Sources: Many odorous chemicals/pollutants contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These come from many sources: cleaning agents, furnishings, pesticides, hobby materials, etc. (This is a VERY broad category of chemicals.)
Health Effects: May cause irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat. Many chemicals can cause serious problems in high concentrations but are present in the home at very low concentrations. The health impact of mixtures of these chemicals is not known.
Detection: “Can someone test the air in my home?” is a common question. The short answer is no. Testing is not practical or affordable unless a specific pollutant is suspected. It is much more efficient to examine the home and review activities, furnishings, conditions, and recent changes to develop a list of likely pollutants.
Solutions: Follow directions on product labels. Provide adequate ventilation.
Sources: Any common fuel-burning products can produce CO. Sources include heating equipment (furnaces, water heaters, fuel-fired space heaters), cook tops, ovens, charcoal grills, and engines.
Health Effects: CO itself is an odorless gas that can kill. Lower concentrations cause headaches, weakness, and drowsiness. Symptoms are often mistaken for the flu.
Detection: CO detectors are available. Plug-in UL-approved alarms with digital readout detection are best.
Solutions: CO accumulates in the home when heating appliances are not properly adjusted or vented or when normal venting cannot occur (cracked or rusted furnace heat exchanger, broken or rusted flue pipe, flow reversal in chimney caused by strong vent fan elsewhere in house). Have appliances inspected annually. Provide ventilation (window partially open) if unvented space heaters or strong vent fans are used. Operating gasoline or diesel engines in the house or in an attached garage will also cause CO problems.
Sources: This chemical is found in many products because of several very useful properties. Drapes and permanent press fabrics can contain formaldehyde. Interior wood products (particle board, paneling, fiberboard) used to make countertops, cabinets and veneered furniture introduce large amounts of formaldehyde into the home.
Health Effects: Formaldehyde is a strong irritant. About 10 percent of the population is sensitive to extremely low levels.
Detection: Do-it-yourself test kits are available ($30 to $50). Sensitivity and accuracy are limited when concentrations are low. There is no official program to validate the accuracy of these tests.
Solutions: Buy low emission products or use solid wood products. Coat exposed particle board or fiberboard surfaces with varnish or polyurethane. Formaldehyde does not penetrate coverings such as plastic laminate.
Sources: Dust mites thrive in mattresses because of warmth, moisture, and a good supply of food. They may also live in carpets.
Health Effects: Many people are allergic to dust. Dust mites—microscopic spider-like creatures—are the primary source of allergens and a leading cause of asthma. Asthma-related emergency room admissions and deaths have increased in recent years (deaths tripled in ten years from 1,674 in 1977 to 4,580 in 1988).
Solutions: Use plastic mattress and pillow covers. Launder bedding in hot water. Minimize use of carpets, especially in sleeping areas. Keep pets out of sleeping areas.
Sources: These organisms can grow almost anywhere, and their spores are nearly everywhere. Moisture is an essential ingredient for the growth of mold, mildew, etc. Organisms will also grow in stagnant water. Growth of these microorganisms is mainly a nuisance, in terms of unpleasant odors and destruction of materials. Sometimes problems can be more serious, involving health problems and structural damage to buildings (rotting wood).
Health Effects: These usually become important when molds or by-products are dispersed so that they are inhaled by people (mold growth in duct work, drip trays under air conditioning units or refrigerators). Some humidifiers can disperse large amounts of mold growth via droplets of water.
Solutions: Solve building moisture problems to decrease humidity. Make sure drip trays are emptied regularly or drain properly. Clean humidifiers regularly; add fresh water daily.
Sources: The strong odor in new carpet is from the carpet backing. The industry is working to reduce this. Old carpet can cause a problem from mold growth, etc.
Solutions: The ideal solution is to arrange for the installer to unroll (air out) the carpet for several days before installation. An alternative solution is to schedule installation during a time when windows can be left open (most of the odor will be gone in 1 to 2 weeks). Carpets need regular care once they have been installed. Vacuum regularly and shampoo the carpet 1 to 2 times a year (follow shampoo directions carefully). Discard flood-damaged carpets.
Sources: Electromagnetic fields are generated by household wiring, high tension lines, and everyday electrical appliances.
Health Effects: There is a lot of conflicting research on this subject. Some data suggest cancer risks and other problems are slightly increased among people with strong exposure to electrical and magnetic fields.
