Another Thing To Worry About

It’s the air we breathe… inside our homes!

Since passage of the Clean Air Act in 1963 and creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, emissions of carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and other harmful gases have fallen by half; particulate matter by eighty percent. An official “very unhealthy” warning for outside air is no longer common. That’s great, except, on average, we spend ninety percent of our time indoors.

A small ranch house sits on the University of Texas Austin campus. The house is sparsely furnished, except for millions of dollars worth of electronic measuring equipment. Scientists come to Austin from all over to cook, clean and generally live in the house, all the while measuring air quality. The highlight is a re-creation of what is considered a traditional Thanksgiving celebration. The result is labeled an “airborne toxic event.”

A “volatile organic compound” is a carbon-base chemical that evaporates at room temperature. VOCs are what we smell — bacon or flowers for example — although some have no odor. For nearly an hour during the Thanksgiving simulation, fine particulate matter reached the level that the EPA’s Air Quality Index defines as “very unhealthy.” When outdoor air reaches these levels even healthy individuals are warned they are at risk of serious damage to the heart and lungs.

“The scariest thing in this house is probably the toaster,” a student volunteer, said. “I just had no idea that toasters emitted so many particles.”

In the 1980s, we learned about “sick-building syndrome,” a general malaise people suffer as a result of buildings being more tightly sealed for energy conservation. Researchers found paint, floor coverings, upholstery, particleboard and such emitted toxins in higher concentrations than what was found outdoors. Now we can add basted turkey to the list. (The additional combustion from cooking with gas releases higher emission than electric burners.)

Cleaning products and what we apply on our bodies, not yet specifically measured, add to the emissions total.

An environmental scientist has recommended that we open all the windows and doors in our homes for twenty minutes each day to refresh the indoor air. (Turning off the heat or air conditioning when we do it, of course.)

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