Poor Indoor Air Quality: Causes, Health Risks and Solutions

Most homeowners, unless they are hypoallergenic, do not think about home air quality. And most air quality problems are the result of poor home construction, outdated building materials, poor maintenance, the use of toxic products, and just plain carelessness.

Furthermore, the air quality cost is not apparent on monthly utility bills. It is only evident as the deferred costs of future health care. For these reasons, air quality is often ignored.

The causes of poor indoor air quality can be looked at in two categories: airborne gases and airborne pathogens.

Airborne Gases include:

  • Volatile Organic Compounds
  • Asbestos
  • Airborne Lead and Mercury
  • Carbon Monoxide
  • Radon

Airborne Pathogens include:

  • Tuberculosis
  • Legionnaires Disease
  • Allergenic Agents

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC)

This includes formaldehyde, Pesticides, Solvents, Beauty Products, and Cleaning Agents.

Formaldehyde is commonly used in construction materials like plywood and particle board. It is used in adhesives, paints, cardboard, and paper products. It is also a product of combustion from wood-burning stoves, vehicle exhaust, and cigarette smoke.  

Volatile Organic Compounds Health Risks include coughing, burning sensations in the eyes, throat, and allergic sensitivity.

Preventative Measures include not purchasing materials in which formaldehyde is used in manufacturing. Today manufacturers of wood products, paints, and solvents are aware of formaldehyde dangers and will label their products Low VOC. More manufacturers have No VOC products. These should be used.

Obviously, wood-burning stoves must be well-ventilated. Barbequing grills designed for outdoor use should never be used indoors. Gasoline engines should not be used where there is a danger of exhaust entering your home. And cigarette smoking should be banned from the home.

Suppose there is no option except to purchase materials or finished goods made with formaldehyde. In that case, the material should be allowed to “air out” for several weeks before it is brought into the home. Formaldehyde dissipates relatively quickly and, after a few weeks, will not irritate most people.

Pesticides, Solvents, Cleaning Agents, and Beauty Products

Pesticides, Solvents, Cleaning Agents, and Beauty Products used in the home are usually applied by hand in concentrated amounts only an arm’s length from the nose.

Health Risks are often the same as those of formaldehyde and will cause similar reactions. In addition, because of the closeness to the source and the high concentrations, dizziness and nausea can be additional symptoms. The toxins enter the bloodstream, and many build up within our bodies.

Preventative Measures include not using agents with VOCs. There are many organic and nontoxic-to-humans products available. It can be argued that the nontoxic agents do not work as well. If the decision is made to use agents containing VOCs, the best advice is to use them only in well-ventilated areas.

Asbestos, Airborne Lead, and Mercury

Asbestos, Airborne Lead, and Mercury are the result of past widespread use of these materials in construction products. Lead was widely used in paints until the 1950s and can still be present in older houses. Mercury was also used in paint manufacturing until 1991, when phenyl mercuric acetate was banned from use in water-based latex paints. The compound was used to preserve shelf life, some may still be around in old paint products.

Asbestos was commonly used as an insulting and fireproofing material. It was used as a drywall compound and as water pipe insulation. It was used in floor tiles and ceiling panels. On July 12, 1989, the EPA banned most asbestos products. Unfortunately, two years later, the US Court of Appeals overturned the ban. Now the use of asbestos is banned only in a few specific products like flooring felt and corrugated paper.

Fortunately, because of litigation danger, most manufacturers no longer produce home-building products containing asbestos.

Health Risks for asbestos, lead, and mercury is gravely serious and, if exposure is great enough, can be fatal. The great danger from asbestos and lead arises when materials containing the substances are damaged or disintegrate with age. Microscopic particles can be dispersed into the air and inhaled. Over time the particles can cause lung cancer.

Preventative Measures in dealing with these materials are highly regulated, and proper procedures must be followed.

Tearing out old building materials that contain asbestos, lead and mercury should only be done by licensed professionals. The areas where mitigation takes place will be sealed off. The demolition workers will wear protective gear, and the contaminated materials will be disposed of properly in a regulated and illegal manner. There are numerous agencies that test for lead, mercury, and asbestos that can perform the demolition.

