Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Are You Breathing in Polluted Air?

We often think that air pollution only occurs outdoors, but unfortunately, studies have repeatedly shown that the air inside our homes or offices can be many times more polluted than the air outside due to building materials, smoke, and consumer products. In fact, according to a 1987 study conducted by the EPA, indoor air pollution was ranked fourth in cancer risk among the top 13 environmental problems analyzed. Also, because buildings constructed after the 1970’s were built to be more air-tight and energy efficient, these indoor pollutants can build up at a much higher rate than outdoor levels.

Therefore, to educate the public on the effects of indoor air pollution, the California Air Resources Board has published information about the sources and potential health effects of indoor air pollutants in an attempt to educate the public. Here is a brief overview:

Pollutant: Tobacco smoke
Major Indoor Sources: Cigarettes, cigars, and pipes
Potential Health Effects: Respiratory irritation, bronchitis, emphysema, lung cancer, and heart disease

Pollutant: Carbon monoxide
Major Indoor Sources: Unvented or malfunctioning gas appliances, wood stoves, and tobacco smoke
Potential Health Effects: Headache, nausea, impaired vision, and death at high concentrations

Pollutant: Formaldehyde
Major Indoor Sources: Pressed wood products, furnishings, wallpaper, and durable press fabrics
Potential Health Effects: Eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches; allergic reactions; cancer

Pollutant: Particles
Major Indoor Sources: Cigarettes, wood stoves, aerosol sprays, house dust
Potential Health Effects: Eye, nose, and throat irritation; respiratory infections; bronchitis; lung cancer

Pollutant: Radon
Major Indoor Sources: Soil under buildings, construction materials, and groundwater
Potential Health Effects: Lung cancer

Pollutant: Biological agents (bacteria, viruses, fungi, animal dander, and mites)
Major Indoor Sources: House dust; pets; bedding; humidifiers and dehumidifiers; wet or moist structures; and furnishings
Potential Health Effects: Allergic reactions, asthma, eye, nose, and throat irritation; influenza; humidifier fever; and other infectious diseases

Of course, the above is just a partial list, but to decrease exposure to indoor air pollution, the Resources Board recommends preventing or minimizing the release of indoor pollutants in the first place. This involves using products safely, restricting smoking, using appliances properly, selecting building materials and furniture carefully, and providing adequate ventilation. In addition, using a quality air purifier with True HEPA filtration will also help eliminate up to 99.97% of large particles 0.3 microns or larger, such as dust, dander, and mold.

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Friday, February 15, 2008

Air Quality and Aging: What's the Relationship?

As we age, our bodies become less able to compensate for the effects of environmental hazards, and studies have shown that air pollution can actually aggravate stroke, heart disease, diabetes, and lung diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). All of these health problems eventually lead to increased medication use, admissions to emergency rooms and hospitals, and sometimes even death.

Particulate matter and ozone have the greatest potential to affect the health of the elderly, and fine particles have been repeatedly linked to cardiac arrhythmias, heart attacks, bronchitis, and premature death. In addition, ozone has also been shown to exacerbate respiratory diseases.

In an attempt to address the issue of older adults and air quality, the EPA has developed and published fact sheets that are intended to inform older adults about environmental health risks and how to reduce those risks.

One such fact sheet deals with the problem of COPD, and the EPA notes that the disease includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema – lung diseases which frequently coexist and are characterized by obstruction to air flow, making it difficult to breathe. In terms of environmental triggers for COPD, the EPA also notes that exposure to outdoor air pollution can pose a significant risk, especially to those suffering from lung disease. As well, ozone has also been shown to aggravate respiratory diseases and may result in increased emergency room and hospital admissions.

Regarding indoor air, because older people spend more than 90 percent of their time indoors, common indoor airborne pollutants such as tobacco smoke, dust, animal dander, mold, and pollen can trigger COPD and asthma attacks. In addition, combustion products such as oil, gas, coal, and buildings and furnishings made of pressed wood can also exacerbate the above diseases.

If you or a loved one experiences symptoms of COPD or asthma, the EPA recommends consulting a doctor and taking the following precautions:

- Check the Air Quality Index if planning to spend extended time outdoors
- Avoid smoke from wood-burning stoves
- Avoid tobacco smoke
- Reduce mold and dust from your home
- Regularly check furnaces and heating units annually
- Keep pets out of sleeping areas

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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Do You Have an Asbestos Problem?

Asbestos is a mineral composed of long, thin fibrous crystals, and the name is derived from a Greek adjective meaning inextinguishable. The Greeks named asbestos the “mineral miracle” because of its soft texture and pliant properties, as well as its ability to withstand heat.

