Wednesday, February 27, 2008

In Our Backyard

(We get this newsletter to circulate through Stef McGarvey '06 at the Maine DEP)

Clear The Indoor Air, In Our Back Yard

Sniffling, sneezing, coughing, stuffy head. It's not a cold. It's not the flu. Maybe you're suffering from the effects of indoor air pollution.

Modern Mainers spend most of our time indoors--especially in winter--breathing air that may contain levels of pollution several times greater than outdoor air.

Indoor air pollution comes from a variety of sources and can potentially produce a number of health problems, from allergy-like symptoms, to asthma, nerve damage or even cancer. Some common sources of pollution in the home include:

radon, asbestos, lead paint and pressed wood building materials and furniture

permanent press drapes, upholstery and mattress ticking

gas stoves and furnaces, wood stoves and fireplaces

pet hair and dander, pollen, molds and dust mites

smoking, hobbies and use of chemicals
The first step in reducing indoor air quality problems is to identify and eliminate the sources of pollution. Certain pollutants, such as asbestos-containing materials and lead paint, are better left alone if intact. Removal of these products could introduce pollutants into the air and should only be done by a qualified professional.

Homeowners can test for radon using an easy and inexpensive test. A professional can help reduce levels of radon by sealing cracks in foundations or venting radon gas to the outside. Regular maintenance and cleaning can remove or control other pollutant sources. A utility representative or other professional can inspect and tune up gas- and oil-burning appliances. Periodically cleaning wood stoves, fireplaces and chimneys and inspecting them for leaks and back-drafting ensures that wood smoke doesn't linger indoors.

Indoor humidity levels kept below 50% can help prevent the growth of molds and bacteria. Regularly vacuuming carpets and upholstery, washing bedding and wet mopping hard surfaces reduces mites, dust and other contaminants.

Changes in lifestyles and activities can also improve air quality inside the home. Smoking introduces over 4,000 chemical contaminants into the air and causes numerous health problems, especially in children, and is best kept outdoors.

Other products that cause indoor air problems include solder, paints, varnish, paint stripper, pesticides, solvents, fragrances, disinfectants and chemical cleaners. Minimizing the use of these products and restricting them to the outdoors or well-ventilated areas can be a big help in cleaning up indoor air.

Once pollution sources have been eliminated as far as possible, providing adequate ventilation can further improve air quality. The easiest way to ventilate is to open windows and doors when weather permits. Installing ventilation fans in the kitchen and bathroom removes moisture and combustion pollutants from those areas. Tighter houses may require a ventilation system to supply a continuous flow of fresh outdoor air.

If indoor air pollution continues to be a problem after the sources have been controlled and ventilation supplied, an air cleaner can provide further relief. Proven methods include air filters, electronic particle air cleaners and ionizers.

We don't have to accept the symptoms of indoor air pollution as just another side effect of our indoor lifestyles. Some little changes around the home can be the prescription for breathing easier.

This column was submitted Andrea Lani, an Environmental Specialist with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection's (DEP) Bureau of Air Quality.

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