It is often possible to encapsulate lead and asbestos, which can be the most cost-efficient way to deal with the problem. The danger of this approach is that future renovation work could expose the old materials.


radon particles

Radon is an odorless, radioactive gas present in the ground from the natural breakdown of uranium. It is released into homes through earth fissures and cracks in buildings. It is more prevalent in some areas of the country than in others. Fortunately, Georgia has relatively low levels of radon.

Health Risks from radon develop when large amounts of the gas are present. Radon itself decays and produces “daughters of radon,” polonium-218 and 214, which emit alpha particles that can cause lung tissues to develop cancer.

Preventative Measures are relatively simple. If a new home is built in an area where radon is present, the crushed stone layer beneath concrete slabs should be vented to the outdoors by plastic piping. In many older homes, the basement or crawl space area was earth. In these homes, there are enough air leaks that any radon gas present will escape to the outdoors before it poses a danger.

If a basement in an old home is dug out and finished, the crushed stone beneath the new concrete floor should be vented.

Carbon Monoxide

Carbon Monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas that forms when fossil fuels, coal, or wood are burned.

Health Risks are caused because carbon monoxide reduces the amount of oxygen in the blood. Low levels cause flu-like symptoms; headaches, tiredness, shortness of breath, and impaired motor functions. Because the symptoms are similar to the flu, sometimes a diagnosis is incorrect. High levels of exposure or long-term lower-level exposure inhibit the blood’s capacity to carry oxygen and will cause death.

Preventative Measures require the elimination of the sources of the gas. Never use fuel-burning equipment that is designed for outdoor use indoors. Emergency lights like lanterns or kerosene lamps should be used only in well-ventilated areas. They should be used only if specifically designed for indoor use.

Maintained furnaces and gas water heaters to ensure no gas leaks.

Do not idle gasoline-powered automobiles or lawnmowers in the garage.

Get a carbon monoxide detector!

Airborne Pathogens


Tuberculosis risk is increased when there is poor indoor air quality, crowded living quarters, and previously infected individuals. Tuberculosis is more commonly transmitted in healthcare situations than in homes. Nonetheless, the disease is a reminder to have a well-ventilated home.

Preventive Measures include ensuring that you do not come in contact with infected individuals and that your home is well-ventilated. Your heating/cooling system should have the proper amount of outdoor make-up air. Check with your HAVC maintenance provider at an annual check-up time. Also, make sure to use pleated filters that fit properly. If there is an air gap around the filter’s edges, it is like not having a filter at all.

Legionnaires Disease

Legionnaires Disease is pneumonia associated with dirty cooling systems, hot tubs, humidifiers, and residential tap water. Legionella pneumonia must be present.

Preventive Measures include making sure air conditioners, hot tubs, and humidifiers are clean. The condensate piping from this equipment must be properly drained. The drain traps must be cleaned periodically.

The disease can be cured by high doses of the drug Erythromycin.

Allergenic Agents

Allergenic Agents such as animal dander, molds, and dust mites cause a variety of allergy reactions, which vary from individual to individual.

Preventive Measures include the measures indicated for Tuberculosis and Legionnaires’ Disease:

  • Provide sufficient outdoor air ventilation.
  • Keep water reservoirs, condensate lines, and drip pans clean and in proper working order.
  • Repair equipment leaks and seepage.

If water damage occurs, immediately and thoroughly clean and dry wet carpets and replace damaged drywall. In such cases, mold will begin forming within hours.

Vacuum carpets and upholstery regularly. Change bedding often, and cover mattresses. According to the EPA, washing bedding at temperatures above 130o F will kill dust mites.


A good first step is to be aware of the things that can hurt the air quality in your indoor space. Suppose you are proactive about problems with indoor air quality. In that case, you can ensure everyone who enters your home feels safe and comfortable.

Most of the forgoing material comes from the EPA and Health Canada information. Most remedial action relies on common sense and is inexpensive and easy to do.

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About the author
Martina began her writing career in 2011 and worked strictly online. She attempts to be as green as she can, which not only helps the environment, it aids in reducing her monthly expenses.

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