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Air Quality


Why worry about indoor air quality?

Most adults spend the majority of time indoors particularly during the cooler autumn and winter months.  Research provides some interesting statistics:

What causes poor indoor air quality?

Buildings remain the primary environment for our everyday activities so it is important to consider the materials that are used in their construction, maintenance and operation.

Building Construction

Since about the 1980s, buildings have been constructed as tightly sealed structures to conserve energy. At home, we often shut windows year round to keep our houses cool in summertime and warm in the winter. In addition, we work in buildings with windows that do not open.

Building Operations & Maintenance

Certain materials including paints, varnishes, lacquers and cleaning and disinfecting compounds emit volatile chemicals into the air. Click to read a recent study about particle emissions from office printers and the news report about it.  You can also read a letter from one of the study’s authors who answers a few FAQs. The glues used in engineered wood, carpet backing, and to install flooring emit formaldehyde. Because pollutants cannot escape in tightly sealed buildings with closed windows, they build up in indoor air and circulate through the heating and cooling systems causing a variety of acute and sometimes chronic health effects. Poor indoor air quality can aggravate the following conditions:

  • Asthma
  • Allergic reactions
  • Bronchitis
  • Ear and upper respiratory infections in children

Can indoor air pollutants contribute to cancer?


Homes, apartments, and other buildings built before 1978 may contain lead paint, which, if disturbed, can create lead dust.  Lead dust can be swallowed or inhaled and is known to affect the nervous system and blood cells. Lead exposure can be particularly severe for children. The ToxGuide for Lead from ATSDR provides an array of information on lead.

The following steps will help you keep your home free of lead dust and other particles:
  • Wash floors and windowsills often with soap and water and use fresh water to rinse.
  • Use a vacuum with a HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filter. A broom or carpet sweeper will not remove lead dust.
  • HEPA filters placed in each room of your home will remove multiple contaminants. Be sure to change filter elements frequently.

Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that enters homes through openings or cracks in the foundation. Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer after tobacco smoke and accounts for about 20 percent of all lung cancers. The Radon Division of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection estimates that 40 percent of homes in the commonwealth have high radon levels.

The DEP provides a map of Pennsylvania showing regions affected by radon decomposition and the extent to which they are affected.  If you live in an area with high levels of background lead, you should have your home tested. If testing shows that radon levels are high (greater than 4 picocuries/liter), there are radon remediation companies that can mitigate radon seepage into your home.  Following are links to some helpful guides on home testing and radon remediation:


Improvements in air-tight building technologies have enhanced energy efficiency.  Yet interior areas can sometimes trap moisture due to poor ventilation systems, creating the perfect condition to spur mold growth.  Mold spores can emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and mycotoxins, which are natural organic compounds capable of instigating a toxic response in both animals and humans.

Often the response to molds is allergic and can include eye irritation, fatigue, headaches, dizziness, and may sometimes cause more serious respiratory distress and immune dysfunction.  Health agencies have failed to set exposure limits as people are affected differently when exposed to molds.  However, the best safety measure is to prevent mold growth from the start.  Read more facts about mold provided by Alliance for Healthy Homes.

A study published in Basic Life Science journal concludes that “evidence from animal experiments provides enough information to indicate that most of the mycotoxins are carcinogens.”

Sick Building Syndrome

Sometimes people experience health effects that seem to be linked to time spent in a building. Sick building syndrome (SBS) refers to a variety of symptoms related to the indoor environment. An individual suffering from SBS may only notice symptoms while in a particular room or area or may notice symptoms throughout the building.  According to the World Health Organization and EPA, the poor indoor air quality that causes SBS often results from buildings not being maintained in accordance with the original design and prescribed operating procedures.

Typical symptoms of sick building syndrome include:
  • headaches
  • dizziness
  • irritation of eyes, nose or throat
  • dry cough
  • sensitivity to smells
  • poor concentration
The National Safety Council website provides a description of causes and remedies for Sick Building Syndrome.

Building-Related Illness

Unlike sick building syndrome, building-related illness (BRI) is less common and can be linked to a specific source or contaminant in a building.  A person suffering from BRI may not have any symptoms at the time of exposure, but the long term effects can be quite serious.  A well-known example of a building-related illness is mesothelioma, a form of lung cancer due to long-term asbestos exposure. Check out this YouTube clip where Dr. Davis talks about Asbestos.

How else can we fight back?

There are some straightforward ways to improve the air quality in your home. Visit our Household Products page to learn about the effects of products we may use every day in our homes and about some safer alternatives. Click on The Dirty Dozen (PDF) to discover ways to keep dust and dirt out of your home. Click here for information on types of air cleaners to install in your home. Click here for information on ridding your home of tobacco smoke using plants. Of course, while smokers work on beating their habit, they should never smoke indoors.

Adapted from a document prepared by Pamela J. Davis.  “Molds, Toxic Molds, and Indoor Air Quality.”  California Research Bureau, California State Library.  March 2001. Hussain, AM; “Mycotoxins as carcinogens,” Basic Life Sci; 34, 1985, 87-96.
Adapted from a document prepared by Pamela J. Davis.  “Molds, Toxic Molds, and Indoor Air Quality.”  California Research Bureau, California State Library.  March 2001.

Hussain, AM; “Mycotoxins as carcinogens,” Basic Life Sci; 34, 1985, 87-96.