Indoor Air Pollution

indoor air pollutionIndoor air pollution is one of the most overlooked threats to human health. Households in developing countries might be the hardest hit. Because children spend almost eighty percent of their time indoors, they are the most likely victims. In the past several years it has been determined that conditions ranging from asthma, headaches and fatigue to allergic reactions, hormone imbalances and central nervous damage may be attributed to indoor air quality—or, rather, the lack of it. Most of us realize that outdoor air quality can affect health, but few pay attention to the indoor air…unless it smells bad.

In a paper supported by the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and printed in the British Medical Bulletin in the early 2000’s, Junfeng (Jim) Zhang and Kirk Smith allowed that the ubiquitous character of indoor air pollution “…may contribute to increasing prevalence of asthma, autism, childhood cancer, medically unexplained symptoms, and perhaps other illnesses.”   Because the sources of indoor pollution are not expected to abate in the near future, particularly those associated with tobacco use, we can expect to voice concerns for a long time. The authors add that “…risks associated with solid fuel combustion coincide with risk associated with modern buildings.”

It is absurd that indoor air quality should be so poor that it causes sickness and disease, yet that appears to be more the rule than the exception in modern times.  Nobody would think of running a tractor-trailer or a tour bus in the living room, but the pollution effect is the same.  Most of us are unaware of the problem because a single major source of indoor pollution can’t be fingered. Despite this unrecognized threat, indoor pollution is twice as bad as outdoor, according to studies performed by the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins.  Others put the rate at five times. There are so many sources of indoor pollution that have become part of our daily lives that we never question them. Have you thought about the unpronounceable ingredients in your cleaning products and other household chemicals, like the pesticides you use in the yard? How about your cosmetics and the smelly things you plug into the wall to hide other smelly things?  Got new carpet or upholstery? Oh, yeah, there are more, such as the aroma of hot tar being applied to the new roof at your children’s school…while school’s in session. The activity may be outdoors, but the sickening smell is certainly indoors.

The influx of biological pollutants is hard to manage.  Molds, bacteria, viruses, animal dander, skin particles (yes, even human), pollen and dust mites are everywhere.  You can see airborne particles in that beam of sunshine coming through the window, but you can’t identify any of them.  Some can breed in the stagnant water that sits in your humidifier, or where water has collected in your ceiling tiles, insulation or carpet.  These things can cause fever, chills, cough, and chest tightness, among other symptoms.  Even when we do what we think is good for the family, we may do the opposite.  Burning the woodstove or fireplace might save money on the heating bill (though the fireplace is suspect), but how about the junk it puts into the air?  You can’t win, eh?

In our attempts to conserve energy, we have sealed our houses so tightly that nothing can get in and less can get out.  Once we change the air pressure dynamics of our houses, we have allowed intruders to enter.  Radon and soil gases are most common, and they creep through the cellar floor.  Mechanical ventilation can help to get the junk out and bring at least some fresher air in.  Not only does insulation contribute to the tightness of our homes, but also it brings problems of its own in the form of irritating chemicals.

Increasing ventilation is one of the easiest steps to improving indoor air quality.  Even in the dead of winter it’s a good idea to open the front and back doors simultaneously once a day to let fresh cold air in and the stale reheated air out.  Pathogens grow in an environment that is warm, dark and damp.  Your hot-air heater is a prime breeding ground for colds and the like.  The American Lung Association and the Mayo Clinic have recognized air filters as being sufficiently effective to allay at least some of the problem.   Using a vacuum with a HEPA filter is another prudent intervention.

Concerning household cleaners, we all know that anything natural costs more than anything man-made, and that mindset is hard to figure out.  Why do we have to pay for things that are left out?  In the mean time, note that vinegar-water concoctions are just as good as many commercial products at cleaning our homes—even the commode.  Who cares if it smells like salad?