Asbestos became very popular among builders and manufacturers during the late 19th century because of its resistance to heat, electricity, chemical damage, sound absorption, and strength. In fact, many building materials manufactured before 1975, including insulation, floor tiles, cement shingles, roofing, and ceiling tiles, contained large amounts of this mineral. However, due to the health effects associated with asbestos, the EPA and Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) have banned it from use, and most products made today do not contain the mineral.

Nonetheless, as mentioned above, long-term exposure to asbestos fibers have been associated with a range of health problems. Asbestos fibers are too small to be visible and they can become airborne when materials containing asbestos are disturbed or improperly removed. Once inhaled, asbestos can lead to increased incidence of lung cancer, mesothelioma (cancer of the abdominal lining and chest), and even irreversible lung scarring that can be fatal (also known as asbestosis). Unfortunately, symptoms of these diseases often do not show up until many years after exposure begins, and most people suffering from asbestos-related diseases were exposed to high concentrations while on the job.

To address asbestos problems, it is sometimes best to leave asbestos material alone, assuming it is in good condition, because material in good condition will not release asbestos fibers. However, these materials should also be periodically inspected for damage and properly handled and disposed according to appropriate officials. Also, if the asbestos material is even slightly damaged, the EPA recommends removal by a professional.

If you have had asbestos removed or sealed from your home or workplace, your second level of clean up can involve using an air purifier with a high-quality, warm-rolled, True HEPA filter, or even vacuuming floors with a HEPA vacuum. Asbestos fibers range anywhere from 0.1 to 50 microns and length, and HEPA filters must be capable of removing at least 99.97% of airborne particles as small as 0.3 microns in diameter. Therefore, while a HEPA air purifier or vacuum should not be your only line of defense against asbestos, it can certainly help filter out large fibers and keep you breathing cleaner air.

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Friday, February 01, 2008

Yamaha to Pay California $2 Million for High Emissions Motorcycles

Last week, a ruling found that Yamaha Corporation, USA and South Seas Cycle Exchange of Honolulu will have to pay over 2 million dollars to the state of California in order to settle a 2005 lawsuit over the importation of motorcycles that failed to meet California emissions standards.

The California Air Resources Board is the "clean air agency" in California, and given California's track record for high levels of air pollution, the organization was established to maintain healthy air quality; to protect the public from exposure to toxic air contaminants; and to provide innovative approaches for complying with air pollution rules and regulations. As well, the CARB is also the agency responsible for banning ozone air purifiers by the year 2009 in the state of California.

With that said, the CARB began an investigation into Yamaha’s case back in 2002, and they concluded that Yamaha had imported over 400 illegal motorcycles, registered them to Yamaha in California, obtained state license plates, and eventually sold the vehicles to California residents.

Air Resources Board Mary Nichols stated that the reason why Yamaha was targeted was because of California’s already poor air quality and she stated that "too many parts of California still fail to meet federal health levels for air quality." She also noted that due to the high levels of emissions, the Yamaha motorcycles in question "could well have contributed to Southern California’s already fouled air."

Other California motorcycle dealers had already settled this case with the Air Resources Board, but Yamaha and South Seas Cycle apparently held out until the end. In addition to paying 1.2 million dollars to the Board, the company will also be forced to pay $500,000 to fund a project to test the impact of ethanol fuel blends on emissions from off-road gasoline engines, and $300,000 to the Office of the Attorney General for attorneys' fees.

Yamaha and South Seas Cycle will also have to begin a vehicle purchasing program to buy back, remove, or destroy any motorcycles not certified for use in California. California motorcyclists can find out if their bike is illegal by looking at the emissions label, and if it does not state "California," the bike has only met federal, but not California, emissions standards.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Quiz: Is Your Indoor Air Unhealthy?

We've all heard about recent reports regarding home structural problems and illnesses associated with indoor airborne contaminants such as fungal problems, toxic mold, dust, and chemicals. These pollutants can cause health problems such as eye and nose discomfort, skin irritation, increased asthma and allergy attacks, airway stress, and even cancer after long-term exposure. Although you may think your immaculate home is free from these pollutants, think again. Take this quiz and see if your air may be affecting your health.

