13 Hidden Sources of Indoor Air Pollution

The air inside your home could be making you sick, but you can evict major indoor air polluters with these tips.

May 11, 2016
woman wearing pollution mask

Smokestacks and tailpipes are obvious air-quality annihilators, but your main exposure to asthma-triggering, headache-creating air pollution is likely coming from right inside your own home! Major culprits like radon and cigarette smoke are probably already on your radar, but how about your showerhead or your cookware?

More: 7 Toxic Ingredients You Should Ban From Your Home

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that indoor air pollution can be up to eight times worse inside than outdoor dirty air. There are easy changes you can make to clear the air and reduce indoor air pollutants that have been linked to not only asthma attacks, but also dizzy spells, obesity, and—even worse—cancer.

Steamy Showers
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Steamy Showers

You may already filter your drinking water, but what about your shower water? President Obama's Cancer Panel recommended that installing both drinking- and shower-water filters could be one of the most important things you can do to protect yourself from developing cancer. During a 10-minute bath or shower, you can absorb 100 times more chlorine than you do drinking a gallon of the same water. Without a filter and ventilation, that toxic chlorine becomes airborne and gases throughout your home.

Easy Fix: To filter out chlorine, be sure to look for NSF/ANSI Standard 177 (like this one by Marrinn), which means it's third-party tested to effectively remove chlorine. If a water test turns up elevated levels of other contaminants, make sure you buy a filter that's certified to remove them.

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Your Scary Basement

You've probably heard about radon and the importance of properly testing for the naturally occurring, cancer-causing gas. While it's certainly important, there are other things in your basement that could be trashing your air, too. Paint cans, even sealed ones, often leak airway-annihilating volatile organic compounds, aka VOCs.

Easy Fix: Take old paint to a waste-collection facility for recycling or donate it to neighbors or a charity. Store any new paint in an unattached shed or garage, if possible. It's not just old, leftover paint cans that waft harmful airborne contaminants, but new ones, too.

More: Tips for a Happier (and Safer) Home Improvement Project

wooden table
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VOCs creep out of the glues and binders used in plywood and particleboard, composite wood products commonly used in household furnishings and cabinetry.

Easy Fix: Seal existing pressed-wood materials with AFM Safecoat Safe Seal to help keep the toxic compounds out of the air. In the future, look for Forest Stewardship Council-certified solid-wood products or lead-free secondhand furniture.

spraying deodorant
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Your Daily Beauty Routine

You may already eat organic (and if not, here's how to start going organic), but did you ever thing about the artificially perfumed and fragranced ingredients your skin and lungs readily absorb? While most of us don't roll out of bed looking like a million bucks, the truth is that between all of the deodorant, hair products, cologne, and other products we clean ourselves up with, we're likely coating ourselves with questionable ingredients nearly every day. That adds up.

Easy Fix: Look for safer personal care products at Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database to rate your current soaps, shampoos, lotions, and other potions. Don't freak if yours contains harmful ingredients. Just use the database to find safer products.

A good starting point is choosing safer soap. We like Dr. Bronner's Organic Baby Mild soap, perfect for little ones and adults. An easy trick for a healthier routine? Avoid anything that lists "parfum" or "fragrance" on the ingredients list.

More: Your No-Sweat Guide to Aluminum-Free Deodorant

Christmas ornament
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Off-Gassing Ornaments

Think your gingerbread cookie Christmas ornament is innocent? If it's made of plastic, the cute little holiday decoration could actually be polluting your indoor air. A 2009 study published in the journal Ground Water Monitoring & Remediation found that a single plastic "polyresin" Christmas ornament was polluting the home with the industrial solvent 1,2-dichlorethane (DCA), a possible human carcinogen.

Easy Fix: Opt for holiday decorations made of glass, fabrics, or other natural materials (or make your own edible ornaments), and and steer clear of plastics as much as possible.

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Cozy Carpeting

Carpeting might feel nice under your feet, but it's a bad choice in terms of protecting indoor air quality because its fibers trap dust and dander, triggering asthma and allergy attacks. Some carpets also off-gas VOCs, while carpet padding could be treated with hormone-disrupting flame-retardant chemicals.

