Home isn’t just the place we live in. It’s the place we return to, a place that makes us feel secure and sheltered and safe. However, pollutants (including bacteria and spores) and allergens may be present in the air that circulates your home[i]; here we look at common home pollutants, the effects they have on our health, and how we can make our homes healthy.
Air Quality and Pollutant Inhalation
Pollutants can make their way into the body through ingestion (eating) and absorption through the skin, but most commonly do so through inhalation[ii]. Common home pollutants that we are exposed to are compounds, particles, air-borne allergens and fungal spores.
It is important to know that some pollutants, like asbestos[iii] and lead[iv], are found in homes and are generally not a health risk unless fibres, dust or particles are released into the air and inhaled[v]. It is also advised that if you are renovating your home yourself, hazardous materials such as lead, or asbestos not be disturbed, and a specialist be asked to evaluate and plan the removal of such materials during renovation[vi].
Harmful pollutants include nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and chemicals such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs)[ii], and these can enter your home via fuel (gas and solid fuel, such as wood) combustion, cars left with the engine running in the garagei and from cigarette smokeii. Among other sources, VOCs are released by paint, varnishes and cleaning agents[ii].
House dust mites are microscopic creatures which feed on dust (which is mostly made up of shed skin) and, not surprisingly, the dust mites tend to be found in soft furnishings that used often such as bedding, carpets, and upholstered furniture[vii]. Dust mites’ droppings and body parts breakdown, become airborne, and can induce allergic reaction in some people when inhaled[vii].
Moulds and fungi can grow on damp materials or in dark, humid spaces around the home[viii]. These growths reproduce by releasing spores that can become airborne and inhaled. Mould spores are commonly found in bathrooms, damp rooms, cellars, window sills, indoor plants, and poorly ventilated areas in general[ii].
Pollens and pet dander can also be present in the home and affect quality of life for allergy sufferers[v].
Another source of pollutants, especially relevant in the winter months, is the gas heater. When gas heaters produce heat, they do so by burning fuel that produces air pollutants and water vapour[ix]. Ensuring adequate ventilation and avoiding the use of an unflued gas heater can help keep your home free of pollutants occurring due to the use of gas heaters. If unflued gas heaters are being used, they should be used in larger areas with adequate ventilation to prevent any build-up of water vapour or gas, and not be used overnight in the room that you are going to sleep in.[x]
|Government of Australia, YourHome, Major sources and health effects of various pollutants[i]|
|Pollutant||Major Source(s)||Health Effects|
|Nitrogen dioxide||Gas combustion||Chronic respiratory disease|
|Carbon monoxide||Kerosene, gas and solid fuel combustion, cars idling in enclose garage, cigarette smoke||Aggravation of cardiovascular disease, poor foetal development|
|Formaldehyde||Pressed wood products, consumer products, hobby, crafts||Eye, nose and throat irritation|
|Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)||New building products, cleaning products, office equipment, consumer products||Eye, nose and throat irritation, headache, lethargy|
|Passive (tobacco) smoke||Tobacco smoking||Eye, nose and throat irritation, aggravation of asthma, chronic respiratory disease, lung cancer|
|House dust mite allergens||Dust mites in bedding, carpets, furniture||Aggravation of asthma, nasal inflammation, eczema|
|Mould spores||Bathrooms, damp rooms, window sills, indoor plants, poorly ventilated areas||Aggravation of asthma, nasal irritation and inflammation. Less common but also linked to infections and toxic position.|
|Lead in indoor dust||Pre-1970s paint, hobbies and renovation||Poor childhood intellectual development|
|Pet dander||Furry pets||Aggravation of asthma and hay fever|
If you or a family member experience any symptoms such as asthma, respiratory infections, itchy eyes, a runny nose, a headache or similar conditions[v], these may be reactions to pollutants in your home and it is best to seek advice from a doctor.
Having a Healthy Home
Young children, elderly persons, those with pre-existing respiratory or cardiovascular disease are particularly vulnerable to pollutants[ii]. If you or any of your family members fall into the high-risk group, you should investigate minimising the presence of airborne pollutants in your home. Even if you do not experience health problems related to pollutants, you should take precautions.
For example, the presence of mould spores can indicate that mould is present within the home. Rising damp is ground moisture that rises thorough a brick or stone wall with an inadequate dampcourse and can cause structural weakness in that wall[ii]. Mould looks like fuzz and are commonly coloured black, green or white[viii]. To avoid mould in the long run, you should check for leaky pipes and sinks, clean your bathroom regularly and reduce your home’s overall dampness by improving ventilation[ii].
To avoid harmful by-products, don’t smoke indoors, minimise the running time for vehicle engines in garages, and have heating or cooking appliances serviced regularly to ensure they are not leaking gases[ii].
Kill and remove mites (and their droppings) by washing soft furnishing covers such as sheets and pillow cases with hot water – it is recommended that the wash temperature is set above 55-degree Celsiusv[ii].
By dusting and wiping the surfaces in your home and vacuuming carpets and floors on a regular basis, you can minimise pollutants in your homev. It is recommended that you use a vacuum that has a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter[ii] as other vacuums simply recirculate those particles back into the air[v].
Unlike pests such as termites, for the most part pollutants do only minor damage to your home’s structure. But home is not home if it’s neither comfortable nor healthy, so it is wise that you do everything possible to improve air quality in the home.
One more thing to consider is your home’s financial health; by taking out home insurance that includes building and contents insurance, you can protect the investment in your home.
To find out more about common pollutants and their negative health effects, have a look at the Commonwealth Department of Health and Ageing’s “Healthy Homes” brochure.
[iii] The Department of Health, 2013, Asbestos and your health – A guide for householders and the general public’, http://www.health.gov.au/internet/publications/publishing.nsf/Content/asbestos-toc~asbestos-health, viewed on August 17, 2018
[iv] Building Biology, 2018, ‘Lead paint’, https://www.buildingbiology.com.au/hazards/lead-paint.html, viewed on August 17, 2018
[vi] enHEALTH 2013, Asbestos – A guide for householders and the general public, p. 27, http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/ohp-enhealth-asbestos-may2012.htm/$File/asbestos-feb13.pdf, viewed on August 17, 2018
[vii] Victoria State Government, Better Health Channel, April 2017, ‘House dust mite’, https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/house-dust-mite, viewed on November 5, 2018.
[viii] Victoria State Government, Better Health Channel, October 2015, ‘Mould and your health’, https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/mould-and-your-health, viewed on November 5, 2018.
[ix] Healthdirect 2016, ‘Winter health hazards at home’, https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/winter-health-hazards-at-home, viewed on August 17, 2018
[x] NSW Government, Health, ‘Unflued gas heaters’, http://www.health.nsw.gov.au/environment/factsheets/Pages/unflued-gas-heaters.aspx, viewed on August 17, 2018