1. Do you live near a street, commercial area, or farm?

2. Does your home have carpeting?

3. Do you have other occupants in your home?

4. Do you have an attached garage?

5. Do you get some of your clothes dry cleaned?

6. Do you have any pets?

7. Do you use cleaning products in your home?

8. Do you smoke in your home?

If you answered yes to three or more of these questions, you may be breathing in polluted air. Read below for the reasons why:

1. Cars, businesses, and animals can create large amounts of pollution such as odors and chemicals which can enter your home.
2. Carpets have the ability to capture dust, chemicals, and dirt that is tracked in from outdoors.
3. People constantly shed skin, cough, and sneeze; therefore, we’re naturally pollution producers.
4. Even if a car is running for a few minutes, carbon monoxide can enter the home (regardless of how well insulated it is).
5. Dry cleaners use many chemicals to clean clothes, and these can oftentimes offgas into the air.
6. Pets are notorious for creating dander, dust, and odors in the home.
7. Ninety-nine percent of cleaning products available in stores are toxic, and the fumes often linger in the air and on surfaces.
8. Smoke is composed of over 400 chemicals, and is one of the most difficult odors to remove.

Indoor air pollution is among the top five environmental risks, and one of the best ways to control this risk is to eliminate the source of pollutants and ventilation a home with clean air from outside. Due to weather restrictions and/or contaminants, this may be impractical, and for this reason, an air cleaning device such as an air purifier may be extremely useful, as they help control the levels of particles, chemicals, and gases.

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Friday, January 04, 2008

Are Your Children Being Exposed to Pollutants at School?

Although many of us may think that air pollution only exists outdoors, numerous government-sponsored studies published by organizations such as the EPA have found that poor indoor air quality is also a threat as well. Indoor levels of air pollutants are frequently many times higher than outdoor levels, and thousands of harmful chemicals are currently used in commercial and industrial areas, with schools not being exempt from this epidemic.

Indoor air pollution in schools is a serious and overlooked problem. Children are much more vulnerable to airborne pollutants than adults because of their anatomy. Their breathing passages are smaller in diameter when compared to those of adults, and even minor irritations have the potential to narrow airways to dangerous degrees. In addition, children have higher metabolisms and require more oxygen relative to their weight and height than adults. This ultimately results in more rapid breathing and greater chance of inhaling pollutants when compared to the average adult.

In fact, studies have also shown that in the past decade or so, the number of children suffering from asthma has doubled, with almost 5 million children currently suffering from this disease. Asthma is also the number one cause of school absenteeism and is a leading reason for hospital admissions in children. Although school air pollution may not be the primary cause of the significant increase in asthma cases, it cannot be argued that indoor air quality is certainly part of the problem, as seemingly benign airborne pollutants such as pollen and dust are known to be asthma and allergy triggers. The EPA also notes that in addition to increased asthma and allergy symptoms, indoor air pollution can lead to headaches, nausea, and dizziness.

With this mind, while we can regulate the air quality in our homes, addressing the pollution levels present in our children’s schools may be more difficult. Unfortunately, children spend the majority of their day in school and they are exposed to harmful pollutants on a repeated basis. If you are concerned about your child’s school air quality, alert your school’s faculty and urge them to implement a clean air program. Airborne pollutants can be minimized by reducing the use of harsh or toxic chemicals and pesticides, and also by increasing ventilation. Also be aware that dust and particles from mold, crumbling building structures, and even lead-based paint are all contamination sources that are often found in schools and they should also be brought to your school’s attention.

For additional information on school indoor air quality, contact that EPA and request their Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools (IAQ TfS) Action Kit. This kit shows schools how to carry out a practical plan to cost effectively improve indoor air problems using straightforward activities and in-house staff, and it also includes helpful components such as checklists and backgrounders designed for school personnel to use to ensure a complete assessment of your school’s IAQ.

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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Secondhand Smoke Exposure is Twice as Likely to Cause Allergies in Infants

According to recent research conducted by the campaigning charity ASH, babies exposed to secondhand smoke are nearly twice as likely to develop allergies to inhaled allergens such as dust and animal dander when compared to infants who are not exposed to secondhand tobacco smoke. In addition, the study found that children of smoking parents were almost 50% more likely to develop food allergies.

These findings were based on survey responses from more than 4000 families about their children’s’ allergies and the environmental factors they were exposed to both before and after birth. These surveys revealed that 1 in 12 mothers smoked throughout pregnancy and 1 in 8 smoked during only a part of their pregnancy. Researchers of the study concluded that there was a dose-response effect for secondhand smoke exposure during the first few weeks of life, and these were considered markers for allergen sensitization. In addition, the effects of secondhand smoke were stronger among children of non-allergic parents than among those with parents who suffered from allergies.

This recent study corroborates the findings of past studies which have shown the harmful impact of secondhand on children in the early years of development, and medical experts are encouraging smoking parents to make an effort to keep their homes as smoke-free as possible, as simply restricting smoking to certain rooms of homes offers little protection to infants and young children from the effects of secondhand smoke.

