Take a deep breath. Notice anything? Perhaps the wonderful smell of a home-cooked meal is in the air. Maybe it's the odor of mildew. Then again, you may not detect anything at all. Whatever the case, it isn't a bad idea to find out exactly what you are breathing.
According to Kathleen Stewart, a staff scientist for the Environmental Protection Agency's offices in San Francisco, indoor air is often more polluted than the air outdoors. And since people tend to spend about 90 percent of their days inside, taking the time to ensure that the air in your home is as clean as possible can ultimately lead to a healthier, longer and more productive life.
There are a whole slew of culprits that contribute to indoor air pollution in the home, Stewart said. However, the obvious concerns, such as secondhand smoke and household chemical cleaning products, are only the tip of the iceberg. Scentless poisons, such as carbon monoxide and radon -- a naturally occurring radioactive gas that can seep up through a house's foundation from the soil below -- are often referred to as "silent killers." California has the largest number of radon-related deaths in the U.S.
Furthermore, there are some agents commonly found in indoor air that people may not even realize can compromise their health. That "new" carpet or furniture smell is actually a result of what is called "off gassing."
Glues used in carpeting and pressed-wood products contain formaldehyde, believed to be a human carcinogen, which continues to evaporate for some time after such a product has been installed or assembled. That moldy smell that is pesky but easily habituated may lead to respiratory problems. Even the pleasant aroma of chicken frying on the stove masks the fact that tiny particles of soot and other contaminants are being thrust from the pan into the surrounding air.
"Just because it smells good doesn't mean it's good for you," Stewart said.
Hypochondriacs and cynics may find this news either alarming or alarmist. However, Stewart has an answer for both camps. "Indoor air pollution is so easy to improve," she said. "It takes very little money to fix."
Opening a window is a great start. So is using the ventilation fan above the stove when cooking. Let that new dresser from IKEA air out in the garage for a week or so until it doesn't smell quite so much. Additionally, one can often avoid using stringent cleaners when soap and water will work just fine. Simple things like these can significantly reduce the amount of toxins in the home, and they are more or less free.
Kip Fout, asbestos, lead and construction safety manager at Stanford's Environmental Health and Safety division, said contaminants such as asbestos and lead are only a real concern if a house is being remodeled. While lead paint, if it is chipping off of walls can be dangerous to young children who may ingest the flakes, the heavy metal -- like asbestos -- is only a real danger to adults if it is first released as fine particles into the air and then inhaled.
"If you ingest lead, not a lot of it is absorbed in your stomach," Fout said of healthy adults. "However, if you inhale lead and it gets into your lungs, then it can easily get into your blood stream." Therefore, it is important to get your home checked for lead and asbestos before beginning a remodel, especially if the house was built before 1980.
Fout said that mold, in small amounts, shouldn't be a great concern for those without preexisting conditions that may react unfavorably to its presence. The best defense to avoid mold accumulation is to make sure to thoroughly dry areas of your home that become wet within the first 24 to 48 hours.
If you are having trouble with any of the above, are concerned that your home may be at risk or are planning to remodel and are just unsure, there are many companies throughout the Bay Area that can provide home assessments and take action if need be.
Nik Lahiri is a project coordinator at Essel Technology Services in Oakland. His company can take air samples, paint samples, look for mold and check your ceiling and drywall for asbestos. Such tests usually have a flat rate as well as per-sample rates associated with them.
Lahiri said homeowners should be especially concerned with testing for asbestos and lead if they are planning to remodel. When old ceiling or drywall is ripped out asbestos can be put in the air. Inhaling large amounts of asbestos does not pose immediate health concerns, but can pop up 10 or 20 years down the road as lung cancer and other deadly conditions, making it difficult to even pinpoint the cause of the disease. Lead paint sanded off of walls settles as dust and then may enter the body through a person's mouth.
Essel Technology Services and other such companies can help homeowners assess what they may and may not need to test for. Lahiri said that the rates for his company's tests vary depending on the home, but that asbestos generally runs at a $300 flat rate and $20 per sample; lead testing runs about a $500 flat rate and $20 per sample; mold is a bit more expensive, running at a $450 flat rate and $35 per sample.
The EPA has a wealth of information on indoor air pollution and risk assessment on its website at [www.epa.gov/iaq.