Easy Fix: Damp-mopping hardwood or bamboo floors can rid the house of harmful dust. If you still want carpeting, choose Green Label products, which are said to contain lower VOC levels. A good vacuum (here's how to buy the best one) can go a long way toward improving indoor air quality, too. Look for ones with a HEPA filter; Hoover, Kenmore, Bissell, Eureka, and Miele brands have rated well in both Consumer Reports and Good Housekeeping Institute tests.

More: 9 Everyday Chemicals That Could Be Screwing with Your Fertility

Home Printer
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Home Printers

Ever feel dizzy after printing off a bunch of photos on your home computer? Those little ink cartridges often emit air-polluting VOCs and other lesser-known contaminants labeled as glymes. These solvent chemicals fall into the glycol ether family and are also used in some chemical carpet cleaners. The Environmental Protection Agency in 2011 announced it will take a stronger stance against glymes, which have been linked to higher rates of miscarriage.

Easy Fix: Only print what you need, and make sure your printing area is well ventilated.

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Mood Enhancers

There's nothing like a lit candle to set the mood, but most candles sold today emit cancer-causing benzene and toluene, as well as other respiratory-irritating hydrocarbon chemicals called alkanes and alkenes—these are things that come out of car tailpipe. Not sexy!

Easy Fix: Choose beeswax candles—they actually put off negative ions that help cleanse your air. Avoid synthetically scented candles. If you use aromatherapy, choose organic pure essential oils, like this lavender oil.

More: 5 Essential Oils That Will Replace Your Entire Medicine Cabinet

laundry room
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Your Laundry Room

Don't let clean clothes cost you your health. Laundry-product ingredients containing artificial perfumes and fragrances create laundry room and dryer vent pollution on par with vehicle exhaust. "This is an interesting source of pollution because emissions from dryer vents are essentially unregulated and unmonitored," says Anne C. Steinemann, professor of civil and environmental engineering and public affairs at University of Washington and lead author of a study looking into this air-quality issue. "If they're coming out of a smokestack or tailpipe, they're regulated, but if they're coming out of a dryer vent, they're not."

Easy Fix: Choose unscented, plant-based laundry detergents (or go homemade with these three recipes), and skip the dryer sheets and fabric softener. We like Biokleen Premium Plus laundry powder. It's powerful enough to work on cloth diapers!

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Your Clutter

Homes filled with ornaments, knick-knacks, and general clutter allow more places for allergens and chemical-laced dust to hide.

Easy Fix: Limiting the number of picture frames, figurines, and other dust traps in your home will help you breathe better, explains Jonathan Psenka, ND, author of Dr. Psenka's Seasonal Allergy Solution. (To get started, try this 10-step plan to declutter your kitchen.)

More: 14 Decluttering Secrets for Successful Spring Cleaning

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Moldy Houseplants

There's no doubt plants can filter and clean your indoor air (and these plants will boost your productivity). Houseplants may not be a good idea if you have a mold allergy or sensitivity, however; mold can grow in moist dirt, triggering your allergy symptoms.

Easy Fix: To help control mold growth in your potted plants, spread aquarium stones over the soil, Dr. Psenka recommends. Be sure to look for houseplants that haven't been treated with chemicals. Studies have shown systemic pesticides used on plants can wind up back in your air.

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Convenience Cookware

Nonstick cookware is a savior when it comes to quick cleanups after a meal, but polytetrafluoroethylene, the chemical used in nonstick cookware, can pollute the air in your home—so much so that it is known to kill pet birds. Equally bad, nonstick cookware has been linked to thyroid disease, obesity, and ADHD. (Check out these other thyroid damagers hiding out in your home.)

Easy Fix: If you currently use nonstick cookware, don't freak out. But when you start seeing scratches and nicks in the finish, replace it with untreated stainless steel, stoneware, or domestic cast-iron cookware

More: 6 Ways to Lower Your Body's Toxic Burden

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Your 'Clean' House

Mixing common household cleaners, such as ammonia and bleach, creates a dangerous level of lung-damaging ozone inside your house. Even if you don't accidentally create science-experiment combinations while cleaning, cleaners at the store often contain the same harmful asthma-triggering, hormone-disrupting perfumes and fragrances that candles, air fresheners, and soap and shampoo products do.

Easy Fix: Forget expensive, often toxic cleaners, and instead mix your own for pennies! Green cleaning staples like these include basic ingredients like hydrogen peroxide, white vinegar, and baking soda.

For more info on creating safer indoor air, check out these 19 ways to allergy-proof your home.

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