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Thursday, November 01, 2007

Candles Can Be Dangerous

Although candles can add warmth, atmosphere, and pleasing scents to a home, and especially with the holiday season just around the corner, candles in the form of votives and tapers are extremely popular. However, many people are unaware that candles can also contribute to indoor air pollution by releasing particulate matter in the form of soot into the air. Both scented and unscented candles emit a variety of byproducts upon burning and particle matter.

Apparently, studies have also shown that petroleum-based (paraffin) candles and scented candles are the worst offenders. Paraffin is a derivative of petroleum, and when burned, they release toxins such as formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, and soot into the air. These paraffin and scented candles can also trigger allergic and asthma-like reactions such as sore throat, itchy and watery eyes, headaches, and skin irritation.

In addition to harmful particulate matter, candles may often be sources of lead. Although candles made in the United States are prohibited from using lead wicks, imported candles may still use lead wicks. When lead is heated, it produces fine particles of lead oxide which is easily inhaled and deposited into lung tissue. This can cause a variety of health problems such as cardiovascular and nervous system symptoms. The use of candles can also contribute to unsightly discoloration of walls, ceilings, and the contents of a home, as well as contaminating the ventilation system’s ductwork.

For safe candle use, try alternatives to paraffin-based candles such as those that are unscented and made from soy or beeswax. Watch for any shiny metal wires inside the wicks of candles, and keep wicks trimmed to one-quarter inch for complete combustion. If you insist on a fragrance, put a few drops of scented oil into a diffuser or in some boiling water. Also, avoid using candles in jars which deprive the wick of oxygen and create more soot. Refrain from using candles in jars when the wick is below the level of the top of the jar or when the candle leaves a soot ring on the jar’s lip, as this soot may be an indication of lead dust from a metal wick.


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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Houseplants Can Save Your Life

Because we often spend up to 90% of our time indoors, we are susceptible to many health problems associated with poor indoor air quality. These problems can often be the result of poor ventilation, toxic mold, and chemicals. Therefore, in addition to being exposed to outdoor pollutants, pollutants can also be found in our homes and workplaces.

In an attempt to find solutions to indoor air pollution, NASA and the Associated Landscape Contractors of America (ALCA) participated in a two year study which suggested a common, but sophisticated pollution-absorbing device: the common houseplant.

Plants remove substances out of the air through their stoma, or the tiny openings in their leaves. As well, they breathe through their leaves, and allow their roots and soil bacteria to help remove trace levels of toxic vapors. Essentially, houseplants create a "living air cleaner" by combining activated carbon and a fan with the plant. The roots of the plant grow in the carbon, and they slowly degrade the chemicals that are absorbed. Dr. Bill Wolverton, former senior research scientist at NASA, stated the following: "We feel that future results will provide an even stronger argument that common indoor landscaping plants can be a very effective part of a system used to provide pollution free homes and work places."

In order to conduct the study, each plant type was placed in sealed, Plexiglas chambers in which chemicals were injected. Philodendron, spider plants, and gold pothos were the most effective in removing formaldehyde molecules. For removing benzene, flowering plants such as gerbera daisies and chrysanthemums were extremely efficient. Other good performers were the Dracaena Massangeana and Spathiphyllum. In conclusion, the study consistently showed that living, green, and flowering plants were able to remove several types of toxic chemicals from the air in building interiors.

Fortunately, because houseplants are plentiful, inexpensive, and relatively easy to maintain, they make great, "natural air purifiers." As Dr. Wolverton noted, "Combining nature with technology can increase the effectiveness of plants in removing air pollutants."

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Monday, October 08, 2007

Fun Flu Vaccine Facts

According to the National Institutes of Health, influenza is a respiratory infection caused by a number of viruses which pass through the air and enter the body through the mouth or nose. It is estimated that roughly 5% and 20% of all Americans will contract the flu each year. While the flu may be little more than an unavoidable annoyance indicative of the cooler months for some people, for the elderly, newborn babies, and adults with certain chronic illnesses, the flu is serious and can even be deadly.

Therefore, in light of the fact that a large percentage of Americans will get the flu this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has announced that the week after Thanksgiving, November 27 to December 2, as National Influenza Vaccination Week. Because the flu vaccine is the main way to keep one from getting the flu, this weeklong event is aimed at highlighting the importance of continuing flu vaccinations, as well as encouraging the public to get vaccinated during the months of November, December, and beyond.