But what might just be the best air cleaner on the planet is a collection of house plants.  Formaldehyde is a major contaminant of indoor air, originating from particle board, carpets, window coverings, paper products, tobacco smoke, and other sources.  These can contribute to what has been called “sick building syndrome.”  The use of green plants to clean indoor air has been known for years.  This phytoremediation has been studied with great intensity in a few laboratories across the globe, where it was learned that ferns have the greatest capability of absorbing toxins.  (Kim, Kays. 2010)  As is the case with many endeavors, there is a hierarchy of plants that does the job.  After the ferns, the common spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum) was found best at removing gaseous pollutants, including formaldehyde.  Way back in 1984 NASA released information about how good the spider plant is at swallowing up indoor air pollution.  The heartleaf philodendron partners well with Chlorophytum.  Dr. Bill Wolverton, retired from NASA, has a list (  Areca and lady palms, Boston fern, golden pothos and the dracaenas are at the top.  Plants with fuzzy leaves are best at removing particulates from smoke and grease, and some are even maintenance-free (almost), including the aloes, cacti, and the aforementioned spider plants, pothos and dracaenas, the last sometimes called the corn plant.

For more information, try these resources:

Indoor Air Pollution Increases Asthma Symptoms (Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health)

Pollution at Home Often Lurks Unrecognized (12/26/2008, Reuters Health) by Amy Norton

Air Purifiers and Air Filters Can Help the Health of Allergy and Asthmas Sufferers (S. A. Smith)

Indoor Air Pollution Fact Sheet (08/1999, American Lung Association)

An Introduction to Indoor Air Quality (Environmental Protection Agency)


Br Med Bull (2003) 68 (1): 209-225.
Indoor air pollution: a global health concern
Junfeng (Jim) Zhang and Kirk R Smith

Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute & School of Public Health, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, NJ

Indoor air pollution is ubiquitous, and takes many forms, ranging from smoke emitted from solid fuel combustion, especially in households in developing countries, to complex mixtures of volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds present in modern buildings. This paper reviews sources of, and health risks associated with, various indoor chemical pollutants, from a historical and global perspective. Health effects are presented for individual compounds or pollutant mixtures based on real-world exposure situations. Health risks from indoor air pollution are likely to be greatest in cities in developing countries, especially where risks associated with solid fuel combustion coincide with risk associated with modern buildings. Everyday exposure to multiple chemicals, most of which are present indoors, may contribute to increasing prevalence of asthma, autism, childhood cancer, medically unexplained symptoms, and perhaps other illnesses. Given that tobacco consumption and synthetic chemical usage will not be declining at least in the near future, concerns about indoor air pollution may be expected to remain.

Nippon Eiseigaku Zasshi. 2009 May;64(3):683-8.
[Indoor air pollution of volatile organic compounds: indoor/outdoor concentrations, sources and exposures]. [Article in Japanese]
Chikara H, Iwamoto S, Yoshimura T.
Fukuoka Institute of Health and Environmental Sciences, Mukaizano, Dazaifu, Fukuoka 818-0135, Japan.

In this review, we discussed about volatile organic compounds (VOC) concentrations, sources of VOC, exposures, and effects of VOC in indoor air on health in Japan. Because the ratios of indoor concentration (I) to outdoor concentration (O) (I/O ratios) were larger than 1 for nearly all compounds, it is clear that indoor contaminations occur in Japan. However, the concentrations of basic compounds such as formaldehyde and toluene were decreased by regulation of guideline indoor values. Moreover, when the sources of indoor contaminations were investigated, we found that the sources were strongly affected by to outdoor air pollutions such as automobile exhaust gas. Since people live different lifestyles, individual exposures have been investigated in several studies. Individual exposures strongly depended on indoor concentrations in houses. However, outdoor air pollution cannot be disregarded as the sources of VOC. As an example of the effect of VOC on health, it has been indicated that there is a possibility of exceeding a permissible cancer risk level owing to exposure to VOC over a lifetime.

Environ Sci Technol. 2009 Nov 1;43(21):8338-43.
Uptake of aldehydes and ketones at typical indoor concentrations by houseplants.
Tani A, Hewitt CN.
Institute for Environmental Sciences, University of Shizuoka, Shizuoka 422-8526, Japan.

