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Breathing Room

Just because you're indoors doesn't mean you're free from pollutants.


ention "environmental toxins" and you'll find that many people think about the need to banish spewing smokestacks, polluted bays and eye-stinging smog.

All noble efforts to be sure, but anyone committed to cleaning up the environment and preservinghealth should also look closer to home.

"Levels of pollution indoors can be higher than outdoors," said Jed Waldman, chief of the Indoor Air Quality Program for the California Department of Health Services.

Over the years, indoor pollution, which can lead to health problems or aggravate existing conditions, has become a growing concern.

The increase in indoor pollutants, Waldman said, is caused by a number of factors, including the release of irritating chemicals from pressed wood furniture, which has become more common, and from carpets.

Homeowners' overuse of pesticides and cleaning products can contribute to indoor pollution too. Carbon monoxide leaking from gas appliances is yet another pollutant. And spores from mold growth can pollute as they make people with allergies and asthma miserable.

It doesn't take many sources of pollution to turn good air into bad quickly.

"If you have a gas stove, a fireplace and a teenager who uses personal care products to excess, you have high pollution," Waldman said.

The air in your home can become even more polluted depending on your decorating and remodeling choices and your cleaning habits.

The good news: Minimizing indoor pollution is relatively simple and inexpensive--if you know the risks and how to reduce them. Sometimes, it can be as straightforward as choosing the right carpet or the right wood product.

Here, home safety experts zero in on the worst pollutants and how to minimize exposure:

* Volatile organic compounds, also known as VOCs.

Found in carpets, paints, stains and other products, volatile organic compounds are organic chemicals emitted into the atmosphere.

That "new carpet" smell so loved by some consumers indicates that the carpet is giving off VOCs, which can make some people sneeze and sniffle for weeks or even months.

While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that there's no proven cause-and-effect relationship between carpet emissions and such symptoms, its officials have been communicating with the carpet industry on how to reduce VOCs.

One solution is the industry's "green label" program. Consumers can shop for carpet that has been tested for lower levels of VOCs by the Carpet and Rug Institute's indoor air-quality carpet testing and labeling program.

The products have met the testing standards of the institute, based in Dalton, Ga., the national trade association for the carpet and rug industry, and carry a label with "CRI" inside a house icon.

"It's a voluntary program in which carpet manufacturers sign up to have the product tested quarterly," said Marilyn Black, chief scientist for Air Quality Sciences, an Atlanta company that conducts the testing.

Cushions, carpet adhesives and carpet seam sealers can also be submitted for testing.

Consumers can also take some simple measures to reduce VOCs in carpets. "Ask the seller to air it out for a few days so some of the chemicals disperse," suggested David Dyjack, chairman of the department of environmental and occupational health at Loma Linda University.

When buying paints and stains, look for labels that describe a "clean air formula" and state that the product has a low VOC content.

Even when using a low-VOC product, be sure to have adequate ventilation. If possible, block off other parts of the house from the painted area by using blankets or sheeting over doorways.

After painting, "the most important thing to do is to vent the space as much as possible," Waldman says. "The worst emission for paints and stains occurs during the first 24 to 48 hours." Emissions normally continue for a couple of days.

* Formaldehydes.

A colorless gas with a pungent odor at room temperature, formaldehyde is found in wood products commonly used in homes.

Adhesives in wood products contain either urea-formaldehyde, or UF, resins, commonly found in particle board for subflooring, hardwood plywood paneling and medium-density fiberboard, or they contain phenol-formaldehyde, or PF, resins, found in soft plywood and other products meant for exterior use.

The PF resin woods generally emit lower levels of formaldehyde, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Even short-term exposure to elevated levels of formaldehyde can cause irritation to the eyes, nose and throat along with respiratory symptoms, according to the EPA.

Female workers exposed over time have reported menstrual disorders and pregnancy problems.

Some people develop a sensitivity to formaldehyde, and it may cause lung and other cancers, according to the EPA. Exposure can also trigger attacks in people with asthma.

The EPA considers levels elevated at 0.1 parts per million, and the California EPA has set an even more stringent standard, 0.05 parts per million.

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