(C) Daniel Friedman

Common Indoor Air Pollutants & How to Remove Them

  • AIR POLLUTANTS, COMMON INDOOR - CONTENTS: Table of Common Indoor Air Pollutants includes product, area or use pattern, & formaldehyde concentration. Sources of formaldehyde gas contaminants in buildings. How to Remove indoor air contaminants including: allergens, formaldehyde gas, radon gas, particulates such as smoke, soot, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, organic compounds, asbestos, and improved make-up air in buildings
  • Solar Age Magazine Articles on Renewable Energy, Energy Savings, Construction Practices
  • POST a QUESTION or READ FAQs about indoor air pollution: causes, detection, testing, remedies

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This article describes common indoor air pollutants and explains how to remove them.

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Common Indoor Air Pollutants & How to Remove Them

Table at page top and accompanying text are reprinted/adapted/excerpted with permission from Solar Age Magazine - editor Steven Bliss. Readers looking for a thorough, detailed guide to improving indoor air quality should also see INDOOR AIR QUALITY IMPROVEMENT GUIDE. Contact us to suggest text changes and additions and, if you wish, to receive online listing and credit for that contribution.

The following key articles provide in-depth information about indoor air contaminant detection, effects, testing, and remediation or removal.

This article series, originally by Steven Bliss and appearing in Solar Age Magazine, explains Indoor Air Pollutants & How to Remove Them, including indoor air contamination by allergens, formaldehyde gas, radon gas, particulates such as smoke, soot, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, organic compounds, asbestos, and improved make-up air in buildings.

Sources of Formaldehyde in buildings & formaldehyde exposure effects

High levels of formaldehyde gas indoors can cause eye and respiratory irritation, and can cause headaches and dizziness. Long term exposure to formaldehyde may cause respiratory-tract harm and can trigger asthma attacks in susceptible individuals. Previous cancer-concerns associated with formaldehyde have been discounted by subsequent research. As early as 1984 ASHRAE reported as a standard a "comfort level" of indoor formaldehyde gas as 0.1 ppm.

(SeeĀ UREA FORMALDEHYDE FOAM INSULATION, UFFI). Formaldehyde gas hazards, sources, and exposure levels are discussed in more detail at Formaldehyde Hazards.

Formaldehyde was used and continues to be used in many building products, coatings, finishes, and furnishings because it has desirable chemical properties and is inexpensive. Nearly all products made using formaldehyde outgas to some extent, some completely, so that the level of this irritating gas is usually substantially reduced or eliminated over time with little or no consumer action.

Of chief concern, probably because their outgassing lasts longer, are wood products made with urea formaldehyde (UF) glues, including most hardwood plywoods, decorative paneling, and nearly all particle board materials. On the other hand, nearly all softwood plywoods use phenol formaldehyde adhesives that are more chemically stable and that have negligible formaldehyde emissions.

Formaldehyde Gas in Mobile Homes

Before 1985 formaldehyde gas levels were particularly high in mobile homes because of the combination of use of large amounts of paneling, carpeting, and particleboard, and because of their comparatively small enclosed space.

Formaldehyde products that emit that gas in mobile homes were regulated (and generally reduced) beginning in 1985 when the HUD standard set a limit on particleboard emissions in mobile homes of 0.3 ppm and 0.2 ppm from plywood paneling (based on a standard "large-scale test chamber").


Other Sources of Indoor Formaldehyde Gas & What Gets Rid of Formaldehyde

Other sources of indoor formaldehyde gas emission that continue to generate consumer complaints in some homes (though certainly not with all products) include formaldehyde outgassing from some carpet backings, carpet padding, glues, and fabrics.

Heat and humidity increase the level of emission of gases from building materials in general - therefore these may even be useful in speeding the outgassing process where that step is desirable.


Radon Gas in Building Air and Water - Sources & Exposure Effects

Radon is an odorless, colorless gas that occurs naturally as a byproduct of the decay of uranium. In parts of the world where uranium-bearing rock is present under buildings, this gas can in some (not all) instances seep into buildings where the enclosed character of the building leads to a higher level of radon than would be found outdoors.

At higher levels radon gas is a lung cancer hazard, especially to people who smoke (who have an 80-times greater risk than non-smokers).

See FORMALDEHYDE & RADON REDUCTION INDOORS - part 2 for additional information about radon gas, and for details see these articles:

Detailed Articles about Radon: detection, correction, & prevention in buildings

See Radon Enviro-Scare for a full discussion of the normal cycle of public fear that accompanies the discovery and publicity of various environmental hazards, including radon gas and see Enviro-Scare, the Cycle of Public Fear for our article about consumer environmental safety worry cycles that change over time.

For a Thorough Background in Radon Hazards, Radon Mitigation, & the History of Radon Concerns in the U.S. also see these articles reprinted/adapted/excerpted with permission from Solar Age Magazine - editor Steven Bliss.

