As public awareness and concern about air quality issues bloom so does the increasing complexity and confusion regarding just what constitutes pollution, how much, and what to do about it, especially with respect to indoor air quality and the factors contributing to it. This first series of articles will focus primarily on the very personal nature of air pollution, how we manage to tune most of it out most of the time, and how to change that to lead healthier, happier, and more productive lives.
Personal pollution is just that “personal”. That means it affects you or me on a personal level , pollution from any source at any time and anywhere that negatively impacts us personally either short or long term whether we realize it or not. And, while we tend to generate our own brands of pollution in our most personal space, usually our home, pollution rarely exists in isolation instead tending to exist in overlapping spheres such that we cannot absolutely contain the pollution we produce and we cannot escape some degree of intrusive pollution from without, even in the North Pole or Vegas for that matter…”what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”. I guarantee that pollution produced in Vegas does not stay there anymore that it does anywhere else under the same circumstances.
And to confuse things more there are many definitions for pollution but I have adopted a short and broad concept of environmental pollution as “one or more factors in an environment that diminish or otherwise adversely affect one or more of the otherwise healthful or benign properties of that environment.”
I like this definition because it includes all forms of pollution and indicates that things that are not normally considered pollution may become so depending on the circumstances. But it also allows for the pendulum of impact to swing fully in either direction while including both qualitative and quantitative aspects. That is, such things as QOL or quality of life that is often disregarded because it is so difficult to “measure”. But the truth is that quite often our quality of life may begin to suffer long before we notice any quantitative physical complaints and ultimately one impacts the other, at least over the long run – it is just easier to measure the time from birth to death than how happy the person was in between even though how happy they were may have had a significant impact on their lifespan…and how healthy they were may have affected their happiness and pollution may have had something to do with it all.
But for those of you that prefer a more standard definition this one from a business dictionary (oddly enough) is one of the better ones:
Presence of matter (gas, liquid, solid) or energy (heat, noise, radiation) whose nature, location, or quantity directly or indirectly alters characteristics or processes of any part of the environment, and causes (or has the potential to cause) damage to the condition, health, safety, or welfare of animals, humans, plants, or property. (http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/pollution.html)
Generally however, when most people think of pollution in the home they first think of air pollution, and rightly so. For while there are many forms of pollution in our homes we are intimately and obligately bound to the roughly 3000 gallons of air we breathe during the roughly 20,000 breaths we take each day. Perhaps it is more correct to say that it is bound to us since it is the binding of oxygen to the hemoglobin in our blood that is used to sustain life.
But while the 20.9 percent oxygen and 78.1 percent nitrogen in the air are there by design and have specific beneficial roles there are most often other things lurking in our air that are not only unnecessary but may also be harmful, especially on a chronic or acute basis. For instance, off-gassing of chemicals from paint, particle board, drywall, insulation, and carpets and furnishings which can be released for years. Add to this the numerous cleaning products, cosmetics, pesticides, air fresheners, potential VOCs (volatile organic compounds), CO, CO2, and other potential gases like radon and infiltration of pollutants from outside air, dander, dust, bacteria, viruses, mold, and frankly, just pieces of stuff, like insulation and who knows what else. And all of this may be in the home where some people spend ninety percent of their time (and others wish they could). What you are exposed to at work may be a whole other matter to explore as well but many of the pollutants will be similar and depending on your job some may be far worse.
This is where we need to start sorting out some pollution facts that will help us to limit unnecessary exposure to these other things in our air. First we need to realize that there will always be some “other things” in our air and not all of these things are as bad as being stressed by the thought of them being there.
If you are a coffee drinker you know that part of what you love about coffee is the smell or so I assume. That smell means you are breathing volatile molecules that leave the coffee and travel through the air and into your nose. I am somewhat personally attached to these particles, literally I guess. But the point is that smelling something means that you are taking part of that something (or a substance produced by that something), into your body…even some of the more benign but unpleasant smells in our daily lives that we prefer to ignore as much as possible. Too personal? That is why it is called personal pollution.
Like the oxygen and nitrogen in air, these odorant molecules generally serve a purpose in the body. They often convey information about the source of the smell, like it is good to eat, it is not good to eat, it is harmful, proceed with caution, it is unidentifiable, run!, etc. However, there can also be mixed messages. That is, something can smell good and be inedible or toxic. Or on the other hand something can smell good and be edible but the process used to create the edible good makes the good smell harmful, it gets a bit tricky. For instance a cooking hamburger patty smells pretty good to most meat-eaters and this stimulates the appetite. But that good smell includes toxic fumes produced by the hot oil during cooking which can have adverse effects on cells of the body when inhaled, and under chronic circumstances this can produce chronic effects and disease.
I am very sensitive to hot oil cooking like broiling and frying (which I never do), even baking sometimes, so that even if it smells good my throat becomes irritated quickly and I develop an incessant cough for a period time. Also, my Speck air monitor has increased to as much as 100 micrograms per cubic meter during stovetop cooking or broiling. The caveat here is that in some cases a large number of ultrafine particles are produced and these are smaller than most home monitors are able to measure so they go undetected unless your body responds to them fairly rapidly – and you actually listen to your body. Added to this mix is the fact that not all oils have the same impact, some are considerably worse than others, and we again get quickly dragged down the pollution rabbit hole… which the rabbits like even less than we do. I guess that is why it is worth investing in a good vent system in the kitchen.
You can take a look at a research article that is quite technical but the introduction has some interesting and valuable information regarding particle production during hot oil cooking, some adverse health effects, and cooking vents. According to the introduction “Epidemiological and toxicological studies have revealed that Chinese women who are exposed to cooking oil fumes (COFs) experience higher respiratory disease rates and mortalities due to lung cancer (Yang et al., 1998; Metayer et al., 2002; Li et al., 2003; Zhao et al., 2006).”
Eventually we will also explore and factor in the effects of other common types of pollution like water pollution and less recognized types like light, and noise, and energy as well, which are generally easier to identify and fix when they occur in our own home as long as we are able to associate the cause and effect relationship.
The bottom line here is that pollution exists in our homes in many forms and at many levels that are ever changing. Some of this pollution is natural (like radon, where it exists) but most is not. And some of these we detect through natural mechanisms (like smell) and some, probably too many, we do not. While there is a learning curve to pollution identification, prevention, and management in and around the home and our extended personal spaces, common sense should always be the foundation that supports the process.
Next time we enter the fascinating and sometimes frightening world of particles; so crank up the air cleaner – because as we now know they also enter us.