Indoor Air Pollution

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Most people spend the majority of their time indoors, where air can be much more polluted than it is outdoors. Growing evidence suggests that poor indoor air quality contributes to increased health care costs and productivity loss. Still, there are no public health standards for indoor air quality outside of regulations for occupational exposures. Concern about potential health effects and related costs have prompted some states to enact legislation to improve indoor air quality in schools, offices, and private residences.

Air consists of various elements and differs substantially from place to place. The number of health problems caused by polluted indoor air varies as well, ranging from temporary discomfort to more serious conditions such as lung disease and cancer. Some of the most common indoor air pollutants are:

  • Second-hand smoke;
  • Biological pollutants (mold, bacteria, dust mites);
  • Nitrogen dioxide;
  • Carbon monoxide;
  • Radon;
  • Volatile organic compounds (paints, varnishes, pesticides, and cleaning products); and
  • Formaldehyde (contained in some forms of pressed and laminated wood products, and also in tobacco smoke)

Air quality is extremely important to human health because the lungs, which are well-designed for extracting oxygen from the air, provide a significant pathway for toxicants. According to the American Lung Association, the death rate from lung disease has risen faster than the death rate for almost any other disease during the past decade lung disease now claims over 300,000 lives each year in the United States, making it the third leading cause of death. Rates for asthma, a disease that is exacerbated by poor air quality, have nearly doubled in the last two decades.

Probably the most common group of health complaints relates to "sick building syndrome." Sick building syndrome occurs when a large number of people in a building report a variety of non-specific health symptoms, which usually subside after people leave the building. Unfortunately, no general cause for this problem has been found, and research has resulted in numerous and sometimes contradictory explanations, ranging from ventilation, mold, and the combined effects of multiple pollutants at low concentrations, and other environmental factors (e.g., heating, lighting, or noise).

Much of the rise in indoor air quality complaints is attributed to an increase in air conditioning and weatherproofing, both of which can reduce the circulation of outdoor air. Low ventilation rates also can lead to moisture build-up, another source of indoor air problems. High humidity caused by malfunctioning or inadequate ventilation systems, leaky roofs, or water damage can promote mold growth, which can trigger asthma and cause lung and other health problems. Humidity also encourages the growth of dust mites—microscopic arthropods that live in bedding, upholstered furniture and carpeting. Dust mites are a potent allergen and can trigger asthma attacks.

Growing consciousness about indoor air quality problems in non-industrial settings has prompted the federal government to take a variety of actions. The EPA has dealt with the problem by publishing a series of voluntary guidance documents to assist building owners and others in maintaining good indoor air quality.


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