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What's polluting the air in your house?

Home used to be where the heart is, but now home is basically where everything is. Movie nights, Zoom meetings, and naps galore are happening in our unmade beds, overused office chairs, and sometimes, after too much wine, the living room rug. In order to keep our spaces fresh, many of us try and disinfect with cleaning products that are spritzed on every visible surface. But, have you thought about the air inside your house lately, and how healthy it is for you to be breathing? We’re spending much of our time inside during the pandemic — and it made me wonder what could be lurking in our indoor air.

Your furniture

My couch always has kept that new-furniture smell — akin to a new-car scent — even though it’s several years old. There’s a reason the odor that permeates from a big box furniture store smells like the upholstery in the car. They’re made from the same stuff, and that stuff is going through a chemical process even after it leaves the factory.

What your nose detects is a process known as off-gassing, which is basically when the chemicals used in making furniture or flooring linger in your home’s air for an extended amount of time. the chemical reaction and result permeating from objects made with artificial components.These VOCs, or volatile organic compounds have very concerning names — benzene nonylphenol ethoxylate, acetone, formaldehyde are a few — but aren’t currently believed to warrant your panicked relocation to a tree house in the woods. If, like me, you’ve only heard of formaldehyde in a Law & Order context, just know that while formaldehyde is in furniture glues and nail polish remover too. It could make you dizzy, and does have more nefarious effects in pregnant women, but the effects of this and other VOCs vary from person to person. While there’s limited research on how sick they can make you, they’re not to be casually dismissed.

“Most of the most dangerous hazards in manufacturing are actually airborne, like fumes, toxic processes that aerosol different types of things in the air,” says Ana Maria Rule, a environmental professor and researcher at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Her studies lie in particulate matter, environmental health, more recently, COVID-19.

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Off-gassing proves that means that new furniture kinda is finishing being manufactured while sitting in your house. If you look at any factory worker making furniture, they’re all wearing masks while Even while applying glue to wood. There are VOCs in all sorts of household items: The foam of some mattresses, for one, has too many to list here.

“The professional safety and health of professional ventilation is one of our first line of defenses against any airborne hazard that workers may face in the workplace,” Rule says of illnesses and manufacturing byproducts in the air. By the time it gets to the consumer, the danger is much less, but still what some of the byproducts contain, like metal for one, is certainly something to watch out for.

If you’re as shaken as I am, and are wondering how manufacturers get away with dousing your air with chemicals, it could be because “the chemical lobby is very powerful in this country and they don’t want to be regulated” according to Susan Inglis, executive director of a coalition of industry professionals dedicated to safer, greener home furnishings, in an Architectural Digest piece on the topic.

While we’re unsure of the risk of off-gassing — and let’s be real, everything has scary chemicals in it — there are ways to protect yourself. Outside of a pricey assessment from professionals, you can purchase air quality detectors and also shop for home decor that promises greener, more eco-friendly manufacturing.

Sneaky mold

Of the most common causes of air pollution inside of the home, the bathroom is near the top of the list. The faucets, showerheads and pipes that carry water we use to shower can develop bacteria or mold, especially in the joints which you can see, and dark places, which you often don’t.

Pipes and drywall act kind of like moldy bread, if you see a spot, there might be a lot more that you can’t see or scrub away. The bacteria known as Legionella, for example, causes legionnaires disease, which can, in rare occurrences, be fatal. Also, all types of harmful bacteria or mold spores have the potential to accumulate behind your walls and mold cultures love moisture and warmth. So follow the CDC‘s guidelines, chief among them, don’t carpet your bathroom. And as far as the mold you can see, you can absolutely combat it with both natural and more aggressive cleaning products.

Rule says that cleaner air in home spaces can be achieved through an integrated system update if you’re in an apartment or more modern home, or something as simple as a ceiling fan or more open windows. All of these help stave odor buildup (yes, yours) but also more harmful fume build-up from household chemicals.

Grilling

While this technically isn’t indoor air, the backyard is a part of your home and grilling does require quite a bit of poring over charcoals, wondering if the inside of your burger is perfectly pink yet.

When barbecuing, humans absorb carcinogens not just from breathing them in, but also through the skin. Absorbing a substantial amount of toxins through the skin can lead to skin diseases and systemic toxicity, according to the CDC, which means that it can make you sick over time. Cooking pollution — smoke coming from that bratwurst or even grilled corn, is not only a patio-based problem. There’s also a little research on how frying meat in your kitchen can cause you to inhale fumes that could be harmful to your lungs, long-term.

Ultimately, none of this fume talk should freak you out; the fact that we need chemicals to process anything and everything is just our earthly reality. Just how much of those chemicals make it into our systems is something we do have some control over. If what you’re worried about what you’re inhaling, just being a more conscious consumer could help — and investing in an air purifier and cracking some windows to keep your place abundantly ventilated is always a win.