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What Causes Poor Air Quality?

The air that surrounds us, and that we invite into our bodies with every single breath, isn’t just essential for life — contact with it is also inevitable. No matter how poor the air quality is, unless we take special precautions, we will breathe the pollutants that air was contaminated with in anyway. Long-term exposure to airborne pollutants and irritants can contribute to an array of severe health complications, including the lung and cardiovascular diseases you may have been trying to avoid by quitting smoking and eating a heart-healthy diet.

Understanding what causes poor air quality helps you take proactive steps to limit your exposure to harmful airborne substances. Here, we will examine the biggest threats to outdoor air quality, which tends to be the focus of discussions about air pollution. Because the air quality inside the average American home is actually two to five times poorer than the air quality outside, however, it is also crucial to look at the factors that make your indoor air unhealthy.

What Causes Outdoor Air Pollution?

Air pollution can be defined as the presence of gases and particulates that pose a general threat to human health. A large potion of this type of pollution is released into the atmosphere as a direct result of human activity, and the biggest offenders of this type include:

  • The “big six”, which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calls criteria pollutants, are carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter. These pollutants are released by industry, traffic, electrical utilities, and households. Each of these substances has been associated with specific health consequences, but they primarily impact the pulmonary system. That means that these sources of air pollution can worsen breathing difficulties in people who already have lung conditions, while raising the risk that others will develop them — especially when they are exposed during early childhood.
  • Toxic air pollutants, which may be gases or other compounds. Asbestos and benzene would be two examples. These hazardous forms of air pollution have been linked to an increased risk of developing cancer, and they, too, have the potential to cause lung problems. Toxic air pollutants within the air outdoors are primarily emitted by refineries, power plants, and vehicles.
  • The depletion of the ozone layer, which causes higher amounts of ultraviolet radiation to reach us from the sun.

Not all sources of air pollution are man-made, however. Mold spores, various types of pollen, and dust originating from the earth also builds up within the air outdoors, with the potential to cause serious respiratory symptoms as well.

What Can You Do to Limit Your Exposure to Outdoor Air Pollution?

If you are concerned about the health impact of outdoor air pollution, your first step would be to keep a close eye on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index (AQI). Although the EPA has its own online AQI map, where you can look at the air quality for your area no matter where in the United States you live, even your local weather forecast is now quite likely to include these numbers. What do you need to know about the AQI? Here is a quick guide to this already fairly intuitive system:

  • Green (0-50) means that the air quality is good.
  • Yellow (51-100) means a moderate air quality, with no special steps required to protect yourself.
  • Orange (101-200) means that the air quality is such that exposure could harm the most sensitive people, such as those with asthma.
  • Red (201-250) means poor air quality that could cause discomfort to almost anyone.
  • Purple (251-300) denotes a very poor air quality. If your local air is “purple”, regional news networks will likely warn you about this.
  • Maroon (301-500) is extremely unhealthy air. This is rare, and may be caused by events such as wildfires in your area. It means that everyone, and not just vulnerable groups, should make an effort to stay indoors.

So, what should you do if you have taken a look at your local AQI and noticed that the air quality is extremely poor? What steps should you take if you live in an area where the outdoor air quality is persistently unhealthy?

The usual advice, offered by reputable agencies like the EPA and the CDC, would be to stay indoors or at least to limit the time spent outside to the minimum possible amount. Especially avoid high-traffic areas where the air quality is likely to be the worst, and do not exercise outdoors under any circumstances. If you must go out, you could consider wearing a respirator such as an N95 mask, in order to filter the majority of harmful particles out.

As air pollution may enter your home from outside, close the windows and consider investing in a true HEPA air purifying system if you live in an area with poor air quality.

What Causes Indoor Air Pollution?

Avoiding outdoor air pollution by staying in your home and closing the windows will not, on the other hand, serve your health very well if the air quality is poor inside your property, too. Considering the fact that the indoor air quality in most American homes is significantly worse than the air quality outside, this is a likely scenario in your home. To truly get a breath of fresh air, it is vital to also consider indoor air pollution sources. The most common contributors to unhealthy indoor air include:

  • Air pollution entering from outside.
  • Tobacco smoke, which is known to contain more than 4,000 harmful chemicals. Even when no tobacco product is currently in use, these can linger and pollute the air inside.
  • Other combustible products, ranging from fireplaces to gas stoves.
  • Asbestos, which you may have in your home if it was constructed before the 1980s.
  • Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) emitted by a wide variety of substances and materials in your home, including carpets, curtains, upholstery, cleaning materials, air fresheners, and even building materials.
  • Organic substances such as pet dander, dust mites, cockroaches, other tiny pests, viruses, bacteria, pollen, and mold.

How Much of a Threat Does Mold Pose to your Indoor Air Quality?

The presence of mold within a home, workplace, or other building immediately reduces the indoor air quality, because mold reproduces by releasing spores into the air. It is, as such, one of the biggest sources of indoor air pollution.

Not everybody knows that mold is a widespread problem in buildings. Because mold thrives in damp, humid, conditions, buildings with high humidity levels, burst pipes, leaky gutters, or recent exposure to flooding are especially likely to have a mold infestation. In these conditions, mold tends to build up primarily on or within surfaces composed of organic matter — such as wallpaper, window frames, carpet, house plants, and within washing machines. A mold infestation may immediately be visible, and it can also often be recognized by its musty odor. However, it is important to be aware that you could have a mold problem in your home without ever knowing about it, as mold may grow deep within your walls or in spaces you don’t typically look at.

Only a subset of mold species poses a threat to human health. However, long-term exposure harmful molds — which may be allergenic, toxic, or pathogenic — can lead to immediate discomfort, in the form of allergy symptoms like sneezing and itchy eyes, as well as serious health consequences.

Homeowners can try to control or prevent a mold infestation by:

  • Taking steps to ensure that the humidity within their home consistently stays between 30 and 50 percent. HVAC systems, dehumidifiers, and increased ventilation in the form of opening the windows frequently can all help to achieve this.
  • Having any water damage, in the form of leaky pipes or roofs, repaired professionally.
  • Eliminating carpets and upholstery that were exposed to liquids, for instance following a flood or after a pet or child had a toileting accident.
  • Purchasing a true HEPA air purifier to filter the majority of mold spores in the air out, so that you do not have to breathe them in. This does not eliminate the source of the problem, but can alleviate allergy symptoms.

However, if you do believe that you already have a mold problem in your home, remediating the infestation begins with gaining insights into the extent and source of the mold and learning what types of mold are present. MI&T makes this easy for you. As an independent and nationwide mold inspection only company, our inspectors perform a thorough visual mold inspection. They then take air samples that let you know exactly how worried you should be about indoor air pollution caused by mold.

After the samples are lab-tested, MI&T can, if you require, help you determine what steps would need to be taken to fully remediate your mold infestation. As an informed consumer, having a full independent mold inspection carried out gives you all the power as you decide how to move forward with the remediation.

Mold is far from the only threat to your indoor air quality, but it is one of the most serious hazards you can encounter in your home. Dealing with a mold infestation will improve your overall health and wellbeing, as well as the air quality in your property.