Survey shows air inside homes is more polluted than the air outside


October 16, 1991|By Susan McGrath | Susan McGrath,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Admit it. Doesn't everyone who doesn't live in Los Angeles secretly congratulate himself on his good sense in not living in Los Angeles? I mean, how can people stand to breathe that smoggy air?

I'm sorry to say, you might as well be.

A team of scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency has completed a survey of the air inside people's homes and found that, on average, indoor air is three to seven times as polluted as the air outside. In fact, the EPA found that, overall, the indoor air they studied -- even in rural parts of South Dakota and North Carolina -- is MORE polluted than the outside air of Los Angeles.

This means that you get to breathe Los Angeles without having to live there. Here's why: Certain common building materials, household products and fuel-burning appliances emit pollutants that accumulate in the air in your house. If your house is not well ventilated, the fumes can build to levels that exceed federal standards for outdoor air. Concentrations of pollutants in some houses have been found to exceed levels at federal Superfund sites. And because the scientists also found that we spend a full 95 percent of our time indoors, our overall exposure to toxic chemicals is much higher than anyone dreamed.

Does it sound fishy to you? Another paranoid delusion of those sensationalistic environmentalists? Let's make a 15-minute visit to a hypothetical neighbor's house (Mrs. McDonald's) and see if we can spot any sources of chemicals we might not want to be sharing our lungs with.

You and Mrs. McDonald pull into her attached garage. Carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and other byproducts of incomplete

combustion in the car's exhaust float into the house. Benzene will evaporate from the gas tank of her hot car for several hours.

You step over cans of partially used car-care products, paint, thinner, lubricant, pesticides, etc., piled on her garage floor. These products exude a gaseous stream of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, molecules so tiny that Mrs. McDonald can't prevent them from escaping their containers, no matter how tightly she closes them. Have you ever found the contents of an old can of paint turned into a solid block? Where do you think those solvents went?

Mrs. McDonald is bringing home fresh dry-cleaning that will exhale tetrachloroethylene for a week, permeating her household with this chemical at levels 1,000 times as high as she'd ever sniff on the streets of L.A. (In fact, by analyzing study participants' exhaled breath, researchers were able to tell who had entered a dry-cleaning store within the last week.) Offering you a cup of tea, Mrs. M. flicks on a gas burner. The burning gas gives off the same fumes her car does. (Though Mrs. M. doesn't know it, researchers have found that children in homes with gas stoves have significantly more upper respiratory infections than do children in homes with electric stoves.)

The medium-density fiberboard from which Mrs. M.'s kitchen cabinets are made seep formaldehyde, used in the glue that binds the tiny splinters into boards. Mrs. McDonald's permanent press sheets give off the stuff, too. And the cleansers and polishes under the counter exude a steady whiff of VOCs, whether Mrs. M. uses them or not.

The fabric protector Mrs. M. sprayed on the upholstered chair you now sink into, and the spray polish coating her shoes, which jTC she now kicks off, emit quite a variety of VOCs. The no-slip soles of both your shoes shed tracked-in lead dust, PCBs and pesticide residues, gradually turning her dust bunnies into dust baddies every time a shoe wipes the rug.

Fortunately, Mrs. M. doesn't flea-bomb her house, for example, or smoke cigarettes, or make model airplanes. But even so, her house's air is a potent cocktail of cancer-causing and toxic chemicals -- exactly the same chemicals we are spending millions of dollars trying to remove from polluted industrial dump sites. Mrs. McDonald innocently invited most of these pollutants into her home. She had no idea they would outstay their welcome.

Indoor air pollution is an extremely serious problem. But, unlike a lot of other serious environmental problems, indoor air pollution is a problem you can make better yourself -- directly.

You don't need fancy gadgets, you don't need expensive consultants and you don't need to buy pricey, newfangled products to improve the air quality you breathe 95 percent of the time.

There are three main steps to improving the air quality of your home:

* Find out what chemicals in which products, activities and materials contribute to lousy indoor air quality.

* Reduce or eliminate your use of those chemicals indoors.

* Ventilate your house appropriately.

In upcoming columns, we'll take a look at specific indoor air problems and give practical advice on how to reduce their presence in your air -- short of ripping out your kitchen cabinets, opening your windows and praying for a hurricane. In the meantime, write to the Indoor Air Division, ANR-445-W, United States Environmental Protection Agency, 401 M St., SW, Washington, D.C. 20460, and request a copy of the excellent guide to indoor air problems, "The Inside Story."

(Have a question of general interest that can be answered in this column? Please send it to Susan McGrath at P.O. Box 121, 1463 E. Republican St., Seattle, Wash. 98112.)

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