Indoor Air Quality Impacts Health by Keith Rowe

Indoor Air Quality Impacts Health

by Keith Rowe

We are all familiar with ancient wisdom that states the health of our bodies is directly attributable to what we put into our bodies. While many times this truth is used to encourage eating good food, it also applies to things we do not see in the air we breathe. Modern living includes a significant amount of time indoors, so the quality of indoor air becomes a concern as we learn more about chemicals in building materials, new strains of harmful bacteria, second-hand pollutants, and mold along with allergen and asthma triggers. For children in developmental stages, older people, people dealing with reduced respiration, or people with compromised immune systems, indoor air quality becomes a critical component of their quality or life.

Biological Agents

Children, elderly people, and people with breathing problems, allergies, and lung diseases are particularly susceptible to disease-causing biological agents in the indoor air. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lists the following as the top indoor environmental allergens and asthma triggers: second hand cigarette smoke, pet dander and saliva, cockroaches, dust mites and molds. Some biological contaminants trigger allergic reactions, including hypersensitivity pneumonitis, allergic rhinitis, and some types of asthma. Allergic reactions occur only after repeated exposure to a specific biological allergen. However, that reaction may occur immediately upon re-exposure or after multiple exposures over time. As a result, people who have noticed only mild allergic reactions or no reactions at all may suddenly find themselves very sensitive to particular allergens.

Molds and Fungi

Microorganisms are a normal and essential component of all environments. Bacteria and fungi are needed to break down complex molecules found in organic matter. If provided with water and a food source, they will colonize almost any area of Earth. Microorganisms and/or their reproductive structures are almost always found in outdoor air. Their types and populations will vary depending on local environmental conditions. Doors, windows, and fresh air intakes provide easy access for microorganisms to enter the interiors of buildings.

It is normal to find some quantity of microorganisms in indoor air. However, in a normal indoor environment, their numbers should be significantly less than outdoor levels. Excessive moisture inside a building from leaks, floods, or other sources can create an "out-of-balance" environment that will tend to amplify their population. Depending on the amount of water, temperature, lighting, and food available, differing species may become dominant. In consequence, the presence of some microorganisms in large quantities may lead to adverse health effects involving building occupants.

Adverse health effects in affected individuals can include both illnesses and allergic responses. Symptoms may range from headache, malaise, and muscle pain to shortness of breath and fever. These effects may be the result of contact with the microbes or spores themselves, or with contracting the airborne toxins that they may excrete.

MRSA, Staph and Other Infectious Diseases

According to Centers for Disease Control (CDC), methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) was first discovered in 1961 and was responsible for an estimated 94,000 life-threatening infections and nearly 19,000 deaths in the U.S. in 2005 (the last year statistics were available). MRSA has become resistant to antibiotics that once destroyed it. While most MRSA infections can be traced to a hospital or other healthcare setting, about 15 percent occur outside of those settings. People over age 65 are four times more likely to become infected with MRSA.

Lead, Asbestos and Volatile Organic Compounds

Materials used in home construction have also been found to cause health problems. Lead-based paint and its dust, usually found in older buildings, are common sources of exposure. Lead poisoning symptoms include mental conditions, developmental delays, abdominal pain, neurologic changes, and irritability. At very high levels, it can be fatal. Young children are especially at risk for lead poisoning.

If building products containing asbestos are disturbed, tiny asbestos fibers are released into the air. When asbestos fibers are breathed in, they may get trapped in the lungs and remain there causing scarring and inflammation, which can affect breathing and lead to serious health problems. 

Many building materials along with paint, carpet and furniture contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that off gas after the item is placed in a home. That “new car smell” the salesman brags about is the off-gassing of volatile organic compounds. The ability of organic chemicals to cause health effects varies greatly from those that are highly toxic or are known carcinogens, to those with no known health effect. Symptoms associated with exposure to some organics include eye and respiratory tract irritation, headaches, dizziness, visual disorders and memory impairment.

Where to Start

Homeowners and business owners who suspect potential issues with indoor air quality, or who simply want to ensure its safety, can hire a certified indoor air quality specialist to test for molds, allergens, asthma triggers, MRSA, lead, and asbestos. Along with visual inspection, these tests can determine the source of any problem areas. Home buyers and sellers are encouraged to document indoor air quality during a transaction so all involved are aware of any possible issues.

Restoring Healthy Indoor Air Quality

Contaminated central air handling systems can become breeding grounds for mold, mildew, and other sources of biological contaminants and they can be the primary mechanism of distributing contaminants through the home. They can be thoroughly cleaned or upgraded to remove contaminants. Ultra-filtration systems, some containing a UV light source to kill bacteria, are also available as additions to central heating and air conditioning systems as a method to remove contaminants.

Dehumidification, humidification and ventilation systems can also help create healthy environments that do not support mold growth. Qualified providers can completely remove mold, mildew and bacterial infestations using a certified mold remediation protocol. Also, lead paint and asbestos can be remediated safely by trained technicians using specific procedures and equipment.

Testing and remediation of airborne impurities can be very affordable, and offers practical ways to improve indoor air quality so that every breath adds vitality to life rather than reducing the quality of life.

Keith Rowe is an indoor environmentalist, council-certified microbial consultant and founder of Air Care and Restoration Company of Bethlehem. He offers a free initial consultation and site review to develop a quotation. Call 610-865-8090 or email to [email protected]. For more information visit


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