The Dangers & Solutions of Indoor Air Pollution

Filed under: General Health

While my field of study is nutrition, and I am also deeply involved in the strength and conditioning world, there are many more layers to our health than just those two areas. I am interested in improving the long-term quality of my life (and that of my family, and my readers), so from time to time I look into many other things outside my usual scope. Examples would include decreasing plastics, improving sleep quality, stress management techniques, and more.

Now I want to touch on something else – indoor air pollution. According to the EPA “Indoor air pollutants are unwanted, sometimes harmful materials in the air. Indoor air pollution is among the top five environmental health risks.” Among the top 5 environmental health risks, and yet no one talks about this?

In my mind this is a topic that is not discussed nearly enough. Just like the fact that flossing can help to prevent heart disease (and not flossing can increase risk) because of bacteria and inflammation, is not talked about enough.

While giving the full scientific breakdown of the process and totality of the research on the harmful effects of air pollution is beyond the scope of this post, I will touch on a few important elements and steps you can take to decrease your risk. If you really want to dig deep, there is a great article from Harvard Magazine that is quite educational and interesting – Cleaning the Air.

The real concern seems to be fine particles, 2.5 microns or smaller. Larger particles are trapped in the mucous lining of our nose, trachea and bronchi and never reach the lungs. However these smaller particles make it past these defenses and wreak havoc.

The mechanism for the problems they create are not fully understood, but we do know that they increase risk of lung cancer, emphysema, asthma, cardiovascular and heart disease, and Alzheimer’s as well as decreasing lifespan by up to 2 years!

The mechanisms for how these particles cause lung issues are fairly well understood, but how they contribute to cardiovascular and heart disease is not. Here are the hypotheses presented in the article:

“One hypothesis,” says Godleski, “since some of the effects are almost immediate, is that they must be neurally mediated.” Particles may stimulate nerve fibers in the lung. Signals relayed to the central nervous system may change the autonomic balance of the heart in ways that “make it more prone to arrhythmia and other effects, which in turn create the potential for a fatality.”

Another hypothesis suggests that, because particles cause inflammation of the lungs, inflammatory agents produced there may affect the heart in a negative way. Vasoconstrictors such as endothelin, for example, are secreted by the lungs when inflamed. The fact that mortality peaks 18 to 20 hours after the peak in a particle-pollution event (such as a smoggy day in summer) lends some support to this possibility; think of the way a sunburn can develop over time, after you leave the beach.

Finally, particles may pass through the lungs and actually reach the heart directly. This is thought to be the least likely scenario, says Godleski, but there is some evidence for it. Rogers is actively exploring the possibility with high-resolution laser-scanning microscopy.

One section of the article really stood out to me (probably because I have a young child):

In children, a group made susceptible by their high metabolisms and developing organs, exposure to fine-particle pollution appears to cause small, permanent reductions in lung function. That is less a concern when the victims are young and have plenty of reserve lung capacity. But as people age, they lose about 1 percent of their lung function per year (1.5 percent for smokers). After 50 years, in one’s early seventies, this represents a 50 percent reduction in lung capacity (75 percent in smokers). The consequence, Dockery says, is that “at the end of their lives, when they need the reserve capacity, these kids will be a couple of years further along in terms of the decline of their lung function.”“If we could go before Congress and show them a sick baby, that would have a lot of influence,” he notes. “But we’re showing statistical associations, which are not as emotionally powerful. That is why we rely on our colleagues who do toxicology studies to provide mechanistic understanding.”

What those toxicology studies are beginning to show is that in these susceptible individuals, certain kinds of exposures—to combustion products, urban particles, toxic organics, and metals such as zinc, vanadium, and iron—have effects more adverse than simple carbon or resuspended crustal dust.

While most of this information is more specifically about outdoor air pollution, or so it seems, here is one final important piece from the article:

…fine particles penetrate a typical home very efficiently, says Yamaguchi professor of environmental health and human habitation John Spengler, and ground-level ozone reacts with household compounds to form particles indoors, where people spend most of their time.

This is actually what I want to focus on – indoor air pollution – as that is something that our individual decisions can make a dramatic impact on, and is something we can have some semblance of control over. New research on mice done at Ohio State found that chronic inhalation of air pollution activates a protein that triggers the release of white blood cells, leading to widespread inflammation. So it would seem that hypothesis number 2 is certainly a large contributor of the problem.

This cellular response resembles an immune response that has spiraled out of control, and the resulting systemic inflammation drastically increases your risk for cardiovascular and other heart diseases, diabetes, and obesity as well as the aforementioned respiratory problems.

In addition our homes are full of other toxins, such as formaldehyde (from foam insulation, plywood, particle board, clothes, carpet, furniture, paper goods, household cleaners, water repellents); benzene (from tobacco smoke, gasoline, synthetic fibers, plastics, inks, oils, detergents); propanol (cleaning products); and trichloroethylene (from dry cleaning, inks, paints, varnishes, lacquers, adhesives), whose effects can range from mild eye, nose and throat irritations to far more serious conditions.

So what can we do about it?

