What is Polluting the Indoor and Outdoor Air?

We don’t think much about the air we breathe. We can’t see it. We can’t even really feel it. But we know we need it. While it’s easy to forget about, it warrants more of our attention, because indoors and outdoors, there are various particles, toxins, and pollutants threatening the quality of our breathing air — and thus, our health.

So, what exactly pollutes the indoor and outdoor air? Here are some of the threats you need to be aware of.

Indoor Air Pollutants in the Home, Office, and Classroom

Even if you clean regularly and have a spotless home, there might be pollutants you don’t know about.

1. VOCs

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are found in a lot of household objects and products, including:

  • Cosmetics.
  • Cleaning products.
  • Furniture and building materials.
  • Pesticides.
  • Air fresheners.

If you’re exposed to high levels of VOCs, it can negatively affect your health. You might experience symptoms like:

  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Headaches.
  • Dizziness.
  • Irritated eyes, nose, and throat.

2. Candles

We burn candles to make the environment more calming and soothing. But depending on what your candle is made of, you might be releasing toxins into your indoor breathing air.

Parrafin wax is what you need to be careful of. It comes from petroleum, making it a byproduct of crude oil. Burning these candles creates benzene and toluene, both of which are toxic and happen to be carcinogens, meaning they can cause cancer.

You also have to be aware of any synthetic chemicals in the fragrance, formaldehyde, and lead wicks. Once you strike a match and light the candle, it can start releasing these chemicals and compounds into the air you breathe.

3. Airborne Diseases

While you might have more control over airborne diseases in your home, it might not be the same story for the office or classroom. Airborne diseases in the classroom can include:

  • The common cold: Children are key vehicles. And if they’re exposed to it in the classroom, then there’s a chance that they’ll bring it home with them. Even surgical masks have a hard time stopping it.
  • The flu: Research has found the influenza A virus lurking on up to 50% of tested school surfaces.
  • Conjunctivitis (pinkeye): It’s highly contagious and one study found it lingering on 8% of classroom desks and 12.5% of classroom floors.

This isn’t the whole story. We didn’t touch on secondhand smoke, wildfires, radon gas, and the germs and bacteria that your pets bring inside.

If it seems a little scary, that’s because it is! Air quality affects our health tremendously. Side effects can range from minor upper respiratory irritation to more significant chronic problems, acute respiratory infections, and lung cancer. Coughing, congestion, phlegm, wheezing, sneezing, and chest discomfort can also occur. The American Heart Association says that air pollution can contribute to cardiovascular illness and death. Even more short-term exposure to pollutants can increase your likelihood of experiencing a heart attack, stroke, heart failure, and arrhythmias.

What Pollutes the Outdoor Air?

Many of us like to escape into the outdoors for some fresh air. And while the air outside is often less polluted than it is inside (surprisingly), there are still certain outdoor pollutants you need to know about.

1. Carbon Monoxide

You might have a carbon monoxide detector in your home, which is great! But remember that it’s outside, too. Carbon monoxide is colorless and odorless, making it a silent threat. If you’re exposed to higher levels of it, you might experience dizziness and confusion, and it can be deadly.

Where exactly is carbon monoxide coming from? In terms of the outdoors, it’s released when an appliance or device burns fuel (coal, gasoline, oil, etc.). The biggest outdoor culprits are motor vehicles and machinery.

2. Ground-Level Ozone

Similar to carbon monoxide, ground-level ozone comes from vehicles, in addition to power plants, refineries, and industrial boilers. At higher levels of exposure, you might experience bronchitis, coughing, a sore throat, asthma attacks, and compromised airways. It can also trigger more aggravated lung diseases.

3. Lead

What’s perhaps most concerning about lead is that it can travel a longer distance, further contaminating particles and groundwater. Outdoors, lead can come from vehicles, paint, and some kinds of industrial facilities. If it gets into your body, it spreads through your blood and collects in your bones. Lead exposure can affect a number of bodily functions and processes, including:

  • Cardiovascular health.
  • Immunity.
  • Reproduction.
  • Kidney function.
  • Neurology.

Indoor and outdoor air offer their own unique challenges, but they also overlap. Outdoor air affects indoor air, and vice versa. So, what can you do about it?

Regarding the outdoor air, we don’t have a ton of control. But one idea is to check the current air quality in your area using airnow.gov. This will tell you what the level of pollution is like and whether or not it’s safe to be outside.

For your indoor air quality, there are several ways you can take action. Here are just a few suggestions:

  • Bring an air purifier into your home, office, or classroom. Be sure it uses a medical-grade HEPA 13 filter. These are the most powerful and effective.
  • Opt for soy or beeswax candles over paraffin wax.
  • Dust, mop, and vacuum on a weekly basis. If you have pets, consider vacuuming more frequently.
  • Have a designated spot to comb/de-shed your pet.
  • If the pollution outdoors is higher, keep your windows and doors closed as much as possible.
  • On high-pollution days, consider wearing a mask if you need to leave the house.
  • Avoid wearing shoes indoors.
  • Give high-moisture areas — like the bathrooms and laundry room — proper ventilation to avoid mold growth.

While we’ll never be able to 100% eliminate our exposure to air pollution, there are smaller steps we can take to at least reduce the damage.

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