Current Home Building Practices that Drive Indoor Air Quality

Building materials and air tightness of a home can impact occupant health due to long-term exposure to polluted air

By Luke von Oldenburg

Indoor Air Quality (IAQ), refers to the air we are exposed to within, and occasionally, around a building. Sometimes that air is clean, but more often it may be contaminated with pollutants. A pollutant, or pollution, has been defined as the presence or introduction of a substance that may cause harmful or poisonous effects. When most people hear the term air pollution, they typically think of the quality of the air in the outside environment and causes like smog or effects from wildfires. However, these same people rarely consider the air pollution inside their own homes, schools or workplaces.

Our indoor environment can be polluted from building materials, wood stoves or even concentrated levels of chemical cleaners. Considering the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that Americans spend 90% of their time indoors, the quality of that indoor air becomes of significant importance.

Many groups such as the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), The World Health Organization, the EPA and the Indoor Air Quality Association (IAQA) have been investigating the cause and studying the health effects of indoor air pollutants from biological and chemical sources. These groups recognize how indoor air quality affects human health and well-being. 

Reportedly, both short- and long-term exposure to indoor air pollution can cause a range of health issues from irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, headaches, dizziness, fatigue to respiratory diseases, heart disease, cognitive deficits and cancer.

Factors that may contribute to indoor air pollutants include, but are not limited to, allergens, asbestos, carbon monoxide, cleaning and maintenance products, formaldehyde, fuel burning combustion appliances, lead, mold, particulates, pesticides, radon, smoke and volatile organic compounds. These building related symptoms are commonly attributed to dampness, cleanliness, ventilation and construction or remodeling.

Alondra Nelson, who currently leads the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, stated, “healthy and clean indoor air should become an expectation for all of us. … It’s just as important as the food we eat and the water we drink.”

So why does the quality of indoor air appear to have a greater impact now than in the past? One reason is that we are building homes tighter, with fewer air gaps and drafts, all in the name of greater energy efficiency, greater cost savings and possibly longer lasting structures. 

But as we trap the air inside, we also trap all these potential pollutants inside with us. A study showed that with an increase in home energy efficiency and features like better windows and insulation, there is also an increase in radon concentration inside these homes.

Another cause may be related to the type of building materials we are using. A lot of the newer materials are engineered or man-made and may allow off-gas volatile organic compounds inside the home. The building materials and air tightness of the home can limit effective drying or moisture removal which can allow for dampness. Dampness is a primary cause for fungal growth and dust mites to proliferate in a home.

There is no one single test to identify an IAQ problem or determine if an IAQ problem exists. Who can help? You can start by finding a licensed healthcare professional who is experienced with your possible symptoms. These professionals can help diagnose and then make recommendations to help alleviate your symptoms. Next, you can seek out an IAQ professional who can assess and evaluate your home for potential causes and conditions that may lead to your symptoms. The Indoor Air Quality Association has a web page that can help you find a professional near you (https://pro.iaqa.org/).

A diary is a great way to help your doctor or IAQ professional during the evaluation process. Health effects from indoor air pollutants may be experienced soon after exposure or possibly years later. Some early signs may be unpleasant or musty odors, stuffy air, physiological effects that may diminish after you leave that building. Are these symptoms and conditions present during certain times of the day or seasonal? Do other people also suffer? Are there new activities? When did it start? Have you changed products in your home? Have you experienced water damage? These records provide your practitioner with a timeline of the conditions which can help diagnose the problem. 

Luke von Oldenburg leads the education committee of the Indoor Air Quality Association. He is a Certified Industrial Hygienist and Certified Indoor Environmental Consultant and can be reached at [email protected].