The uptake rates of low-molecular weight aldehydes and ketones by peace lily (Spathiphyllum clevelandii) and golden pothos (Epipremnum aureum) leaves at typical indoor ambient concentrations (10(1)-10(2) ppbv) were determined. The C3-C6 aldehydes and C4-C6 ketones were taken up by the plant leaves, but the C3 ketone acetone was not. The uptake rate normalized to the ambient concentration C(a) ranged from 7 to 19 mmol m(-2) s(-1) and from 2 to 7 mmol m(-2) s(-1) for the aldehydes and ketones, respectively. Longer-term fumigation results revealed that the total uptake amounts were 30-100 times as much as the amounts dissolved in the leaf, suggesting that volatile organic carbons are metabolized in the leaf and/or translocated through the petiole. The ratio of the intercellular concentration to the external (ambient) concentration (C(i)/C(a)) was significantly lower for most aldehydes than for most ketones. In particular, a linear unsaturated aldehyde, crotonaldehyde, had a C(i)/C(a) ratio of approximately 0, probably because of its highest solubility in water.

Proc Am Thorac Soc. 2010 May;7(2):102-6.
Indoor air pollution and asthma in children.
Breysse PN, Diette GB, Matsui EC, Butz AM, Hansel NN, McCormack MC.
Department of Environmental Heath Sciences, Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, 615 N. Wolfe Street, Baltimore, MD 21205, USA.

The purpose of this article is to review indoor air pollution factors that can modify asthma severity, particularly in inner-city environments. While there is a large literature linking ambient air pollution and asthma morbidity, less is known about the impact of indoor air pollution on asthma. Concentrating on the indoor environments is particularly important for children, since they can spend as much as 90% of their time indoors. This review focuses on studies conducted by the Johns Hopkins Center for Childhood Asthma in the Urban Environment as well as other relevant epidemiologic studies. Analysis of exposure outcome relationships in the published literature demonstrates the importance of evaluating indoor home environmental air pollution sources as risk factors for asthma morbidity. Important indoor air pollution determinants of asthma morbidity in urban environments include particulate matter (particularly the coarse fraction), nitrogen dioxide, and airborne mouse allergen exposure. Avoidance of harmful environmental exposures is a key component of national and international guideline recommendations for management of asthma. This literature suggests that modifying the indoor environment to reduce particulate matter, NO(2), and mouse allergen may be an important asthma management strategy. More research documenting effectiveness of interventions to reduce those exposures and improve asthma outcomes is needed.

HortScience 45: 1489-1495 (2010)
Variation in Formaldehyde Removal Efficiency among Indoor Plant Species
Kwang Jin Kim1, Myeong Il Jeong, Dong Woo Lee, Jeong Seob Song, Hyoung Deug Kim, Eun Ha Yoo, Sun Jin Jeong and Seung Won Han

The efficiency of volatile formaldehyde removal was assessed in 86 species of plants representing five general classes (ferns, woody foliage plants, herbaceous foliage plants, Korean native plants, and herbs). Phytoremediation potential was assessed by exposing the plants to gaseous formaldehyde (2.0 µL·L–1) in airtight chambers (1.0 m3) constructed of inert materials and measuring the rate of removal. Osmunda japonica, Selaginella tamariscina, Davallia mariesii, Polypodium formosanum, Psidium guajava, Lavandula spp., Pteris dispar, Pteris multifida, and Pelargonium spp. were the most effective species tested, removing more than 1.87 µg·m–3·cm–2 over 5 h. Ferns had the highest formaldehyde removal efficiency of the classes of plants tested with O. japonica the most effective of the 86 species (i.e., 6.64 µg·m–3·cm–2 leaf area over 5 h). The most effective species in individual classes were: ferns—Osmunda japonica, Selaginella tamariscina, and Davallia mariesii; woody foliage plants—Psidium guajava, Rhapis excels, and Zamia pumila; herbaceous foliage plants—Chlorophytum bichetii, Dieffenbachia ‘Marianne’, Tillandsia cyanea, and Anthurium andraeanum; Korean native plants—Nandina domestica; and herbs—Lavandula spp., Pelargonium spp., and Rosmarinus officinalis. The species were separated into three general groups based on their formaldehyde removal efficiency: excellent (greater than 1.2 µg·m–3 formaldehyde per cm2 of leaf area over 5 h), intermediate (1.2 or less to 0.6), and poor (less than 0.6). Species classified as excellent are considered viable phytoremediation candidates for homes and offices where volatile formaldehyde is a concern.

*These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA.
These products are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent any disease.

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