Home & Garden Architecture

What Chemicals Cause Indoor Air Pollution?

    Lead (Pb)

    • Up until 1960, when knowledge of its hazardous nature became widespread, lead was added to many paints to increase durability and improve performance. And it wasn't until 1977 that the EPA officially banned lead-based paints. Therefore, while it is not an issue in newer homes, many homes built before the ban still contain some lead paint. If this old paint is disturbed or improperly removed, the lead particles can easily become airborne, leading to lead inhalation. According to the EPA, "lead affects practically all systems within the body." High levels of lead pose serious health risks, often leading to coma or death. Even low levels of lead can cause developmental impairment, especially in young children.

    Radon (Rn)

    • According to the EPA, "radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer" and "responsible for about 21,000 lung cancer deaths every year." This invisible, tasteless and odorless gas occurs as a by-product of natural uranium decay, and can be found in small amounts in all kinds of environments. However, radon that seeps into the home via cracks, poor insulation and open doors and windows has a habit of accumulating in rooms with poor air circulation. Ground-level and below-ground-level rooms, such as basements, are particularly at risk for radon accumulation.

    Combustion By-Products

    • Combustion, which occurs when you burn something, creates a number of potentially harmful gaseous chemicals, including carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrogen oxide (NOX). In moderate to large concentrations, any of these chemicals can cause health problems as mild as fatigue and as serious as death. Common sources of combustion by-products within the home include cigarette smoke, unvented gas heaters and leaking fireplaces and wood stoves.


    • A group of magnesium silicate (MgSiO3) fibers, asbestos was once widely used as heat and noise insulation in home construction. Although it has been largely banned in the United States (and other countries), many older homes still contain potentially harmful levels of the carcinogenic material. Left alone, asbestos is not much of a danger. But when repairs or renovations are undertaken on a home with asbestos insulation, the fibers can become airborne. Inhalation of airborne asbestos has long been known to cause serious health problems, particularly abdominal and chest cancers.

    Volatile Organic Compounds

    • A wide variety of chemicals, including perchloroethylene (C2Cl4), benzene (C6H6) and methylene chloride (CH2CI2), emit potentially harmful gases, known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These VOC-emitting chemicals are commonly found in all sorts of products that are used or stored indoors, such as aerosols, cleaning products, paint strippers, air fresheners, disinfectants and automotive fluids. When inhaled, especially in large concentrations, VOCs can cause a variety of health problems, ranging from throat irritation and nausea to liver damage and cancer.

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