As a worried mother of a four-year-old, who has just recovered from Allergic Bronchitis, I have much to share about the air pollutants inside our homes which can be potential hazards to our family’s health. All of a sudden, one night, my little boy began coughing in the middle of his sleep. He seemed perfectly alright in the daytime without any symptoms of cold, cough, breathing difficulty or chest congestion. However, shockingly, the nocturnal cough continued for six consecutive nights. The pediatrician diagnosed this condition as Allergic Bronchitis. Though it’s not a chronic disorder as the name sounds, the sight of my son coughing severely and having a disturbed sleep were distressful. We were informed it is caused by dust allergens and would go away with time.
“Dust allergens? But there are hardly any cob webs or dusty surfaces in our home!”
Yes, like any other uninformed person, all that ‘dust’, meant to me were cob webs on the walls and fine dust on furniture surfaces. It took a piece of my little boy’s health for me to look deeper into the quality of air we were breathing at home.
As a paranoid mother, I ransacked the internet and inspected every nook and corner of the home for the culprit. The problem with dust allergies is that you cannot identify the definite source because almost all of them give similar symptoms of cough and sneezing. Thus, I had to eliminate one by one of all the probable sources until I narrowed down to one. Now that, by God’s grace, he is back to his healthy self, I feel it as a responsibility to create awareness among others on the several indoor air pollutants, their impact on our health and the various ways with which we can keep them at bay from our everyday lives.
P.S. This post is a comprehensive account on this topic, hence is contrived to be detailed. Please go over slowly and try to relate the details with your home settings.
Until my son’s coughing episodes began, I felt safe and healthy every time I entered home. Ironically, the fact is, indoor air is five times more polluted than the outdoors. The dust particles we witness on the roads and on the furniture surfaces at home, are larger particles which mostly get trapped in our nose and is prevented from entering our breathing tract. However, we can easily breathe in particles which are smaller and invisible; still worse are the ultra-fine particles which can directly get into our bloodstream. If you think your home air is clean, devoid of pollutants (as I did once upon a time), re-think with the check-list of indoor pollutants discussed below:
When was the last time you serviced your gas stove?
You don’t remember or you are not aware of gas stove maintenance? As a first step, ignite the gas burner at home; if the flame is full blue and steady, your gas stove is healthy. Instead, if you see a tinge of yellow or orange in the flame, it’s an alert! A gas burner flame can turn yellow or orange if the burner pores are clogged. This has nothing to do with pollutants. However, if the burner is fine but still the flame is yellow, then:
- there is dust in the surrounding air
- there is insufficient oxygen around
- the kitchen space is ill-ventilated
The consequence is that Carbon Monoxide which is produced as a byproduct of gas stove usage, doesn’t find a way out of your kitchen, making you a victim of Carbon Monoxide poisoning. Terms such as this might make us think that it can only happen to someone you read about in the newspaper but the truth is, it might be happening to us, as well, without giving the slightest clue. Check for one or more of the common symptoms below:
- You suffer mild to severe headaches, especially around the temples
- You often feel dizzy
- You feel a nauseating sensation when in kitchen for long
- Sometimes, your breathing becomes strained while cooking
It is still alright if we are exposed to a short term or at low levels of CO. However, prolonged or increasing levels of CO exposure can cause memory problems, mental confusion, hearing impairment, blurred vision and/or loss of consciousness.
What can you do about it?
- Get your gas stove serviced once a year. This also applies to gas heaters and other appliances which run on combustion.
- Keep kitchen well-ventilated while cooking. If there is not much scope for natural ventilation in the kitchen, install vents or chimneys. If you cannot afford a vent system, keep all the doors and windows open while cooking.
- Follow helpful cooking guidelines – Do not cook on high flame, use the right pan/pot size such that the flame does not extend past the sides of the pot, take care of spillages that could clog the burner pores.
Are you sure your house is free of dust mites?
Before you answer ‘yes’ do you even know that you cannot see a dust mite without a microscope?
I underline this particular source because I assume dust mites could have been the trigger for the allergy that my son had. Dust mites don’t bite us. They don’t suck our blood. They don’t transmit diseases. Quite nice creatures, uh?! But they love to be around us. Why? Because they feed on the dead skin cells we shed. Wait, we shed skin cells? Yes, we cannot see them, but we do! As a matter of shocking fact, we shed around 30,000 to 40,000 skin cells every minute. It is said that 1 million dust mites can feed on the skin flakes that a person sheds in a day.
What do they do to us?
The fecal waste of dust mites contain 20 different kinds of allergens to humans. They are tiny and can circulate through our living spaces without letting us know anything about their presence. Dust mite, its fecal matter and their dead cells are high-risk sources of respiratory problems including asthma and pulmonary diseases. Check if anyone in your house, especially children, display one or more of the following signs often (when the source is not common cold):
- You wake up with a stuffy nose
- You sneeze when you come into contact with something particular
- Coughing, especially during sleep
- For no reason, your eyes becomes red and watery
- You spot rashes on your skin
- Prolonged exposure might cause asthma, wheezing, breathing difficulties, eczema, gastrointestinal disorders and hay fever.