Here are a few facts about the flu and the flu vaccine:

1. Flu season runs from October through May, and the best months to be vaccinated are October and November.
2. The injected vaccine actually contains a killed virus, and is recommended for those over the age of 6 months.
3. The nasal form of the vaccine (sometimes called LAIV for “Live Attenuated Influenza Vaccine”) is made from a weakened virus and is recommended for those between the ages of 2-49, but not recommended for pregnant women.
4. Two weeks after receiving the flu vaccine, your body has developed the antibodies needed to protect itself against certain strains of the flu virus.
5. While you cannot get the flu from a flu vaccine, you may experience minor side effects such as aches, pains, a low-grade fever, and swelling. As well, you cannot develop the flu from the nasal spray vaccine, but headaches and sore throats are possible side effects.
6. Each flu vaccine contain three flue viruses: one A (H3N2) virus; one A (H1N1) virus, and one B virus. The viruses in the vaccine change every year based on international surveillance and scientists’ estimations about which types and strains of viruses will be circulated in a given year.
In addition to getting the flu vaccine, you can prevent influenza symptoms by improving your hygeine, eating a diet rich in whole foods, using supplements containing probiotics, getting additional sleep, reducing stress, and by improving your indoor air quality through sufficient ventilation and/or with the use of an air purifier with HEPA filtration.

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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

UC Irvine Professor Warns Consumers About Ozone Air Purifiers

Sergio Nizkorodov, a renowned professor of chemistry at the University of California, Irvine, has focused his academic career on the relationship between ozone emissions and air purifiers.

Produced naturally in the upper atmosphere, ozone plays an extremely critical role on earth by filtering out harmful UV rays that are known to cause skin cancer, as well as other serious ecological effects. In the lower atmosphere, ozone can be used to reduce airborne contaminants and to reduce indoor pollution such as mold sources and odors.

However, at the same time, scientists and doctors are questioning the safety of ozone exposure. When inhaled, ozone can cause health defects such as respiratory problems and lung functions, and it can be generated by common appliances such as laser printers, copiers, and yes, even some air purifiers.

Because of this predicament regarding ozone exposure, Professor Nizkorodov has been conducting extensive research on the connection between air purifiers and ozone levels. He has found that many air purifiers which purposefully use ozone to clean the air can generate ozone in levels above the standards set by the EPA. When used in small, enclosed spaces, these air purifiers can cause especially serious health problems in the elderly and children. In addition, Nizkorodov and his research team have found that ultrafine particles are generated by these air purifiers as a result of chemical reactions between the ozone and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in indoor settings.

In addition to his research, Professor Nizkorodov has also participated in UC Irvine’s Community Day and showed how the ozone levels produced by an ozone air purifier inside a chamber was high enough to be considered a first stage air quality alert. Professor Nizkorodov has also rallied with consumers against Sharper Image’s debacle with their Ionic Breeze air purifier, and has prompted many concerned citizens to urge their legislators to ban the sale of these air purifiers.

While most air purifiers on the market are extremely safe, consumers should take caution when purchasing an air purifier which exclusively uses ozone to clean the air.

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Monday, October 01, 2007

California to Ban Ozone Air Purifiers

Last week, the California Air Resources Board, the "clean air agency" of the state of California, agreed to ban the sale of all ozone air purifiers by 2009. By citing studies that show prolonged exposure to ozone can cause asthma attacks, permanent lung damage, and other respiratory illness, the CARB recommend that ozone air cleaners not be used in the home.

Although ozone is a natural air cleaner in the upper atmosphere, safe levels of ground-level ozone have never been identified. In addition, according to research conducted by the Board, roughly 2% of all California households have an ozone-producing air purifier, and over 500,000 people have complained of ozone exposure higher than federally allowed standards. These ozone cleaners can come in the form of air purifiers that emit ozone-rich gaseous plasma or personal breathing devices that are worn around the neck.

While proponents of ozone air purifiers claim ozone can improve the health of asthmatics, the elderly, and even depressed pets, the CARB claim dozens of peer review studies have shown the detrimental side effects of ozone exposure. A toxicologist at the University of California, Irvine, Michael Kleinman states, "Ozone is a toxic contaminant, and does cause significant adverse health effects."

Set to be in effect in 2009, the ban will include any air cleaners which emit even a miniscule amount of ozone. However, commercial use of ozone air purifiers will be exempt from this ban. For those who are concerned with indoor air quality, HEPA air purifiers like those used in hospitals (which can oftentimes be cheaper and more effective than ozone) will have to suffice.

In response to the new ban, Debra Perkins, an EcoQuest (a manufacturer of ozone air purifiers) salesperson and consumer, said in between tears, "God gave humans these air purifiers, and you should not take away that gift."

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