What’s in the Air You Breathe?

Energy-efficient buildings can trap chemical cocktails inside your home

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What’s in the Air You Breathe?
Any chance you get, open your windows and let the fresh air in.

What is it about a day outside that just makes us feel better? Certainly, there’s the mystique and beauty of nature. But it turns out that there are measurable reasons we feel good in the great outdoors and reasons we don’t feel as good when we’re cooped up inside. It starts with the air itself.

The air inside our homes is 2-5 times more polluted than the air outside, even in the middle of the city. Why? A little history…

The study of indoor air quality (IAQ) began in the 1970s. It started by accident. Early researchers into smog and ozone depletion set out to measure the impacts of car exhaust and spewing refineries. What they found was that a significant percentage of chemicals in the atmosphere weren’t from the obvious culprits — burning fumes and smoke — but were instead seeping invisibly out of our buildings; out of our vinyl siding, our paints, our shingles. This caused them to take a look inside.

And it coincided with the energy crisis, when everyone was newly motivated to make homes better insulated. Layers of fibreglass and plastic vapour barriers were coming into common use. Homes were getting tightly sealed to keep out cold air and drafts. Whereas older homes were allowing a complete resupply of new air every hour, the new homes were taking five hours to complete the exchange.

Combine that with the fact our furniture was being made from synthetic foams, our walls were being covered with paints with toxic VOCs, our cabinets, floors and walls were being made from particle boards containing urea-formaldehyde glues and our cleaning products were no longer vinegar, water and baking soda, but newly concocted chemicals.

And then 30 years went by. We continued without a substantial change of course. Over the decades, people have been hit with a rash of home and environmental illnesses, known generally assick building syndrome.

“Baby bottles. Deodorants. A favourite overstuffed sofa. These items, so familiar and apparently harmless, are now sources of pollution at least as serious as the more industrial-grade varieties described above,” say Dr. Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie, in their book, Slow Death By Rubber Duck. Their research studies chemicals found in our bloodstreams and links them back to household exposures.

In the past decade, we’ve started taking the issue more seriously. The paint industry has begun to regulate VOC content. The use of formaldehyde in particle-board products is declining and there is an increasing array of healthier options available to the educated consumer, ranging from household cleaners to furniture and even mattresses.

There are naturally occurring air quality problems as well. Radon gas is a byproduct of uranium breakdown and the second leading cause of lung cancer, after smoking. This invisible, odourless gas seeps up from below our homes. Thoroughly studied in Europe, a recent study at the University of Calgary by Dr. Aaron Goodarzi found at least 1 in 8 homes in and around Calgary have elevated radon levels. Radon affects homes in every part of the country.

“The way the house is constructed has most of the influence,” says U of C Prof. Gerald Osborn, who is in the early stages of testing the implications of underground geological input. “New houses tend to have more radon than old houses because they’re constructed better, so they’re tighter. The radon that comes in the bottom can’t get out the top.”

Testing for radon is not that pricey and remediation methods are available. Near 100 per cent reduction of the gas is possible with advanced methods, but findings show that even simple measures like running fans to increase airflow will significantly decrease radon levels. This is sure to be true for other chemicals in your air, as well.

We’re making progress, but we aren’t out of the woods. Spend a few minutes watching TV and you’re sure to see ads for memory foam beds, fragranced dryer sheets or chemical cleaners. Some things are slow to change, and many industries have little to no accountability for concerns of health and wellness. But awareness is increasing. Following the growth of the organic food movement, people are seeking out clean, natural alternatives.

Will sitting on your couch ever be as fresh and invigorating as sitting next to a waterfall? Not likely. But there are ways to get it closer. And for those of us always looking to improve our health, feel better and live longer, it’s something to start getting serious about.

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