Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The good,
the bad
and the ugly
about indoor air quality  (IAQ)                      
                 from James Trout,
 We’ve suspected pollution hazards inside our homes for some time. The usual suspects were  high moisture, particulates,  and VOCs (volatile organic compounds). However, these hidden home hazards have turned out to be a much larger problem for many more of us than originally  thought.  Recently, the Surgeon General, EPA, Center for Disease Control and National Health Institute compared notes on long term studies. They found a high incidence of polluted indoor air in our homes that was having disturbing consequences.  The health impacts from these hazards could range from neurological damage and lung cancer, to respiratory disease and immune deficiency. That connection has now grown to include even more, for upwards of 40,000,000 homes.

       According to the EPA, indoor air quality is the fourth most serious environmental risk facing our nation. Air quality health complaints have risen 10,000% in the past 20 years.

       The air in most of our homes can be 4, 5, or up to 100 times more polluted than outdoor air, causing chronic and disabling health problems.

      The National Center for Healthy Homes states that  over 30,000,000 US homes are at risk and harbor toxic environmental conditions.

      More than 31 million Americans have been diagnosed with asthma, about 1/3 are children.  Asthma affects 1 in 15 children.

      ADHD affects nearly 20% of those under 18.

      About 40,000 dust mites, a common household allergen, can live in one ounce of dust, and carry toxic particles with it.

      25 million people are immune compromised and up to 50% of the population are affected by an allergy. 

      A Building Science Study on Indoor air quality in homes in one state found that Benzene  exceeded  safe levels (4ppd) in 41% of the studied homes.

      The US Surgeon General says that indoor radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer, killing more people than car accidents.

      Many pollutants act as endocrine disruptors, contributing to behavioral disorders, immune dysfunction, respiratory disease and obesity.

Many chronically ill patients are treated and released from hospitals, only to return to a sick home, forcing them back for treatment repeatedly. These homes do not discriminate between poor and rich, black and white, male and female, owner and renter, young or old.

Many hospitals pay steep fines to Medicare for high recidivism, the assumption being, treatment was incomplete. What’s at stake here are costly and rising medical expenses, extended discomfort and disease, expensive insurance pay-outs and rising health premiums, and a sense of failure when our best treatments don’t seem to work.

  Frequently when a person seeks medical help, it’s their building that needs the prescription. We’re now building houses tighter for greater energy efficiency, but without reliable fresh air systems we’re filling these tighter houses with synthetic, man-made building materials, furnishings, and cleaning products—many of which release pollutants into the air continuously. Pets create and carry pollutants, and even the ozone producing air cleaners and scented candles we buy can pollute. We end up with pollution-filled houses that don’t have enough fresh air, that are choking the occupants. The result is often ill health, disease or death. The problem is worsened by multiple toxicity from carbon monoxide, radon, pet dander, mold/moisture, chemicals and pests reacting to one another.

“Source control” is recommended. pests, chemicals,  smoke, and moisture can be managed. Lead, Radon, CO, and formaldehyde can all be tested.  Unfortunately, if we tried to test our air for all the possible pollutants it could take an enormous amount of money and time, and still risk not being complete. Trying to remove all the polluting causes would also be prohibitively expensive – removing carpet, glued woods, cookware - and we might still miss the culprit.  Another popular measure is using exhaust fans more, but that can actually draw air in from attics and garages, increasing the risks.

The good news is, there are solutions that work. For starters, explains how to improve our life-style and choices.  Educating ourselves about the hidden hazards of old habits, materials and processes can make a difference. Secondly, cleaning our houses top to bottom with a HEPA filtered vacuum can rid our habitats of accumulated dust, dust mites, dander and mold. Thirdly, we need to get fresh air into our homes, and polluted air out, without losing all of our energy dollars. One of the few appliances that does this effectively is a balanced whole house energy recovery ventilator, (ERV) that typically connects to your cold air return.  Before and  after air testing for the usual suspects also makes sense.

ERVs deserve special attention because they solve many problems. ERVs (Energy Recovery Ventilators) are new, proven, compact  technologies for the home that tie directly into the HVAC ductwork, remove polluted air at about 70-100 cubic feet/minute (cfm), replace with fresh air, capture the exiting energy and transfer to incoming media, dehumidify in the summer, humidify in the winter, and filter the incoming air. An additional benefit is that ERVs can reduce long term radon concentrations as well as airborne pollutants.

ERVs save energy, reduce moisture,  reduce dust, extend the life of materials, improve the quality of the air, pressurize the home to reduce leakage, and meet ASHRAE 62.2 codes.
The cost can be from $1500 to $3000 in a typical home.

3 known health impacts:

      Neurological / endocrine disruptors

      Lung cancer

      Respiratory, allergy conditions


3 known related  home hazards:

      Mold, RH (high relative humidity)

      PM2.5 (particulates), lead, radon

      Gases, CO (carbon monoxide), NO


3 Remedies:
            pre & post air testing, plus:
Maintenance (Cleaning)
Ventilation     (Energy Recovery Ventilator)
Education       (Behavioral modification)


With 3 Outcomes:

measurable recovery improvements  and increased comfort          

reduced re-admission and Dr visits,

lower healthcare costs 


James Trout is an energy analyst with certifications from the National Environmental Health Association and the Building Performance Institute.  James manages a Department of Energy weatherization program in St Louis County, has decades of green design/build experience, and chairs the Missouri Governor’s Council on Disability.