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May/June 2007

Open the Window and Air Out!

Melissa Cooper Vachon

With the blustery winds of winter behind us, it’s time to open the windows and air out.  Exchange the old, stagnant air in your home with the fresh, spring air outside.  Even if you have outdoor allergies, a periodic airing out (when allergen levels are low) will keep your indoor air healthier.

Airtight construction, along with an increase in the number of chemicals in the marketplace each year, has led to the air in our homes being more polluted than the air outside.  This is especially important since we spend 90% or more of our time indoors.

Indoor air pollution can aggravate existing conditions of asthma, allergies, and sinusitis. It can also cause headaches and nausea.  In more extreme cases indoor air pollution can lead to what is called sick building syndrome. 

Buildings can make people sick because household furnishings such as paint, carpet, flooring, cabinetry, and counters commonly contain VOCs (volatile organic compounds).  Being “volatile” means the chemicals readily evaporate at room temperature.  When we think of something evaporating, we may visualize it disappearing.  In fact, this simply means the chemical is transferring from a solid state to a gaseous state, thus  becoming easier for us to breathe in.

According to the EPA many VOCs such as formaldehyde (which offgasses from glues or adhesives in particle board), styrene (found in the backing of most carpet), benzene (common in paint, varnishes, and wallpaper), and toluene (found in caulk, ceiling tiles, and flooring) are either known or probable carcinogens.  These VOCs can harm our neurological, respiratory, and immune systems as well.

We may further injure our indoor air quality when cleaning or using other common chemicals.  According to the American Lung Association, “Household cleaning agents, personal care products, pesticides, paints, hobby products, and solvents may be sources of hundreds of potentially harmful chemicals.  Such components in many household and personal care products can cause dizziness, nausea, allergic reactions, eye/skin/respiratory tract irritation and cancer.” 

Fortunately, many alternatives to the air-compromising chemicals are available.  Just as the term sick building syndrome is now in our vocabulary, so is the term “green building”.  Low VOC and VOC-free paints are easily available at the corner store or through the mail.  Instead of pressed wood with urea-formaldehyde based glues, we can now find cabinets and countertops made from wheatboard or other agricultural fibers.  Bamboo, cork, natural linoleum, natural wool carpet, and hardwood are widely available flooring options.  Even caulk, stains and varnishes can be purchased without VOCs. 

You also don’t have to rely on household cleaners with chemicals and warning labels to get the job done.  Companies such as Natural Choices, Seventh Generation, and Earth Friendly (to name a few) offer effective products without harsh chemicals.  Additionally, common household ingredients like baking soda, vinegar, lemon juice, olive oil, and mild liquid soap are the building blocks for countless do-it-yourself cleaning recipes.  Refer to books by Annie Berthold-Bond, Debra Lynn Dadd, and Karen Logan for a multitude of tried and true recipes.

To create healthier air in your home today:

  • Open the windows!!  Provide an escape route for household chemicals and exchange stagnant air for fresh air.
  • Use non-toxic household cleaners.
  • Avoid pesticides inside the home and in the yard.
  • Take shoes off at the door to minimize the amount of pesticides and other chemicals tracked in from outside.
  • Vacuum regularly and use a vacuum with a HEPA filter to capture the fine particles. 
  • Employ plants!!  NASA research has shown that plants can remove VOCs from indoor air.  One plant for every 100 square feet substantially reduces VOC levels.  Some plants are adept at removing formaldehyde - others clean the air of xylene or toluene, styrene, or ammonia more efficiently. 

By following this short list of recommendations you can make your home a much safer and more pleasant place to live.

Melissa C. Vachon, B.S. offers environmental consultations for the home and office. For more information on non-toxic products or for a personalized consultation, contact The Illumined Heart Light Center at 301 W. Fourth, Suite 455 in downtown Royal Oak.  (248) 545-4852

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