Home Indoor Air Hazard?

  • Published
  • By Maj. Ben Louie
  • 109th Airlift Wing/Bioenvironmental Engineer
The problem of home indoor air pollution has been made worse in recent years by efforts to make homes more energy efficient; building techniques have reduced heat loss, but may have also increase exposure to toxic substances released within the home.

Heating appliances and systems, especially wood burning fireplaces and stoves, can pollute indoor air with carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, particulates, sulfur dioxide, unburned hydrocarbons, and aldehydes. Carbon monoxide is particularly dangerous because it is colorless, odorless. Nitrogen dioxide, particulates, and sulfur dioxide irritate the respiratory tract and are especially hazardous for those afflicted with asthma.

Smokers should relegate their smoking to the outdoors where the smoking generated pollutants can be diluted by the open atmosphere.

The next measure is to allow more air to circulate within the home by opening windows or doors. Just a crack at night can help a lot. Also consider purchasing one or more High Efficiency Particulate Arresting (HEPA) vacuum, especially for bedrooms, and if it's time to replace your vacuum, get one with a HEPA filter.

For those who have wood burning heating systems, have them properly install and maintain your home heating systems. Chimneys, stove pipes, and furnaces should be inspected and clean annually, preferably before the start of heating season. Filters can be installed within the heating unit and inside hot air ducts. They should be changed out according to manufacturer's specification.

Wood stoves and fireplaces can, if improperly used, expose people to enormous amounts of toxic and irritating combustion by-products. Instead of an open fireplace, consider using a
glass enclosed firebox.

Choose a stove or firebox no larger than needed to heat the space involved. Look for EPA certification label. Select a stove with a catalytic combustor, similar to a catalytic converter in an auto, which can reduce emissions. Burn only hardwoods such as maple, oak, beech, elm or ash that have been air dried for a year. Never use green, wet, painted or chemically treated wood, colored paper, or lots of paper and twigs. After getting the fire started, use logs as large as the firebox will accommodate.

When adding wood, open the stove's damper fully to prevent smoke from being drawn back into the house. Let the fire burn for at least 15 minutes before partially closing the damper. It is better to all logs fairly often than to overstuff the firebox. Soot on the furniture is a sign that the stove is releasing pollutants into the indoor air.

Another measure could be to install exhaust fans over the stove to reduce exposure to toxic combustion products and a ventilation system in the bathroom. Check the flame and pilot lights on gas furnaces and ranges. They should burn blue with at most a slight yellow tip. If the flame is too yellow or orange, it could be spewing toxic substances in the air.

Lastly, there are generic measures to lower air toxins around your home. Remove plastic bags from dry cleaned clothes before you leave the store to allow the clothes to air out on your way home. Rather than the spray insecticides, you could use boric acid to control roach and ant infestations. Have people remove their shoes on entering your home to reduce the amount of toxins that are tracked in. Also consider eliminating carpets since they can harbor lots of dust. Vacuum carpets often and clean underneath them every few months.