The Unxpected Source of Household Toxins & How to Stay Safe

Dr. Joel Kahn

I don't like to be an alarmist. The world is not coming to an end tomorrow. But the fact that we've created a far dirtier planet cannot escape posing some serious concerns.

In my field of cardiovascular disease, air pollution as a trigger for heart attack and death is rarely mentioned but is highly supported by quality research. Indeed, in a rather shocking analysis, living near a freeway was equated as a health risk to passively smoking 10 cigarettes a day. And the famous Framingham Heart study recently added to the huge database of research studies by identifying a relationship between air quality and cardiovascular inflammation.

So, perhaps like you, I hold my breath as long as possible when a truck or bus burps dark black fumes on the sidewalk-and I will not visit Beijing without a gas mask!

Of more immediate concern is indoor air pollution, right in your own home. The World Health Organization recently published a document that shocked me with statistics that might just push me into alarmist mode. Some of the facts they report on air quality in our homes and health include:

Around 3 billion people cook and heat their homes using open fires and simple stoves burning biomass (wood, animal dung, and crop waste) and coal.
Over 4 million people die prematurely from illness attributable to the household air pollution from cooking with solid fuels.
More than 50 percent of premature deaths due to pneumonia among children under age 5 are caused by the particulate matter (soot) inhaled from household air pollution.
There are 3.8 million premature deaths annually from noncommunicable diseases including stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and lung cancer that are attributed to exposure to household air pollution.
Did you read the same words I read? Over 4 million people a year die from illnesses related to household air pollution. Of these deaths, 60 percent are due to stroke and heart disease-the conditions that I, as a cardiologist, am striving to prevent at all costs!

Two scientific studies have looked at the utility of high-quality air filters in the home to reduce indoor air pollution and heart disease measures, with different results. One demonstrated some reduction in the impact of nearby traffic air pollution in a residence using an air filter while another failed to show any benefit. A recent review on the topic favors a home air filter, with benefits for conditions from asthma to blood pressure. But clearly the jury is still out on the topic.

Until there is more information, here are five simple steps you can use to keep your indoor pollution down:

1. Keep your floors clean with door mats, regularly mop to pick up the dust, and use a vacuum with a HEPA filter.

2. Keep your home lower in humidity, as mites and mold love moisture. Fix leaky plumbing, vent the clothes dryer, don’t overwater plants, and use an exhaust fan when cooking, bathing, or running the dishwasher.

3. Make your home a no-smoking zone-that includes a wood-burning fireplace and grilling indoors. Do not have indoor fires whether for pleasure, heat, or cooking.

4. Test for radon periodically, which is linked to lung cancer and is odorless. This is true whether your home is new or old. Granite countertops have been linked to radon.

5. Avoid fragrances that use synthetic and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that plug in, get thrown in the dryer, or are sprayed in the bathroom. Enjoy natural good smells as much as possible.

Considering all this, I've placed a powerful HEPA air filter in my bedroom. I have two rescue dogs that sleep on my bed every night after visiting every bush and flower bed all day long. Plus, the windows are open with screen doors blowing in all kinds of outside matter that I'd rather be filtered out. And I'm guilty of not taking my shoes off at the door (despite my wife’s reminders). I take comfort in knowing that the low-grade hum of a HEPA filter I hear at night is circulating and filtering the air I breathe. It may be a consideration for your home, too.