It’s What’s Inside That Counts

Indoor Air Has Surprising Dangers, But There’s a Lot We Can Do About It

By Dr. Rick Morris (as printed in the L.A. Downtown News)

One polluted day this spring, I decided to close the windows in my Downtown Los Angeles loft. Little did I know, I was exposing myself to risk.

I soon learned that the toxins within my home were possibly worse than those outside. I did some research, and the World Health Organization supported my doubts, claiming up to 30% of commercial buildings had health complaints possibly due to their indoor air.

My curiosity was piqued as I began to look for signs of indoor pollution in my own home. The symptoms of exposure to indoor contaminants are often confused with having the flu — eye, nose or throat irritation, headaches, dizziness and fatigue. But the most serious problems may not be apparent for months or even years. These include kidney, brain, lung and heart disease, cancer and even death.

This raised obvious questions: What should I do short of moving to a hermetically sealed biosphere? Can I protect myself, or should I just surrender to my fatalistic thoughts?

Turns out, there is a lot anyone can do. I started with a very brief assessment to look for combustion sources of pollution in my home — especially tobacco. According to the EPA, second hand smoke contains more than 40 known cancer-causing chemicals, and is responsible for asthma in thousands of children and the deaths for 3,000 non-smokers each year. Air purifying devices cannot keep up with such large amounts of pollutants. Therefore, a simple solution is to refrain from smoking in the house or, if necessary, open all the windows.

Another tip is to avoid un-vented kerosene and gas space heaters, fireplaces and gas stoves (microwave hoods help, but opening the window is a good idea). If using one of these, make sure the flame tip is blue. If it’s yellow or any other color, call the Gas Company, since it’s maladjusted and giving off dangerous pollutants. Obviously, gas smells require immediate action.

When buying my next stove, I’ll consider one that’s pilotless.

Chemistry Set Under The Sink

I continued to wonder about the cleaners, pesticides and other chemicals under my sink. Were they posing a danger?

The EPA says these chemicals convert to poisonous gases, contaminating our indoor air to a level anywhere from two to 1,000 times higher than the outdoor air even in the most polluted cities. The offenders can include paint, paint strippers, wood preservatives, pesticides, cleansers, disinfectants, moth repellents, air fresheners, stored fuels, automotive products, hobby supplies and dry-cleaned clothes.

Other chemicals are less obvious, and their sources surprising. It turns out that formaldehyde is used in everything from pressed woods (i.e. artificial woods like plywood and particle board often found in beds, cabinets, etc.) to dry cleaning and carpeting. Experts note that exterior grade pressed woods give off far less formaldehyde and should be used instead when possible.

Dimitri Stanich of the California Air Resource Board warned that formaldehyde is the single worst indoor contaminant and that there is no safe level for its use. In the next few years, California will become be the first state to regulate formaldehyde.

Other dangers come from poisons used before 1980, such as asbestos and lead. A rule of thumb is that before remodeling, removing, scraping or cleaning old paint, insulation or ceiling tiles, have the area first checked for asbestos and lead. If any is found, have it removed properly by professionals.

The Department of Health and Human Services calls lead the “number one environmental threat to the health of children in the U.S.” Old paint is the greatest source. Sometimes just opening and closing a window that had been covered with lead paint causes lead dust.

There are also risk factors many would never expect: Roads may be contaminated from years of lead-filled exhaust and the breakdown of paint from old buildings. This forms a powder we track into our homes. Other dusts we carry into our homes include rodent urine (yes, I’ve named our local rats), and feces from our dogs (there are no dog parks, remember). Both lead to allergies and disease. Fortunately, you can lower your exposure by wiping your feet and removing your shoes before entering your home.

Mopping floors and wiping window ledges with a solution of powdered automatic dishwasher detergent in warm water also helps remove lead dust. And, as Mom preached, wash your hands before you eat. But testing your water for lead isn’t a bad idea either, as some old buildings used lead soldered pipes that can leach into the water as the pipes age.

Some of the Pollutants Are Alive

Molds, bacteria, dust mites and pollen are among the living pollutants in our homes. They can grow in air conditioning and heating systems, so make sure your building management has annual inspections and changes filters regularly. If you see or smell mold, cut it out of the walls or carpeting and find and fix the moisture source — bleach is not enough.

If I smell odors from my air ducts, I’ll make sure the outdoor air intakes are not near a pollution source like the garage or dumpster. If there’s a lack of outside air ventilation brought into the building (especially in areas without windows) I’ll discuss it with my building manager. If that fails, I’ll call the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Then there’s a risk many people have never even heard of. The EPA believes that radon is our greatest indoor threat. It’s a colorless, odorless, radioactive gas causing 7,000 to 30,000 lung cancer deaths per year. Radon is the natural radioactivity that occurs beneath our homes and seeps in through faulty foundations. It’s the only pollutant that the government believes everyone should test for (the bottom floors of buildings are the most likely to be effected). Simply pick up a test kit at a hardware store or contact the state radon office. Call a contractor if high levels are present.

Here are a few easy measures to clean your office and home air:

  • Ventilate! Open every door and window you can when using chemical products, if you can’t use them outside.
  • Use natural products whenever possible.
  • Use chemicals according to the manufacturer’s directions and never mix household products (the gas it gives off can be deadly).
  • Buy small amounts and store as little as possible in your home (the gas leaks and is especially important in a small loft).
  • Change dry cleaners to one that doesn’t use perchloroethylene (shown to cause cancer in animals). Although, it will be outlawed by 2023, I use a dry cleaner who uses a “wet cleaning” or “CO2” process.
  • Wash permanent press sheets and clothes three times before using, and have your carpeting and drapes aired out for a few days before having it installed in your home.

Within a few minutes, I made my home safe.

Additional information can be found by calling the Indoor Air Quality Information Hotline, (800) 438-4318; the National Radon Hotline, (800) 767-7236; the National Lead Information Center, (800) 424-5323; and the National Pesticide Information Center, (800) 858-7377.



Rick H. Morris, D.C., C.C.S.P., Q.M.E., A.B.A.A.H.P.

1243 7th Street, Suite B, Santa Monica, California 90401
tel: 310-451-5851 | fax:310-458-0051
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