We’ve sealed ourselves indoors with a toxic stew of gases, dust and mold. Home is just not so sweet any more.
As a kid, Michele Chase had severe asthma attacks, which her family put down to the polluted air in Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto. But when, at the age of 10, she moved with her family to Fredericton, New Brunswick, a city with a population of only 50,000, Chase’s bouts of asthma surprisingly did not improve.
Her chest would become tight and she’d wheeze so hard she couldn’t catch a breath, despite a daily course of medication. Her family became acquainted with the local ER department.
But there was a difference in Fredericton: many of her asthma flareups started within the family home. For years, she couldn’t figure out the exact trigger. But Chase, now 28, today is certain she knows the spark for her childhood agony.
Asthma attacks triggered by home’s poor indoor air
Three years ago she helped her mother renovate the family home. As they were replacing the gyprock and paneling in the basement, they made an unsettling discovery. Thick, oozing black fungus had completely covered the back side of the gyprock and had permeated the insulation.
While they knew the basement was always damp, they had been completely unaware of the health hazard hidden behind the walls. Chase is thankful her bedroom was not in the basement, but notes, “if it’s in the home, it’s still in what you breathe.”
In Ottawa, Susan Clemens can relate. She watched with increasing distress as Angela,* her young daughter, suffered frightening asthma attacks between the years 2002 and 2004. The family was living in a “maisonette” with 12 apartments connected to a central hallway.
The building’s owners were busily renovating units, and every time a tenant moved out, they would resurface the floor in the vacated unit. Chemical fumes permeated the building, and the Clemens’ immediate neighbour was a smoker, so the family was also breathing in second-hand smoke.
Angela was not a wheezer, but during attacks the skin between the toddler’s ribs and collarbone would suck in as she struggled to breathe. Her lips would turn blue, and she’d break into a sweat. Angela was diagnosed with asthma at 12 months, but didn’t see a respirologist until she was 3.
He questioned Clemens and her husband about their lifestyle. When they explained about the apartment renovations, he immediately connected that to their daughter’s health. “That’s one of your big problems,” she recalls him saying. And then the life-changing words: “You have to move.”
How a home’s indoor air can cause allergies and asthma
Such instances are far from unique. While most North Americans still think of smog as the most serious form of air pollution, a more toxic chemical stew is often found in the air we breathe inside our homes. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency labels indoor air one of the Top Five environmental health risks, up there with polluted drinking water.
The bad environment in our households starts with polluted air from the outdoors, which is often not cycled effectively in and out of tightly sealed and energy-efficient homes. Trapped, “the pollutant levels may be two to five times higher inside than outside, and in some cases, 100 times higher,” says Tom Kelly, director of the EPA’s Indoor Environments Division.
Then the homeowners mix in other chemicals: pesticides, perhaps cigarette smoke, air fresheners, hairspray, perfume and cleaning supplies. Thrown into the invisible concoction are the gases given off by furnishings or paint. Add animal dander, dust mites and mold – those ubiquitous biological allergy triggers – and suddenly there’s new meaning to the term “the fresh outdoors.”
Who is harmed by indoor air pollution?
Polluted indoor air “can be a very high risk for children, for elderly people, and for folks with diseases such as asthma,” says Kelly. In Canada, asthma is responsible for 10 per cent of all hospital admissions for children under the age of 4. The thought that our homes, our safe havens, can at times be to blame, is sobering.
To get a reading on just how bad household air is becoming a company that designs indoor air monitors, AirAdvice, worked with a network of heating, air conditioning, and air quality professionals to collect and analyze about 1.3 billion air samples from nearly 50,000 homes in the U.S. and Canada between 2004 and 2006.
Its survey showed 96.7 per cent of the homes generating an “alert”, that is, a level outside the recommended range for one of: particle allergens (dust, dander and pollen); chemical pollutants; carbon dioxide; temperature; humidity; and carbon monoxide. Eighty-three per cent of the homes had two or more alerts.
*Child’s name has been changed.