Just what am I breathing?
Indoor Air in the Home
The greatest personal exposure to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) is from air in our homes and not from the outdoors. The US Environmental Protection Agency released a study in 1985, the Total Exposure Assessment Methodology (TEAM), which revealed very high exposure of 11 VOCs in personal respired air. The TEAM study was consistent with earlier results. Higher levels of one or more VOCs can be found indoors and are often 10 times higher than the outdoors.
The elevated levels of compounds in household air can be attributed to industrial advances. In the 1970s, building techniques were changed to accommodate for the “oil shortage”. New energy-efficient homes that would reduce air exchange between inside and outside in order to decrease the amount of energy needed to maintain the climate were emphasized. Unfortunately, the newer homes would also retain the gas venting from construction materials (known as off-gassing) at higher levels than older homes. During the same timeframe, a tremendous increase in VOC containing compounds was introduced in building materials, fabrics and home furnishings. Whether outdoors or indoors, at work or at home, the truth is, solvents are being inhaled. The most concerning areas are often the workplace and the home.
Carpet as a Major Source of Indoor Air Chemicals
Carpeting alone can be a significant factor in the emission of VOCs and retention of pesticide residues. Anderson Labs began testing carpet samples for its effect on the immune system. In testing over 400 samples, they found neurotoxins present in more than 90% of samples, including some that can cause death. In 1993, the EPA sponsored the Non-Occupational Pesticide Exposure Study (NOPES) which confirmed that indoor air is indeed more toxic than outdoor air. The EPA researchers found that concentrations of pesticides in indoor air were highest in the summer and lowest in the winter, corresponding with the seasonal patterns of pesticide use.
Toddlers and infants are at greatest risk for exposure to carpet and dust bonded pesticides as they spend the most time in contact with carpet and are continuously placing things from the carpet into their mouths. According to the NOPES study, this route of exposure likely provides infants and toddlers with nearly all of non-dietary exposure to certain solvents: DDT, aldrin, altrazine, and carbaryl.
Adverse Health Effects of Solvents
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency performed the National Human Adipose Tissue survey that identified 4 solvents which were present in 100% of participants tissue samples tested across the country (xylene, dichlorobenzene, ethylphenol, and styrene). Regular exposure of citizens to VOCs must have occurred over time in order for these solvents to be deposited in fat tissue.
VOCs act as both peripheral and central nervous system neurotoxins which can lead to diminished cognitive function and motor movements, tremors, decreased memory and reaction time, mood disorders, irritability and fatigue. Kidney damage, immunotoxicity and cancer have also been implicated.
Solvents have been found to affect hormone levels including decreased testosterone and increased insulin levels. As a result infertility, decreased sperm count, increased rates of spontaneous abortion and increased rates of fetal malformation have frequently manifested. Blood disorders have also been found to occur.
The indoor air levels of solvents and formaldehyde are closely associated with increased rates of asthma and chronic bronchitis especially in children. The typical presentation of low dose formaldehyde exposure includes upper respiratory irritations such as rhinitis, sinusitis and pharyngitis, lower respiratory symptoms of wheezing and persistent flu-like symptoms.
The quality of air in our home can have a direct impact on our health. The high levels of VOCs that have been found and their adverse effects are concerning, especially for children. Purifying the air we breathe and removing these solvents from our bodies is an important step in maintaining our overall well-being. For more information refer to the Toxic Home to see your daily exposure (www.everydayexposures.com)
- Environmental Medicine Part 2 – Health Effects of and Protection from Ubiquitous Airborne Solvent Exposures Walter J. Crinnion, ND
- Toxic Nation Report (A Report on pollution in Canadians) 2005
- Chemical Canada (Toxic Nation Report)
- Thrasher J, Broughton A. The Poisoning of Our Homes and Workplaces. Santa Ana, CA: Seadora, Inc. Publ; 1989
- Whitemore RW, Immerman FW, Camann DE, et al. Non-occupational exposures to pesticides for residents of two U.S. cities. Arch Environ Contam Toxicol 1994; 26:47-59.
- Wallace LA, Pellizzari ED, Hartwell TD, et al. Personal exposure, indoor-outdoor relationships, and breath levels of toxic air pollutants measured for 355 persons in New Jersey. EPA 0589
- Wallace LA, Pellizzari ED, Hartwell TD, et al. Personal exposure, indoor-outdoor relationships, and breath levels of toxic air pollutants measured for 425 persons in urban, suburban and rural areas. EPA 0589. Presented at annual meeting of Air Pollution Control Association, June 25, 1984. San Francisco, CA.