Don’t let your house be one of them

In the first of this 3 part series we will look at some of the most common toxins in our homes, how they get there and what they can be doing to our health. In Part 2 we will give you tips on how to make your home environment safer and healthier. Finally, in Part 3 we will tell you how to improve the detoxification capacity of your body, especially your liver, in order to rid your body of these accumulated toxins.

Part 1: The home full of toxins

The air pollution in cities is a well known cause of health problems, but did you know that the air in your own home can be even more toxic? Indoor air can be between five and seven times more polluted than outdoor air, unless you live right along a freeway, according to Professor Margaret Burchett of the University of Technology, Sydney. This is because air indoors is stale and it accumulates. Since the majority of Australians spend 90 percent of their time indoors, whether in their home or workplace, the air you breathe each day can be putting your health at risk.

How does indoor air become so polluted?

Where does all the polluted air come from? There are very many sources of indoor air pollution; some of it will come from the air outside, but the majority is generated in the home through the following:

  • Synthetic building materials, furnishings and finishes that out-gas pollutants; for example furniture, paints, solvents and carpets. This is especially the case in new homes. The CSIRO estimates that people living in new homes can be exposed to many times the maximum allowable limits of some indoor air pollutants.
  • Personal care products such as toiletries and cosmetics.
  • Household cleaning products.
  • Air fresheners.
  • Smoking cigarettes indoors.
  • Dry cleaned clothing.
  • Pesticides used in the home, such as insect spray.
  • Biological sources such as mould, dust, fungi and animal dander.
  • Chlorophytum comosum (spider plant).

What are the pollutants?

The major indoor air pollutants are a class of chemicals called Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). These are carbon containing compounds which make up fossil fuels – coal and petroleum and their products. Nearly all modern interior building and furnishing materials contain, or are partly composed of plastics, glues, solvents and paints, all of which are made from petroleum derivatives. All of these substances “out-gas” Volatile Organic Compounds into the air, including benzene, toluene, xylene, formaldehyde, perchloroethylene and others. They are called volatile because they easily turn into a gas and evaporate into the air, enabling us to breathe them in.

The chemicals and their effects

More than 350 VOCs have been identified in indoor air. These compounds are regarded as being responsible for “sick building syndrome” and “building related illness”; causing symptoms such as headaches, loss of concentration, sore throat and eyes, nausea and breathing problems. All VOCs are fat soluble, therefore they tend to accumulate in our tissues, being incorporated into our cell membranes and fatty tissues such as the brain and endocrine (hormone producing) organs.

These are the most common toxins found in homes:

  • Benzene: This is a colourless liquid that is used to make plastics, resins, nylon, photographic and printing chemicals, dyes, paints, detergents, rubber, glue and pesticides. Benzene is known to cause cancer, thus the US National Toxicology Program has classified it as a carcinogen. Long term exposure to benzene can reduce the number of red blood cells in your blood, leading to anaemia. It may also suppress your immune system and possibly lead to leukaemia.
  • Formaldehyde: This is a colourless, strong smelling gas that is widely used in building materials and household products. Most commonly, formaldehyde is used as an adhesive resin in pressed wood products such as particle board, fibreboard, plywood, and it is used in some insulation. Formaldehyde is also used in glues, preservatives and permanent press fabrics. The building materials in new homes in particular can “out-gas” high levels of formaldehyde into a house. Exposure to formaldehyde can produce symptoms such as watery eyes, burning eyes, nose and throat; skin rashes; chest tightness; wheezing; coughing and nausea. Formaldehyde does cause cancer in laboratory animals and is likely to do the same in humans.
  • Carbon Monoxide: This is a highly poisonous colourless, odourless and tasteless gas. It is produced by the incomplete burning of natural gas, liquefied petroleum gas, wood, charcoal, coal, oil, gasoline and kerosene. Common sources of carbon monoxide in the home are tobacco smoke, un-vented kerosene and gas heaters, gas stoves and gas water heaters, wood fireplaces and car exhaust fumes from garages attached to homes. Exposure to carbon monoxide may produce fatigue, flu-like symptoms, poor concentration, shortness of breath and tightness in the chest. At high concentrations carbon monoxide poisoning can cause death.
  • Household dust: If observed under a microscope, household dust is actually a mixture of substances including human and animal skin, dust mites and their waste products, mould and fungus spores, dead and living bacteria and insect parts. The smallest of these particles can enter our bloodstream through our lungs and create free radical damage in our body. It is the waste products of dust mites that are capable of causing allergic reactions. In its lifetime one single dust mite is capable of producing up to 200 times its weight in waste products. These wastes can produce allergic symptoms such as eczema, asthma, hayfever and allergic rhinitis.
  • Mould: This can vary in appearance from white to orange, to green to black. The texture can be slimy, powdery or hairy. Mould produces tiny spores in order to reproduce; these spores continually float through the air. If they find a damp area inside the house, they can start growing on the surface and digesting it in order to survive. Mould can grow on wood, carpet, paper and food. Mould will only become a problem if there is excess moisture in the home which is undetected or not addressed. High levels of mould are extremely harmful to health and their effect on the respiratory system can be compared to passive smoking. Symptoms associated with mould exposure include a blocked or runny nose, conjunctivitis, sore throat, wheezing, headaches, fever and greater susceptibility to catching colds.

In Part 2 we look at what you can do about your environment to protect yourself against these harmful substances.

1)National Safety Council
2)US Environmental Protection Agency
3)Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America
4)The Ultimate Detox, Dr Sandra Cabot & Margaret Jasinska ND
5)HOW AND WHY POTTED-PLANTS REALLY DO CLEAN INDOOR AIR SUMMARY March, 2005 Margaret Burchett, Ronald Wood, Ralph Orwell, Jane Tarran, Fraser Torpy, Ralph Alquezar
Plants and Environmental Quality Group, Faculty of Science, UTS
Westbourne St, Gore Hill, NSW2065