Air Quality

To Breathe or Not to Breathe; Concerns Over Indoor Air Quality

The long winters in our part of the country can often lead to a host of complaints like cabin fever, lethargy, headaches, allergies and other respiratory ailments.

Some folks manage to go away to warmer climates while others take up winter sports or hold their breath until spring.  There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that the indoor air quality of our homes and workplaces is often more polluted than the outdoor air.  Environmental illness is on the rise.  New phrases are being coined like “Sick Building Syndrome” (SBS), “Multiple Chemical Sensitivity” (MCS), and “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome”.  For many of us, health is taken for granted and our busy lives are devoted to raising a family, earning a living and serving our community.  There is neither time nor reason to examine the issues until we find ourselves with degenerating health, symptoms of misdiagnosed or undiagnosable health problems, or just plain stress.

There are several factors affecting indoor air quality (IAQ): some are complex and interrelated.  IAQ concerns have increased dramatically in the last 50 years due to the increase of a) amount of time spent indoors, b) use of mechanical climate control systems, c) manufactured and toxic building materials, d) electromagnetic fields (EMF)    e)  building energy efficiencies which have reduced natural ventilation rates or fresh air exchange.

The emphasis on energy efficiency has resulted in tighter building construction.  Air tight construction practices must use a heat recovery ventilator (HRV) to bring in adequate fresh air and exhaust accumulated indoor pollution.  Well designed breathing wall systems can provide adequate fresh air exchange and humidity regulation without compromising thermal performance and structural integrity. Trickle ventilators are basically a controlled air leak that offer a passive(non-mechanical/non-electrical) way to bring in fresh air as well as the use of indoor plants.  The designers of either system must thoroughly understand the issues to create the proper balance required for healthy indoor air.  Very few buildings currently meet this standard.

Indoor humidity levels are important especially when using mechanical climate control devices which create a low humidity situation during the winter months, or when using air conditioning in the summer.  Air flowing through metal ductwork under low humidity conditions can create airborne positive ions which may affect one’s seratonin/melatonin cycles (responsible for healthy immune system function).  Indoor air pollutants from toxic sources (to be outlined below) tend to attach themselves to these airborne positive ions.  Synthetic surfaces in the building create electrostatic buildup which compounds the above situation.  Humidification to around 50% by mechanical or natural means will reduce or eliminate this problem.

Today there is a greater reliance on highly manufactured products for building materials , cleaning, household and office supplies.  Many of these consist of substances that belong to a large class of volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) that release vapors (off-gas) at room temperature and are often toxic and irritating.  “The Chemical Revolution has spawned a startling array of new substances derived mainly from oil, coal and gas.  Our bodies are now being bombarded with substances that were not present during our evolution and which we have never before encountered.  Increasingly, we are surrounding with a synthetic, alien world.   The danger of these artificial substances is that we do not know their precise, long-term effects.  Laboratory tests are usually restricted to a new chemical in isolation.  They consider neither the synergistic effect of mixing it with the cocktail of many other chemicals to which we are exposed, nor the local concentrations experienced in the real world.  What we do know is that harmful effects may not show for many years.  Asbestos related diseases, for example, may not occur until 10-20 years after exposure.” 1.

A report by the Consumer Products Safety Commission on chemicals commonly found in  homes identified 150 chemicals which have been linked to allergies, birth defects, cancer, psychological abnormalities, headaches, depression, dizziness and loss of sleep.  The most well known and documented of these are formaldehyde, organochlorines and phenolic compounds.  Most exposure comes from composite lumber products (particle board, plywood, presswood ), treated lumber, paper products, carpets, cosmetics, fabrics, plastics, pesticides, paints, finishes, glues and a vast array of cleaning products.  At present there is no government regulation on materials used in the construction industry to protect the consumer.   In other words, we are surrounded by this stuff.  Our stores and landfills in addition to our buildings are full of it.  Fortunately, there are safer alternatives for all of our needs.

Biological pollutants include pollen, dust and mold spores.  Pollens come from all sorts of interior and exterior plants and can be problematic for folks with allergies.  Dust is composed of many items like animal dander, dust mites, heavy metals from cars, streets, exhaust fumes and shoe dirt, crumbling building materials and mold spores.  The ubiquitous dust mite feeds on dead skin cells and breed in carpets, linens and upholstery.  Their fecal matter and skeletal parts cling to other dust particles and can cause allergic reactions in many people.

Inhaling of certain mold spores can be extremely dangerous.  Undetected moisture problems like refrigerator condensation pans, poorly maintained humidifiers, plumbing leaks; and building errors like improper flashing, drainage plans, and ventilation systems; damp basement walls and vapor impermeable wall surfaces can create moisture build up which provide ideal breeding grounds for fungus and molds to flourish.   Knowledge, cleanliness and vigilant home maintenance can keep these problems at bay, along with proper building techniques based on the understanding of building biology/science.

Indoor Air Quality: Part 2

In Part 1 we briefly discussed the importance of fresh air in our buildings and how it is often compromised by reduced air exchange due to airtight construction methods.  We also identified a plethora of chemicals introduced into our homes through commonly used building materials, clothing, office and household products and the often forgotten biological contaminants like pollen, dust, animal dander, molds and mildew.

In addition to the above, we are frequently confronted with the irritating combustion by-products of automobile exhaust fumes via attached garages, gas burning appliances, wood-burning heaters and tobacco smoke.  The need for proper ventilation cannot be overemphasized.  Of course, it is recommended to eliminate these sources of indoor air pollution where possible.

