Indoor Air Pollution by Joysa Winter Special to the News
Denver Rocky Mountain News
It starts with a sniffle. Or a scratchy throat and watery eyes.
A cold? Hay fever? Early signs of the flu? Maybe. But it could also be your home that has a case of the crud.
Environmental Protection Agency studies show that the air inside homes has more pollutants than the air on a smoggy day in Denver. And because people spend roughly 90 percent of their lives indoors, this sickly air comes at a sickly price.
The invisible mix of gases we breathe acts like a magnet for all sorts of toxins, absorbing smoke, dust, pollen, pet dander, mold spores and emissions from household products and materials.
These pollutants can irritate eyes and throats; reduce our immune systems’ ability to fend off invaders; cause headaches, dizziness and fatigue; and aggravate allergies and asthma. Some chemicals, such as formaldehyde and gases emitted from paints and cleaners, may cause cancer. Radon and carbon monoxide can kill you.
Just how many people suffer these symptoms is hard to determine, because most people and many doctors fail to recognize the environmental sources of sniffles and sneezes, says David Mudarri of the EPA’s Indoor Environments Division in Washington, D.C.
The National Academy of Science has estimated that 15 percent of Americans suffer symptoms from indoor air pollution, but Mudarri pegs the number even higher.
“About 40 percent of the population experiences one or more symptoms weekly as a result of exposure to building air,” he says. “That statistic is consensus opinion in the building and scientific community that deals with indoor air quality.”
Even without obvious symptoms, our exposure to chemicals is pervasive. Based on building studies, Mudarri believes 20 percent to 30 percent of all buildings in the United States have indoor air-pollution issues; the World Health Organization puts the problem at 33 percent.
Two types of elements make a building “sick,” says Suzanne Nemeth, a plant pathologist and researcher at Colorado State University.
One group is toxic to all people and includes such things as lead, radon and a fungus called Stachybotrys chartarum, which grows in moist areas and can cause shock, nervous disorders and the death of white blood cells and skin tissue.
The other group includes pollutants such as pet dander and air fresheners that cause problems in people with allergies or depressed immune systems.
Nemeth and her mother have suffered from both.
“I really didn’t have any problems until I reached my mid-20s; that’s when I moved to Denver, and I think Denver is a bit of a challenge to one’s system,” Nemeth said, referring to the city’s air-pollution problems. When she moved to Fort Collins six years later, around 1988, her symptoms eased but didn’t go away.
Through allergy tests and indoor air samples taken in petri dishes, Nemeth discovered a host of elements that she believes were making her sick: pet dander, mold, diesel fuel and cleaning products.
“How these things make me feel is difficult to describe,” she says. “It’s a complete loss of energy, confusion and discomfort. And it’s very, very debilitating.”
Irene Wilkenfeld of Cheyenne knows those symptoms and more.
When a sudden, mysterious illness forced her to quit work 30 years ago, her doctors never thought there might be an environmental source.
“I began teaching in a New Jersey middle school, a newly constructed, energy-efficient building,” Wilkenfeld says. “Within three months I was bed-bound.”
Her first symptoms were chronic urinary tract infections, hives, sinus infections, headaches and fatigue. Ultimately she developed panic attacks and swelling in her joints.
But it took 14 years to get a diagnosis. “The problem is, I went to specialists, who just looked at one body part,” Wilkenfeld says.
“So I got a lot of mini-diagnoses. No one looked at me as a whole person.”
Understanding of environmental illnesses improved in the ’70s and ’80s, and in time Wilkenfeld stumbled upon a new syndrome in medical literature called multiple chemical sensitivity. “It was the first time I had my huge laundry list of symptoms connected together, and I began my process of exploration,” she says. Eventually she found ecologically attuned doctors to confirm the diagnosis.
The culprit in the New Jersey school was a pesticide called chlordane, which had been sprayed on the foundation to control termites, she says. It was banned in 1988. The school’s energy-efficient construction meant the building was airtight, and the toxin became trapped inside.
