other pollutants, said David Grimsrud, University associate professor in the Department of Wood and Paper Science. Grimsrud has researched buildings for more than 20 years and does indoor air quality research.
The most effective ways to prevent second-hand smoke damage are quitting smoking completely and not allowing anyone else to smoke in the home. If a smoker insists on smoking inside, it should be a well ventilated room that no one else needs to enter.
In fact, ventilation is a good way to offset the effects of many kinds of indoor air pollutants, Grimsrud said.
According to information compiled by the research group, proper ventilation can decrease common pollutants such as dust, smoke, molds and chemicals from air fresheners, hair spray and other common households goods.
But ventilation is not a quick solution to problems as deadly as carbon monoxide or radon poisoning.
“Carbon monoxide seems to be more of an issue, but radon is more common. Roughly one in three homes in Minnesota have a high level of radon,” said George Fischer, director of environmental health at the Department of Health.
Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer behind smoking, according to the Environmental Law Institute. It is a naturally occurring radioactive gas produced by the break-down of uranium, which is found in the soil. This radon, which has no taste or smell, then seeps through cracks into the home.
Minnesota has a large number of high-level, radon-contaminated homes, Williams said. This is affected by how much radon is in the soil around a home and how it was constructed.
Houses can now be built radon-resistant, Williams said, but not all homes are completely safe despite the precautions. All buildings should be tested for both radon and carbon monoxide poisoning, she said.
Although in Minnesota carbon monoxide poisoning is not as prevalent a problem as radon, it can still cause serious medical conditions and even death, according to the MPIRG study.
Carbon monoxide has no color, odor or taste, and in high levels, can kill a person instantly. Carbon monoxide is produced whenever a fuel-burning appliance isn’t combusting properly. It can be caused by using a charcoal grill indoors or by vehicle emissions from an idling car or truck in a garage or any confined space.
“A common source of carbon monoxide poisoning is motor vehicle exhaust from the garage infiltrating the home from under doors or cracks,” said Mary Haugen, spokeswoman for Minnegasco.
Mold is another frequent cause of air contaminants inside a building, Williams said. Mold breeds biological pollutants, which can also come from pollen, dust mites and cockroaches, and animal hair, feathers and skin.
Mold is seen often indoors in the winter, especially after a wet summer or fall season, Williams said. It grows from moisture that is trapped inside a home or building. Sometimes it is obvious as stains on ceilings or walls — usually in cooler places like closets or basements.
But sometimes it will hide between walls or under the floors. Most mold-related problems display themselves in the form of sneezing, itching, watery eyes and headaches. But it can be life-threatening to those prone to asthma attacks.
Although the information packets are stuffed full, Williams said she wants to include even more data in the next edition, due out in a few weeks. She said she would like to include more knowledge on lead contamination.
She also stressed the importance of indoor air pollution facts to college students who rent or own homes and are faced for the first time with these kinds of problems. Some people may not even know they are at risk, she said.
“Renters of homes and apartments at the college-level can have this information before they actually rent. There are no laws for landlords to check for this stuff,” Williams said.
The information MPIRG has compiled is titled “Breathe Easy — Indoor Air Quality Survival Packet,” and is available anytime from the MPIRG offices.