Solutions: Evidence is not strong enough to justify extreme or expensive avoidance measures. For now, those concerned about EMFs can exercise “prudent avoidance.” Don’t use an electric blanket. Move your electric clock from the headboard to a nearby nightstand or dresser.
Sources: Asbestos was used in many products, ranging from insulating pipe and duct wrap to vinyl floor tiles and spackling. Thus, nearly all homes more than about 20 years old are likely to have some asbestos. If the material is in good condition and is left undisturbed, asbestos fibers should not become airborne and will not become a health hazard.
Health Effects: Asbestos can cause lung cancer, especially among smokers. About 600 to 1,000 U.S. deaths each year are attributed to asbestos; nearly all involve workplace exposure.
Detection: Consult a certified analytical lab for sampling instructions.
Solutions: The most important thing to know is that it should not be disturbed by those without professional certification. Amateur attempts to remove it are almost certain to create a serious hazard.
Sources: Radon is a colorless, odorless, radioactive gas that comes from uranium. Houses on or near sources can draw in radon from soil. Ground wells, natural gas, and stone used for construction are other potential sources of radon.
Health Effects: Of all indoor pollutants, radon is one of the most important in terms of numbers of deaths attributed to it. Radon can cause lung cancer with prolonged exposure. Current calculations estimate 5,000 to 15,000 deaths each year in the U.S. are caused by radon.
Detection: Testing is a top priority. Inexpensive test kits are available: Short-term (2 to 7 days) kits cost $10 to $15. Long-term (3 to 12 months) kits cost $15 to 30.
Solutions: EPA’s “action level” for radon (the concentration at which remediation is needed) is 4 picoCuries per liter of air (pCi/L). If a problem exists, a certified radon contractor can usually reduce radon levels to below 4 pCi/L for $1,500 to $2,000.
Sources: Sources include drinking water (via lead pipes, lead-soldered tubing, or brass fixtures), lead-based paint, residue from leaded gasoline, and folk medicines. Lead-tainted dust on toys and play surfaces are a major route of poisoning in children since parents don’t realize it is being ingested.
Health Effects: Very small doses, a few granules each day, can impair brain development, affect learning and behavior, and cause many other problems. Large doses of lead can be fatal. Adults (and even pets) can also be harmed. It is estimated that 3 million U.S. children have at least moderately elevated blood lead levels.
Detection: Do-it-yourself lead screening kits and professional detection services are available. Contact your state health department for detection recommendations.
Solutions: Never sand or scrape old (pre-1978) paint. Paint from before the 1950s can have as much as 50 percent lead. Use a damp mop (rather than a vacuum) to control dust. Do not drink “first draw” water in the morning (let it run for 1 to 2 minutes). Hand washing before meals plays an important role in reducing lead exposure. Proper diet (adequate calcium and iron, low fat) can help protect children against lead. Have children tested if you think there could be a problem (pre-1978 housing is an important risk factor).
Sources: Direct exposure from smoking tobacco. Indirect exposure from secondhand smoke. Health risks from tobacco smoke are far greater than from any other indoor air pollutant.
Health Effects: Tobacco smoke has been officially designated as a known human carcinogen. It contains many indoor air pollutants (carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, VOCs, particulates, etc.). The illnesses and deaths attributed to cigarette smoking are documented by very strong medical evidence and make most other health risks look trivial by comparison. Some 434,000 deaths in the U.S. each year are attributed to tobacco smoking.
Environmental tobacco smoke is a problem for nonsmokers who are regularly exposed to tobacco smoke. Some 3,000 lung cancer deaths each year are attributed to secondhand smoke. Children are particularly susceptible to cigarette smoke. It increases the severity of asthma and is estimated to cause between 150,000 and 300,000 cases of bronchitis and pneumonia in young children each year.
Solutions: This is a complex issue involving behavior, personal choices, and, for some, addiction. The ideal solution is to not allow people to smoke in your house.
Compiled by Joseph T. Ponessa, Ph.D., Associate Professor/Housing and Energy Specialist, Rutgers Cooperative Extension.
Adapted by Janie L. Harris, M.Ed., CRS, Extension Housing and Environment Specialist, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, Texas A&M System. 1999.
Last updated: July 3, 2015