Wilkenfeld’s toxic schoolhouse changed her life. “I have never gotten 100 percent well,” she says. “The body is very resilient, but you need to get all of this toxic stuff out of its way in order to give your body the tools it needs to heal.”
Wilkenfeld had two subsequent exposures to environmental chemicals, in 1987 and 10 years later, that triggered a rebound in her symptoms.
What ended a career in teaching children has inspired a new career in teaching the nation about the hazards of environmental pollution.
In 1987, Wilkenfeld began a company called Safe Schools, and she travels the country warning communities about toxic schools and teaching people how to become “indoor-air detectives.”
Nemeth and Wilkenfeld are classic examples of people whose bodies have been overpowered by indoor air pollutants, says their doctor, Jonathan Singer, an osteopathic physician and surgeon who is one of a handful of doctors in the metro area who specialize in environmental medicine.
“Think of it like a barrel of water,” Singer says. “You can add bucket after bucket of water to the barrel, and nothing happens, but once the water reaches the top, once it reaches the threshold, it only takes one drop before it overflows.”
Treating patients like Nemeth and Wilkenfeld is a complex process, Singer says, “and each patient has to be treated individually.
“You start with a good history and physical; you try to identify the sources of the problem – when did they overload their body? If you can take a few things away, lower their total body load below their threshold, the body can handle what comes at it.”
Nutritional changes, endocrine therapy and supplements are other tools doctors use, Singer says.
The same process is needed when tackling sick homes.
The most common cause of poor indoor air quality – or IAQ, as insiders call it – is products or fungi that emit gases or other irritating particles, county health officials say. Trap these particles inside with poor ventilation and increase their concentration with a dose of humidity and your home isn’t feeling so good.
The tricky part is identifying the source. Scientific testing of indoor pollutants can cost thousands of dollars just for lab fees.
“You are looking at parts-per-billion levels when you are testing for pollutants,” says John Martyny, senior environmental health consultant with the Tri-County Health Department. “It’s similar to looking for a sugar cube in a railroad tank car.”
Even with top-quality lab tests, investigators can identify the source less than 50 percent of the time, Martyny says.
Arapahoe County learned this the hard way in 1991. When dozens of workers at the county courthouse complained of sore throats, burning eyes, headaches and dizziness, the building was closed for 12 weeks while $40,000 worth of tests and cleaning was conducted.
The complaints continued, and the source of the pollution was never identified. The only thing investigators knew for certain was that the ventilation system in the 90-year-old building wasn’t very good. Toss in a costly asbestos problem “and they ended up just tearing it down,” Martyny says.
If running tests is so expensive and often ineffective, how can you determine whether your home is sick?
Start with a visual inspection, and call your county health department for a thorough checkup.
“Over 50 percent of the complaints we get are caused by bioaerosols,” Martyny says, meaning molds, mildew or other parasites living on dead organic material. The most common cause is flooded crawl spaces and basements, or water damage from leaks.
Flooded carpet, for example, can store mold spores for years unless it’s removed from the room to dry. Running fans and opening windows won’t cut it.
“All that happens is, the mold dries, and every time you vacuum, the spores go through the vacuum bag and go out into the air,” Martyny says.
Aggravating bioaerosol pollution are emissions from wood preservatives, moth repellants and some cleaning products, which evaporate into the air.
Newer homes often lack ventilation, so these pollutants have no way to get out. Toss in a humidifier, and the spores now have a free ride all over your home.
Although Colorado’s dry climate can cause annoyances, air experts say it’s better to live without cold-mist vaporizers.
“If they’re not properly cleaned, they aerosolize large numbers of mold and bacteria,” Martyny says. “Proper cleaning means disinfecting it in Clorox every couple of days, and how many people do you know who do that?”
WAYS TO LIMIT HOUSEHOLD POLLUTANTS:
Bioaerosols (fungi, dust mites, pollen)
* Buy a hydrometer to monitor interior humidity levels, especially along exterior walls and in basements. Unplug the humidifier if the level exceeds 60 percent.
