When you think about air pollution, the first images that come to mind may be smokestacks or pictures of L.A. smog from the 1980s. However, there’s a greater source of air pollution that flies under the radar for most people — indoor air pollution.
With Americans spending 90 percent of their time indoors and much of that at home, ensuring safe indoor air quality is a significant initiative.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) studies environmental hazards and while it doesn’t directly enforce regulations on indoor air quality, it does offer recommendations to improve indoor environments. Thanks to studies by this agency, awareness regarding indoor air pollution and associated hazards has increased, though it is still among the most pressing environmental dangers.
(Photo: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) workers and supporters protest job cuts during rally in Chicago, Illinois, March 2, 2017.)
A proposal to reduce EPA funding by 23 percent and eliminate the indoor air quality and radon management programs has been introduced for 2019.
What would this mean for indoor air quality?
To understand how this will affect citizens, let’s take a closer look at what these programs do and how the EPA manages indoor air quality.
Role of the EPA in Air Quality Control
At its core, the EPA is a public health organization: It improves public health by passing regulations that manage environmental pollutants. The Clean Air Act is a prime example of the agency in action.
Educating the public about environmental issues is also part of the EPA’s mission. EPA staff perform research on environmental pollutants and associated impacts on public health; this information then informs federal and state policymakers on what to do to protect the public. The EPA also provides this research to the public, so those who own property can keep themselves and residents safe.
Sources of Indoor Air Pollution
Early in the history of the agency, indoor pollution sources like wood-burning stoves and cigarettes were targeted as health hazards, and EPA research helped place severe restrictions on these activities for the safety of public health.
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Other indoor airborne pollutants that the EPA has warned about include:
- Old building elements (asbestos, PCB, formaldehyde)
- Biological contaminants
- Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
You may be surprised to learn that the air in your home is likely to have more pollutants than the air outside. Just as cigarette smoke can build up in a bar to create poor air quality, other environmental pollutants build up the same way inside of homes. These pollutants can cause a wide variety of health issues, including:
- Sensitization to pollutants
- Aggravation of pre-existing conditions
- Heart disease
The likelihood and severity of these issues depend on the pollutant, the person and the length of exposure. You probably won’t get heart disease or lung cancer from a single exposure, but years of exposure raises the chances, and even minor symptoms can significantly impact your quality of life in the long run.
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This is why the EPA also investigates filtration methods and air ventilation to find the best ways to remove pollutants that have built up in your home. The air filter you have in your air conditioner was probably constructed based on EPA research.
Sick Building Syndrome
Even the government has been caught unawares by indoor pollutants — when many of the people who moved into government trailers after Hurricane Katrina started experiencing health problems, it was found that levels of formaldehyde were as high as 75 times the safe level recommended by the EPA. Residents had to be evacuated for their safety.
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This is an example of sick building syndrome, a situation in which people experience negative effects caused by a buildup of indoor pollutants. Thankfully, many of the symptoms clear up once people stay out of the building for some time, but there are some cases where the symptoms become permanent due to sensitivity.
Often these symptoms are untraceable to any particular illness; sick building syndrome is linked to many workplace complaints such as lethargy, nose and throat irritation and irritability. EPA inspectors can investigate whether a building is the cause of health issues by performing walkthroughs, tests and interviews with affected individuals. They can then offer recommendations on how to fix the problem if there is one.
Sick building syndrome was a huge concern in the 1980s before smoking was banned in most indoor places. The situation has gotten far better thanks to government regulation and self-regulation by the Association of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE). However, this makes it more concerning when people start to feel sick in their homes or workplaces for unexplained reasons.
As we saw in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, even new construction can be full of environmental toxins. Indeed, new materials are often more dangerous than old ones because they still have a lot of volatile compounds.
To combat this problem, the EPA has a program called Indoor airPLUS that partners with builders and manufacturers to reduce the initial chemical load on new construction. This program will quite likely be affected by the proposed budget cuts.
Effect of EPA Budget Cuts
In the short term, the proposed cuts would force the EPA to make decisions on where to allocate money for enforcement and research. The outright killing of the indoor air quality and radon plans would halt any ongoing research in those divisions. It would also make it much harder for the EPA to educate homeowners on how to improve indoor air quality in their homes, or to tell lawmakers what they need to know to make informed decisions about air quality regulation.
(Photo: January 28, 2017: Environmental Protection Agency EPA headquarters.)
The cuts would translate to even more direct outcomes for states, as many state environmental health agencies depend on EPA money to fund their own research. Arizona stated that at least nine programs will be affected by the cuts if they go through.
A reduction in budget would make it more difficult for the state to take air quality readings to inform the public when outdoor pollutants are at their highest, in addition to hampering their educational efforts.
Much of the EPA’s enforcement of air quality has to do with outdoor pollution sources rather than indoor ones, although budget cuts would affect its ability to investigate sick building claims from workers. The biggest impact here would be the long-term effects of not knowing how new pollutants might affect health and losing the means to finish long-term studies on indoor air quality — studies like the past ones resulting in the removal of lead paint and asbestos.
Thanks to EPA research that has been done so far, it’s not likely that indoor air quality will get worse in the immediate short term should these cuts pass. However, if we are unable to test new products for how they affect the air in our homes, we should be cautious about introducing new sources of pollutants in our home and vigilant about maintaining good air quality for the safety of our families.
Kevin Burns is the president of Bob Jenson Air Conditioning in San Diego with over 29 years of experience in the HVAC Field. He has worked in every aspect of the industry and has trained dozens of people.
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