Chemical Allergies to cleaning products, new carpeting, and VOCs

Poor air quality is due more to pollution sources that release gases and particles than to allergens. Poor ventilation increases levels of these pollutants because there is not enough “fresh” air inside the house.

Personally, I am allergic to lots of “indoor” allergens, but my major problem indoors seems to be reactions to indoor particles. These reactions are not strictly “allergies,” but rather “irritations.”

If you can call an asthma attack “irritating!”

My asthma is triggered by exposure to chemicals used in cleaning products and to new products made with vinyl-type plastics. For example, I recently bought an airbed for some guests, and when we blew it up, I could smell the “new plastic smell.” After about 12 hours, I was having an asthma attack. There are also lots of other irritants in new products these days. These irritants can largely be classified as Volatile Organic Compounds, or VOCs. Here is a list of things that can cause problems even for people who are not normally sensitive:

  • One of the worst—new carpeting. The problem: the glue backing and the particles that break off from synthetic fibers in the carpet.
  • Particle board (used in most cheaper furniture these days). It is made by compressing wood particles together with chemical hardeners.
  • Cleaning products. Ammonia, Bleach, Comet. Really, anything you find in the cleaning-products aisle.
  • Clothes detergents, fabric softeners, and the worst: dryer sheets.
  • Deodorants, shampoos, perfumes, hair sprays and hair gels.
  • Building materials. Yes, even the house you live in can be give off VOCs. This is called “off-gassing,” and is a big problem for some people.
  • Combustion sources like oil, gas, kerosene, coal, and wood products. Studies have shown that even a gas stove can cause problems.
  • Tobacco products.
  • Products used in hobbies.
  • Central heating or air cooling systems and humidification devices.
  • Outdoor sources: radon, pesticides, and outdoor pollution.

Health effects from indoor pollutants may take years to show up. Or they may show up immediately. Short term effects can probably be treated effectively, without any lasting damage. However, since most of us are exposed to these pollutants for many years, the damage can be more permanent. I was exposed to lots of cigarette smoke as a child, and I am sure this made my condition worse. Some people have asthma after years of pollutants, some suffer from hypersensitivity pneumonitis, and some have humidifier fever. Other health effects can emerge after years of these problems, such as respiratory diseases, heart disease, and cancer.

The importance of indoor air quality cannot be understated. It is crucial to improve air quality even if symptoms haven’t appeared yet.

There are three things you can do to improve air quality:

  1. Source Control
  2. Improved Ventilation
  3. Air Cleaners

Source control involves keeping down the number of products in your home that release chemicals or harmful gasses. This is the first step, and the most important step. Reducing the amount of products that emit VOCs, buying only natural cleaners and personal products, and cutting down on pesticides inside and outside the house is the place to start. Gas stoves can be adjusted to decrease the amount of emissions.

Ventilation improvement is also critical. This can be a problem in months when you are trying to heat or cool the house through expensive energy sources, so you need to take this into consideration and air out the house at times when you can still save energy. You can also run an air conditioner with a window vent control open to increase air flow. If your exhaust fans go directly outside the house, this will help remove contaminants and pollution from the house. It is most important to practice these measures when you are doing things that release more pollutants into the air, such as painting (even your nails), cooking, cleaning, and heating with kerosene heaters.

Air cleaners are your last defense. With so many on the market, it is hard to choose which ones are right for you. Prices range from about $80 to over $500, and you need to make sure you find the air cleaner that fits your needs and your budget. Tabletop models remove fewer particles, while the large floor models can remove higher quantities of pollutants. There are also whole-house systems, which are much more expensive and sophisticated. Many of these require professional installation. Some air cleaners are designed to remove gaseous pollutants and other chemical irritants, but most will work only on larger particles like pet dander and dust. Currently the best recommendation is to get an air cleaner that has a HEPA air filter at the minimum.


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