General Health Article:

Air pollution more than just an outdoor problem

by Jessica Leake

We often hear startling reports about the dirty air we breathe in our cities. But air pollution can be an even bigger threat in a place where you'd least expect it - your own home.

Older adults, who are more likely to die from lung conditions, are particularly vulnerable, according to the Healthy Aging Partnership, a coalition of more than 30 Puget Sound not-for-profit and public organizations dedicated to the health and well-being of older adults.

The amount of pollutants inside -- where Americans spend 90 percent of their time -- can actually exceed those outside. That's due, in a large part, to homes that are much better insulated than they used to be, according to the American Lung Association of Washington.

Unhealthy indoor air can come from a multitude of sources -- faulty furnaces, mold, household cleaners, pet dander and secondhand smoke - and bring on a range of symptoms, including itchy, watery eyes, runny nose, coughing and fatigue.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), which includes bronchitis, emphysema and asthma, is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States and can be life threatening to older adults. Mainly it is caused from smoking or exposure to smoke and pollution.

Robin Evans-Agnew, a spokesperson for the state lung association, said, if nothing else, people should be aware of the two major culprits behind indoor air pollution: humidity and dust mites.

"You should always pay attention to the amount of humidity and moisture in your home, and the amount of dust mites, especially for those who suffer from any kind of allergies or emphysema," he said.

Particularly in winter, leaving a window open for even ten minutes will help your home stay ventilated and keep you and your family breathing cleaner air, Agnew says.

Here are some other tips from the Healthy Aging Partnership:

  • Monitor when and where you stuff up. If your respiratory problems ease up or go away when you're away from home, you should consider the possibility of indoor air pollutants.
  • Try to identify the source of the pollution. Many older homes, for example, have gas stoves or furnaces that could be emitting harmful amounts of nitrogen dioxide and/or carbon monoxide, the leading cause of accidental poisoning in the United States. Have your appliances professionally inspected every year and make sure they are ventilated to the outside.
  • Don't allow smoking in your home. Tobacco contains thousands of poisons as well as known carcinogens.
  • Replace your air filters regularly and choose one with the highest efficiency rating. Ratings of ten or higher are your best choice for capturing twice as much dust, pet dander, mold and other allergens.
  • Buy allergen-proof pillowcases and/or mattress covers for your beds to control dust mites.
  • Keep pets outside or away from bedrooms. If you choose to keep them inside, change your air filters more often.
  • Fix leaky pipes or spills within 24 hours to prevent mold growth. Water damaged carpets or ceiling tiles should be replaced.
  • Clean air conditioners, humidifiers and dehumidifiers often. Use distilled water when filling humidifiers. Wash sheets and bedding materials frequently, in hot water, to reduce dust mites.

For more information about indoor air pollution and other issues related to life as an older adult, call HAP's free and confidential information and help line at 1-844-348-KING (1-844-348-5464). HAP is supported by its partner agencies and by the Comprehensive Health Education Foundation and Public Health Seattle-King County.