After source reduction, one can resort to filtration techniques.  Standard air filters on a forced air furnace are designed to protect the furnace, not enhance air quality.  Pleated paper filters are inexpensive and are a first step in better filtration.  Spend a few dollars to a few hundred more and one can consider mixed media filters, electronic, electrostatic and  HEPA (high-efficiency particulate arrestor) filters.  When considering upgrading to another type of filtration, consult with an expert so you understand the maintenance schedule with these systems and the potential for reduced air flow/added strain on your current furnace blower.

Another source of indoor air pollution is radiation, which can find its way into our buildings through a number of sources.  Although radon is generally not in high concentration here in Northwest Lower Michigan, it can accumulate in tightly sealed well-insulated homes.  Radon is a radioactive gas decay by-product of uranium 238 found naturally in rocks, ground water and soil.  Proper building techniques and ventilation can minimize exposure.  Our friendly smoke detector contains a radioactive material called Americium 241.  Non-radioactive, photoelectric smoke detectors are available and code approved.  Check with local authorities about disposal of smoke detectors containing Americium 241.  And lastly, you can get your daily dose from certain ceramic glazes, some granites, and I hear there have been some drywall and concrete block manufacturers that have used radioactive flyash in their products.  EEK!  Since radiation exposure is cumulative; avoidance is wise.  I’m saving up for a Geiger Counter.

Another form of radiation getting press these days and that can impact air quality is electromagnetic radiation or electromagnetic fields (EMF’s).  This is a broad term implicating everything from household wiring, machinery, appliances, alternating current (A.C.), direct current (D.C.), and electric fields to magnetic fields; from artificial fields to natural bio-electrical fields; and from Faraday cages and Nicola Tesla to acupuncture and the earth’s natural radio frequency of 7.83 cycles per second of Hertz (Hz).  This  topic is addressed in detail elsewhere in the archive.

Light quality is another issue often underrated and easily cast aside when discussing indoor air quality.  Human beings have evolved on planet Earth being nourished by the full spectrum of natural outdoor light.   Full spectrum natural light, when passing through standard window glass and eyeglasses, becomes an imbalanced light spectrum.  Most artificial lighting also produces an imbalanced light spectrum.  Many scientific studies illustrate proper hormone and immune system functioning when exposed to natural light and full spectrum artificial light as well as negative effects due to continued lack of them.   Fortunately, artificial full spectrum light fixtures and full spectrum transmitting glass is available.  Indoors, the presence of some ultraviolet (UV) light, normally blocked by glass and not produced by standard light fixtures, helps to minimize the growth of mold and bacteria in the air.

Last but not least, some mention must be made of indoor plants.  While generally spurned by allergy sufferers and other sensitive individuals due to mold problems, houseplants deserve a closer look.  When the soil health is good and the aforementioned IAQ issues, such as humidity, light quality, EMF’s, toxic building materials and household supplies, are addressed and adjusted where necessary, the many beneficial qualities of plants can greatly enhance indoor environments.  These qualities include production of much needed oxygen, humidity, negative ions, and the absorption/filtering of indoor air pollutants.  There is well- documented research on this, some of which was carried out by NASA.  And let us not forget the wonderful ambiance created by a roomful of plants.  When was the last time you were in a flower shop or a green house?

To help cope with all of these issues, schools, scientists and activists are creating solutions.  Healthier products, their distributors and service providers enter the marketplace every day.  However, it’s important to do the research before investing.  Not all products and services meet the requirements of being truly safe, healthy and sustainable in the long haul.

A “new” science that sprouted in Germany and has now taken root in many locales around the globe is called “Bau-biologie” or Building Biology.  This is the study of how buildings and their environments impact our health and the holistic interaction between human life and our living environment.   It is becoming common practice, in Germany, Europe and with a few enlightened health care professionals here in America, to recommend that prospective patients have their homes inspected for potential irritants before other medical treatments are pursued. Some full service building supply companies in Germany have a trained Building Biologist on staff to consult with customers and offer a full line of natural building materials.

Though we’ve concentrated this article on indoor air quality, the larger global environment is affected, also, by our choices of resource use, manufacturing, and landfilling.  As individuals, we must now reflect upon the impact these choices make on many fronts.  Using our power as consumers, we can choose to promote products, services and systems that support and sustain our well being and contribute to the long- term health of our natural and created world.

The issues addressed here are just pieces of the puzzle in creating optimal health.  Other lifestyle factors, including diet, exercise, emotional and spiritual health, all have a part to play.  In other archive articles we discuss in more detail various building methods and materials that enhance indoor air quality.   So as we quest toward an ever greater quality of life, I close with a toast of my ancestors:  “Na Zdrowie!” (Nah-sdro-vee-ah), To Your Health!


  1. Pearson, David. The Natural House Book. .Fireside, 1989.
  2. Baker, Paula AIA, Erica Elliott, MD.  John Banta.  Prescriptions for a Healthy House, a Practical Guide for Architects Builders and Homeowners. InWord Press, 1998.
  3. Dadd, Debra. Nontoxic, Natural and Earthwise. J.P.Tarcher, 1990
  4. Wolverton, Dr. B.C, How to Grow Fresh Air. A Penguin Book, 1996
  5. International Institute for Baubiologie and Ecology, Box 387, Clearwater, Fl. 34615,    727-461-4371