US EPA Radon Zone Map

  • "Defeating Radon" part 1 - Terry Brennan, Bill Turner, Solar Age Magazine - How does radon get into buildings, how do I know if a building has a radon gas problem, how can I solve radon problems in existing homes, and what can I do to prevent radon from entering new homes. Part 1: where Radon comes from, how to diagnose radon
  • "Defeating Radon" part 2 - Guide to keeping radon out of new houses - design details
  • "Defeating Radon" part 3 - Key spots to seal, to stop radon gas leaks into buildings
  • "Defeating Radon" part 4 - Data on radon levels in buildings before & after radon mitigation treatment
  • "Defeating Radon" part 5 - Air filtering, testing after radon mitigation, where to buy radon tests

Other Sources of Common Indoor Air Pollutants or Contaminants

Basic checks for sources of common indoor air contaminants in buildings: Here and in detailed articles whose links are found at the left of this page, we provide air contamination troubleshooting help for buildings by expanded annotated information from the US EPA [5] who suggested common air pollutant sources to be considered during an indoor air quality investigation.

  • Outside sources of air pollution that may impact indoor air quality under some conditions include
    • airborne pollen, dust, or fungal (mold) spores; The levels of these particles in outdoor air and thus potentially in indoor air vary widely by season, proximity to source, and building air handling and ventilation equipment design. and use.
    • Industrial emissions
    • Vehicle emissions, particularly near highways, urban centers, and locations where vehicles may be left idling for long periods such as loading docks
  • Air pollution sources nearby to buildings where indoor air quality complaints are observed include:
    • loading docks
    • garbage container odors such as nearby dumpsters
    • Unsanitary debris or building exhausts (cooking, bath, industrial) near building outdoor "fresh air" intake openings
  • Underground sources of air pollution in or around buildings
    • Radon gas
    • Pesticides
    • Underground oil storage tanks or other fuel storage tanks
    • Sewage backups, septic tank leaks, septic drainfield failures
  • Building HVAC equipment sources of indoor air pollution
    • Mold or bacterial growth in condensate drip pans, ductwork, cooling coils, and humidifiers
    • Chimney flue and vent defects that spill combustion products in the building
    • Dust, debris, rodents, mold, or prior flooding in the HVAC system ductwork
  • Building equipment sources of indoor air contaminants
    • Office equipment such as copiers that may spill inks, toners, ozone, VOCs
    • Shops, labs, cleaning processes that emit contaminants; we have traced severe building odor complaints to a beauty parlor at one of the building whose HVAC system was transporting odors throughout the structure
  • Building components/furniture/furnishings as sources of indoor air quality complaints or contaminants
    • microbial growth in or on soiled or water damaged materials such as carpeting or furniture
    • Dry plumbing traps permitting sewer gases to escape into the building
    • Materials in furnishings that emit VOCs, inorganic compounds, or asbestos particles (from damaged asbestos insulation or asbestos-containing products
    • Furnishings such as furniture or flooring that may emit odors from glues, sealants, paints, foam cushions, particleboard
  • Other common indoor air pollution or IAQ complaint sources in buildings including homes & schools
    • Science labs
    • Sewage backups, toilet overflows
    • Vocational arts areas
    • Copy or printing centers
    • Food preparation areas
    • Smoking lounges
    • Cleaning materials stored in or near areas of complaints
    • Trash and garbage odors
    • Pesticides sprayed or placed in or around the building
    • Odors and VOCs from paints, chalks, adhesives used in the building
    • Occupants who suffer from communicable diseases
    • Dry-erase markers and pens
    • Insect infestation, or other building pests such as rodents, feral cats, raccoons, squirrels birds
    • Personal care products

Ventilation to Improve Indoor Air Quality

While avoiding use of outgassing products to reduce formaldehyde gas indoors and sealing cracks or installing a radon mitigation system is effective in eliminating indoor radon gas hazards, the soup of indoor irritants and pollutants can also be effectively thinned by good building ventilation.

Doubling the rate of fresh air intake in a building will in general cut most indoor air pollutant levels in half. (This might not be true for pollen levels in some locations in some seasons where air conditioning or air filtration will be a better bet.)

Mr. Bliss's article interestingly points out that the level of indoor air contaminants varies among buildings by a factor of 100, so don't make an assumption about what your home needs without more careful study.



Here we include solar energy, solar heating, solar hot water, and related building energy efficiency improvement articles reprinted/adapted/excerpted with permission from Solar Age Magazine - editor Steven Bliss.

Continue reading at INDOOR AIR QUALITY IMPROVEMENT, KEY STEPS or select a topic from the More Reading links shown below.


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AIR POLLUTANTS, COMMON INDOOR at InspectApedia.com - online encyclopedia of building & environmental inspection, testing, diagnosis, repair, & problem prevention advice.

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