Well we can buy a HEPA filter filtration system for starters or have one installed in your HVAC system if you have central air. A recent Canadian study found that HEPA filtration can drastically reduce indoor air pollution. In fact it significantly reduced the amount of air pollution, resulting in improved blood vessel health and reductions in blood markers that are associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

After analyzing their data, the researchers found portable HEPA filters reduced the average concentrations of fine particulates inside homes by 60% and wood smoke by 75%, and their use was associated with improved endothelial function (a 9.4% increase in reactive hyperemia index – an indicator of the earliest stages of atherosclerosis) and decreased inflammation (a 32.6% decrease in C-reactive protein – a marker of inflammation).

That’s awesome. We can decrease fine particulates and decrease systemic inflammation and our risk for CVD and other diseases. However what about the other household toxins – formaldehyde, benzene, etc?

Well thankfully NASA came through and found out for us – plants! They studied 19 different house hold plants to see their ability to improve air quality and filter out harmful chemicals.

Plants (more specifically the leaves) have been known to function like air pumps. At day light, they take carbon dioxide from the air to make photosynthesis. Moreover, they breathe all the time. This means they take oxygen from the air and release carbon dioxide. Plants also sweat, mainly through their leaves. Water and gases go in and out through small pores.

While NASA found that some of the plants were better than others for absorbing these common pollutants, all of the plants had properties that were useful in improving overall indoor air quality.

For example, English ivy, gerbera daisies, pot mums, peace lily, bamboo palm, and Mother-in-law’s Tongue were found to be the best plants for decreasing levels of benzene.

The peace lily, gerbera daisy, and bamboo palm were very effective in decreasing levels of trichloroethylene.

NASA also found that the bamboo palm, Mother-in-law’s tongue, dracaena warneckei, peace lily, dracaena marginata, golden pathos, and green spider plant were effective at decreasing formaldehyde.

The levels of these compounds were often reduced by up to 80%!

After conducting the study, NASA came up with a list of the most effective plants for treating indoor air pollution. The recommended plants can be found below. Note that all the plants in the list are easily available from your local nursery.

1. Philodendron scandens `oxycardium’, heartleaf philodendron
2. Philodendron domesticum, elephant ear philodendron
3. Dracaena fragrans `Massangeana’, cornstalk dracaena
4. Hedera helix, English ivy
5. Chlorophytum comosum, spider plant
6. Dracaena deremensis `Janet Craig’, Janet Craig dracaena
7. Dracaena deremensis `Warneckii’, Warneck dracaena
8. Ficus benjamina, weeping fig
9. Epipiremnum aureum, golden pothos
10. Spathiphyllum `Mauna Loa’, peace lily
11. Philodendron selloum, selloum philodendron
12. Aglaonema modestum, Chinese evergreen
13. Chamaedorea sefritzii, bamboo or reed palm
14. Sansevieria trifasciata, snake plant
15. Dracaena marginata , red-edged dracaena

For an average home of 2,000 square feet or less, the study recommends having a variety of at least fifteen of these common houseplants to help improve air quality. They also recommend that the plants be grown in six inch containers or larger.

In conclusion I think the best way to improve the air quality of your home is to have a nice variety of these houseplants, as well as  small HEPA filters (Alen T300 and BlueAir 203 are supposed to be well-priced good ones for up to 200 sq ft) in the bedrooms and a larger one in the main living area of the house (Aller Air 6000 is supposed to be great too, and it can filter up to 1800 sq ft!). To me this strategy is your best bet for drastically reducing air pollution and decreasing your risk of a vast array of diseases, decreased quality of life and early death.

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Posted on August 29th, 2011 by Brian St. Pierre


  1. Jill Says:

    This is a really interesting and informative article Brian. Thanks for taking the time to write it. I especially like that you offer solutions to reduce exposure…off to get some plants!

  2. Strength and Conditioning Stuff You Should Read: 9/23/11 | Eric Cressey Says:

    [...] The Dangers of and Solutions to Indoor Air Pollution – Filed this one under general health, as opposed to strength and conditioning or nutrition, but it’s still a great read from Brian St. Pierre. [...]

  3. John Says:

    Love this post – the air you breathe is so important to your health, and is too often taken for granted.

    Word of caution about the plants: some of these plants can be poisonous to pets, especially cats, so you should check them out before you buy them.

  4. Issue No. 3: Friday, September 23, 2011 « The Fitness Herald Says:

    [...] The Dangers of and Solution to Indoor Air Pollution [...]

  5. The Home of BSP Training & Nutrition » Blog Archive » President’s Cancer Panel Report Says:

    [...] Formaldehyde is in pressed wood, so things like cabinets and furniture might be problems. Benzene is in synthetic fibers, plastics and detergents. Again fortunately for you I wrote about ways to decrease your exposure to such carcinogens in Dangers and Solutions of Indoor Air Pollution. [...]

  6. The Home of BSP Training & Nutrition » Blog Archive » Dangerous Dryer Sheets Says:

    [...] that affect our health, and certainly a passionate interest.  I wrote a piece a while back called The Dangers & Solutions of Indoor Air Pollution, which is one of my favorites as I feel it highlights some relatively unknown areas of our lives [...]

  7. The Home of BSP Training & Nutrition » Blog Archive » One More Reason to Go Green, and Do Your Research Says:

    [...] The Dangers & Solutions of Indoor Air Pollution [...]

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