* In the event of flooding or leaks, replace carpeting; at a minimum, remove it for drying. If you suffer from asthma or allergies, avoid carpets.
* Avoid cool-mist humidifiers. Preferred are steam-generating humidifiers or air-to-furnace humidifiers, cleaned regularly.
* Wash bedding in hot water; warm water will not kill bacteria.
Carbon monoxide – Bad headaches, particularly in winter, are a classic sign of carbon monoxide poisoning.
* Have a professional inspect your heating system inspected annually.
* Do not idle a car inside a garage.
* Properly ventilate gas stoves, kerosene space heaters and woodstoves.
* Install a carbon monoxide alarm in your home.
Environmental tobacco smoke – More than 40 compounds in tobacco smoke are known to cause cancer.
* Don’t smoke or let others smoke in your home.
Hot tubs – A new bacterial problem is cropping up in hot tubs, and
experts aren’t sure why.
* Make sure it’s disinfecting properly.
* If you’re suffering health problems, consider getting rid of it.
Radon – This naturally occurring gas, emitted from uranium, causes
about 14,000 lung-cancer deaths a year, according to the EPA.
Colorado has among the highest radon levels in the country; exposure
is worse in mountain homes. Radon also can contaminate well water.
* Test your home’s radon level. Kits are inexpensive, but be sure
they are labeled “EPA-approved.”
Volatile organic compounds – Dozens of products emit gases that
can damage organs or cause cancer.
* Use detergent-based cleaners that are biodegradable; avoid ones
that say “danger,” “caution” or “flammable.” Use cleaners or polishes
you rub on rather than spray on.
* Never store opened pesticide or paint containers indoors.
* Use only pest-control companies licensed by the state; call the
EPA to make sure your company hasn’t had any violations. Avoid indoor
“smoke bombs” that kill insects while blanketing everything in the
home in pesticides.
* Use wall paint that is low off-gassing, meaning it’s formulated
to emit less gas. Avoid carpet glues.
* Buy furniture and cabinets made from solid wood, not pressed
wood, which is bound together with formaldehyde. Formaldehyde off-
gases can cause severe allergic reactions and may cause cancer. Newer
pressed-wood products have been formulated to limit off-gassing,
* Avoid air fresheners.
Lead – Lead damages virtually all systems of the body. Chips from
lead-based paint, phased out in the 1970s, can be eaten by children.
* Do not remove lead paint yourself.
* Keep children away from lead dust or particles.
* Use trained contractors when removing or disturbing asbestos
insulation or floor tiles. Leave undamaged asbestos alone.
Ventilation – New homes tend to be so airtight that indoor
pollutants become trapped inside.
* Open windows.
* Replace your air conditioner with a back-draining swamp cooler;
they use 75 percent less energy anyway. But be sure the unit drains
its water daily; otherwise the pooled water collects and distributes
pollutants. It should be cleaned every month.
Use an eco-friendly builder and architect: Many builders and
furniture manufacturers are tuned in to IAQ issues. Eco-friendly
products tend to be more health-friendly.
* Request carpet, furniture and paints designed to limit off-
* Log on at www.e-star.com for information on eco-friendly
builders and homes. Or call Energy-Rated Homes of Colorado at (303)
For home information:
* For a free copy of the EPA’s A Guide to Indoor Air Quality:
www.epa.gov / iaq / pubs / insidest.html. or call (303) 692-3150.
* Call your county health department for home inspection
questions. If your county doesn’t have an IAQ division, or if you
have questions about commercial buildings, call the EPA.
For health information:
* Dr. Jonathan Singer, (303) 488-0034, in Greenwood Village, Colorado and
(307) 635-4362 in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
This article is dedicated to the loving memory of Irene Wilkenfeld, a true friend and mentor, who passed away from her toxic exposures on February 29, 2004.