Every breath we take makes a difference to our health and the health of our kids. Here are four ways indoor air pollutants threaten our family’s well-being, including one that may surprise you.
1. Fertility – We all know that cigarette smoking causes cancer, heart disease and emphysema. I was also news to me that smoking cigarettes can also reduce the ability of men and women to have babies. In fact, as much as 13 percent of infertility in the US is a result of smoking, says Dr. Edward Marut of Fertility Centers of Illinois. Burning tobacco produces more than 4,000 chemicals, many of which have been shown to damage DNA in both sperm and eggs. Women who smoke are 16 percent more likely to experience a miscarriage, as well, while smoking can make it difficult for men to achieve and maintain an erection.
The good news is that giving up smoking has a positive and swift impact on fertility. Women can increase their chances of conception within two months, while the quality of semen men produce will improve dramatically by as little as three months after giving up cigarettes.
2. Asthma – Foregoing smoking also improves indoor air quality for kids, who can become “passive smokers” when the air they breathe is loaded with tobacco smoke. The Centers for Disease Control says “there is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke,” and that it can trigger an asthma attack in a child as well as cause bronchitis and pneumonia. Other indoor air pollutants that trigger asthma attacks include nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a gas given off by using gas stoves or gas kerosene space heaters. The chemicals emitted by paint, pesticides, adhesive, dry-cleaned clothes and various cleansers can also trigger an attack.
Increasing ventilation by opening windows and using the fans over stoves helps; so does switching to no VOC paints, non-toxic pesticides, home laundering, and simple cleansers made from vinegar, baking soda, freshly squeezed lemon, fragrance-free liquid soap and warm water. Learn more at our asthma resource.
3. Allergies – Toxic chemicals that are sprayed into the air during cleaning, or that off-gas from painting, furniture or carpeting can cause allergic reactions that range from coughing, sneezing and watery eyes to fatigue, dizziness, headaches and nausea. Some kids and grown-ups may suffer nose bleeds, while others may break out in a rash or vomiting.
Again, increasing the ventilation in a room or home helps dissipate the damage these chemicals can do. However, avoiding exposure to them in the first place is the best way to stay healthy. Clean with non-toxic ingredients. Dust or mop with a damp cloth and vacuum to remove build-up of pet dander, insect debris, and particles emitted from operating a wood stove. Use biological traps instead of insecticides. Buy solid wood furniture and carpeting made from wool, hemp, flax or cotton to avoid formaldehyde and other chemicals found in particleboard furniture, cabinetry and carpet backing.
4. ADHD – Kids whose moms inhaled certain types of air pollutants when they were pregnant can develop ADHD as they get older. One indoor air pollutant of particular concern is part of a class called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. Some research suggests that PAHs affect the developing brain by impacting the mother’s endocrine system. The chemicals could also be damaging DNA or how DNA functions.
The biggest sources of PAHs that pregnant women are exposed to are the burning of fossil fuels, wood and trash, as well as tobacco. Thus, avoiding traffic congestion as much as possible is key when you’re outside, especially if you’re pregnant. Don’t burn your trash if you can possibly avoid it. Don’t allow smoking in your home or around you, either. And if you have a wood-burning stove or fireplace, make sure that the chimney is clean and the flue is well vented to the outside to minimize release of PAHs into your living room.
If you want to know exactly what you’re breathing at home, you can monitor your indoor air quality for a whole host of pollutants. And don’t miss Every Breath We Take, a book by Dominique Browning and Maya Ajmera that “introduces children to the importance of clean air.”