How, in the first place, will you know if there are dust mites in your house, said that they are microscopic?
Practically, you will not know! The best you can do is keep a check for allergic symptoms and be informed. Dust mites are not bed bugs. They multiply faster and they love humidity. Mattresses, pillows, bedding, carpets, rugs, fabric couches, curtains, old books and stuffed toys are the most common indoor objects they thrive on.
How can you prevent and get rid of dust mites?
- If you have children at home who are habituated to bed wetting, you might need to be extra careful of dust mites occupying the wet mattress. Also, watch out for dampness over pillows created by sweat.
- Quickly dry any dampness created on mattress, bedding, sofa and carpets.
- Regularly vacuum clean areas of high probability. Remember to keep allergic people away while cleaning as vacuuming can temporarily spark off dust.
- Wash bed spreads, bed sheets and pillow covers in hot water as dust mites get killed in high temperatures.
- Hot iron, mattresses, pillow covers and bedding. Ideal to do just before sleep time as we tend to inhale particles that have settled down on pillow covers, during sleep. Well, this point is my personal idea and has no tested impact. It could be effective/ineffective, foolish/brilliant, sane/insane.
- Keep mattresses dust free with a protective cover. Specifically, look for dust mite blocking mattress covers.
- Do not use fabric play mats, play carpets for children who show signs of dust mite allergy and it is better to keep stuffed toys away from them.
How often do you spot cockroaches in your house?
Your answer can talk a lot about the quality of the indoor air you breathe in everyday. If you think they might be one or two in number, double check by switching on the kitchen light at midnight. That’s when cockroaches are active the most. Some of you might be shocked to see how they have conquered your kitchen. Until the pediatric mentioned cockroach as a potential allergen, I assumed cockroaches can only cause stomach upset by contaminating food. The fact is, similar to dust mites, the droppings, saliva and other parts shed by cockroaches contain proteins that can act as allergens to human beings. Cockroach is one of the major sources that trigger allergy in asthma patients. The health hazards and their symptoms are close to that of dust mites. If stuffy nose, skin rashes, sinusitis are common in your house, you might want to check for the infestation that roaches give rise to. They can hide so well in kitchens, sinks and closets that there can be easily a few hundreds of them without being apparent. It is a common problem in apartments where drainage lines are closely connected. Once infested, it is practically impossible to get rid of them. A few good practices you can follow to reduce their numbers are:
- Cockroaches like food particles that may be found under gas stoves, refrigerators and on the floor and dining table. Make sure to clean any left over food scraps from kitchen and dining surfaces before you go to bed.
- Dirty dishes that are left in the sink overnight become their heavens. Try to do the dishes before bedtime or at the least, scrap off food remnants out from the utensils.
- Do not leave open trash bins in the kitchen overnight.
- Most of us use pest spray like Hit to combat cockroaches. However, you might want to know that such chemicals worsen asthma allergy and are ineffective for complete eradication. Instead, have a pest control agent do the job for you once in three or six months depending upon the roach population.
How many wooden furniture decorate your home?
If you understood the harm they can cause, you wouldn’t want many! Solid wood which is the most natural form of wood is the most safe for our furniture to be made of, though it has become expensive in the present days. Yes, solid wood is barely used in making furniture in the modern times. Most, believe me, m-o-s-t wooden furniture we see around are not made of solid wood. Its lookalikes – particle board, MDF, plywood and hard wood – are what furniture are made of, today. What are these? These are thin sheets of wood or wooden saw dust glued and pressed together using adhesives like what you see in the image below.
So, where is the problem? The adhesives! These adhesives, over a period of time, release Formaldehyde into our living space. If you can dust your memory, the Formalin solution that were used to preserve dead organisms in glass bottles in our school biology labs, yes, the same Formaldehyde! You know how suffocating it smells, don’t you? Well, we don’t smell it at home because furniture emit it at lower concentrations. However, prolonged inhalation can trigger the following symptoms:
- Burning of eyes and throat
- Difficulty in breathing
Additionally, Formaldehyde has been proved to be a cancer causing agent by National Academy of Sciences, specifically, nasal and lung cancer. Another alarming health issue in the recent years is infertility. You will be shocked to know how Formaldehyde exposure is directly linked to several reproductive and developmental disorders.
It is important to know that furniture are not the only home commodities with Formaldehyde content. Facial tissues, cosmetics, tobacco smoke, deodorants, grocery bags, foam insulation materials, shampoos, sanitary products, disinfectants etc. are other minor sources of Formaldehyde.
Then, but, how we all love our wooden furniture! What do we do about it? No, I am not telling you to discard your cherished furniture.
- By your best means, in the future, buy solid wood furniture or low VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) emitting furniture. Yes, sadly they are expensive.
- I am not sure how well regulations for such manufacturers like IGBC or BIFMA work. You might want to do a little research into these before you choose your furniture.
- For the ones which you already own, check for non-toxic sealants or paints which can prevent the emission for Formaldehyde (Ex. AFM Safecoat Sealer).
- Consider indoor wall paints such as Asian Paints’ Royale Atmos which come with a ‘Green Assure’ seal. This paint is, specifically, tested for its ability to neutralize Formaldehyde. Under standard test conditions, Royale Atmos was found to reduce 80-85% of Formaldehyde in 24 hours. Watch this video below to understand better:
- Some health enthusiasts recommend to leave a newly-made furniture at the manufacturer’s place for the first couple of months so that the initial high levels of Formaldehyde emission doesn’t affect us. This could be particularly helpful for couples who are planning to conceive and for pregnant women.
- The universal solution for all indoor air issues – keep your home well-ventilated.
Are your building walls prone to rainwater seepage?
With rainy season on the go and winter approaching, it is a good time to fix any water seepage or leaky water pipes in your home, especially those that directly open to your living areas. If left unattended, with increase in the moisture content, your house can become a cozy home for molds, thereby increasing the air contaminants in your house. The spread of fungal spores can directly impact your respiratory health by causing bronchitis, alleviating asthma and respiratory infections. Maintaining dry air within the home, minimal watering to indoor plants, immediate cleaning of pet urine are a few of the measures you can take to prevent indoor molds. However, for already-contaminated homes, you may want to check the following tips to clean molds recommended by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Do you have pets at home?
Unless you have lived with a pet in the same house for a few years, you cannot understand the love that’s mutually carried between humans and pets. They become like any other member of our families. Yes, we have heard time and again about the allergens they carry; but it cannot become a matter of parting from them forever. However, as a responsible owner, let us be aware of a few facts about grooming pets.
Pets (referring to cats and dogs here) pose a risk of pet dander accumulating in the indoor air. Dander is a flaky skin that pets shed, closely similar to human dandruff. They are of extremely light weight and size, even smaller than dust mite, that they float everywhere around us. In fact, houses who do not have pets can also be inhaling pet dander which are carried from neighbourhood. As any other allergen, pet dander can cause sneezing, watery eyes, chest congestion, wheezing or skin rashes. Specifically, cat antigens are studied to be more harmful than any other pets.
How can you control the circulation of pet dander in your home?
- Keeping pets clean with regular baths is your primary care.
- Remember to do the brushing away from closed spaces like homes.
- Vacuum clean carpets and doormats regularly.
- If you find yourself allergic to pet dander, keep pets away from bedrooms and children play areas.
Do pigeons love your window sills?
If yes, you must know why their love is dangerous to your home. City apartments are pigeons’ favourite dwelling areas. Though they don’t live indoors, the contaminants can enter our homes through ventilators, exhausts and air-conditioners. A family of pigeons (a number of generations, in fact) had destroyed our kitchen exhaust twice that we had generously let them occupy the space (actually, because of helplessness). However, let me alert you that their fecal droppings are breeding grounds for a variety of yeast and fungal species, in addition to alluring rodents. These can spread diseases such as Candidiasis – a yeast infection that causes vaginal itching and discharge in women, Histoplasmosis – a serious respiratory infection, Salmonellosis – bacteria that grow on bird droppings can contaminate food, Coli infection – an Enterobacteria-caused gastrointestinal tract infection, among others. Since we cannot make them migrate; we need to help ourselves by regular cleaning of the window sills.
Does anyone smoke cigarette in your house?
None smoke in my house. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean none of us are exposed to tobacco smoke. Though smoking in public has reduced considerably, still places like chai shops, other people’s homes, some restaurants, cinema halls and auto rides are not tobacco-free areas. If there’s someone who smokes in your house, put an end to it immediately. If your family frequently visits one of the tobacco-smoke prevalent areas, keep a check of the time you spend there.
In addition to the pollutant sources, here are a few other points to keep a check on, at homes.
How ventilated is your house?
Not many of us live in spacious homes located out of urban cities. Our area could be densely populated and congested with buildings standing close to one another; our home could be in one of the several floors of a nested apartment or there could be construction work happening around our homes giving rise to dust and pollution. Practically, there is little we can do about effective, natural ventilation in the kind of homes we live in. However, let us understand the way in which air circulates within and out of our homes.
The most effective method of natural air flow is cross-ventilation. Cross-ventilation happens through windows and doors located at opposite directions of the house. In some houses, in order to prevent mosquitoes from flying in, windows may always remain closed. Same goes in rooms where air-conditioners are used, even during times when they are not used. In nested flats, the windows that open to the atrium may always remain closed for privacy reasons. Main doors are kept closed in most houses for theft fear, neighbour nuisance and privacy. These are a few ventilation mistakes we do. If your house has been provided with ideal cross-ventilation, make proper use of it. Do not keep windows and doors permanently closed. Specifically, when you are cooking, while dusting, when you are up to a moisture-creating activity like washing clothes or soaking clothes for washing, remember to let air flow freely on all sides. This shall carry away unwanted pollutant carriers.
Are you aware of house plants that can reduce indoor pollution?
I leave this video to educate you about the indoor plants that can reduce the air pollution level in your home. Source: E3 Lifestyle (YouTube Channel)
If you haven’t yet inspected your house for air pollutants, do now!
I learned it the hard way after letting my son suffer for a while.
May you be aware and prevent early!