The Science of Sustainability

Air Pollution Lurks Inside Your Home

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Photograph courtesy of kfisto via Creative Commons licensing.

Photograph courtesy of kfisto via Creative Commons licensing.

How would you like a job that involves shopping at the grocery store with the company credit card and cooking dishes like stir-fry? This describes Tosh Hotchi’s job, but he isn’t a chef. He is part of a research team that studies how to build healthy, efficient homes, including how to improve the quality of air inside a home through better ventilation. Hotchi is helping to study a major source of indoor pollution: cooking.

When people think of air pollution, they usually picture a factory spewing a plume of toxic chemicals into the air. But indoor air pollution causes significant health effects such as respiratory illness, asthma attacks, cancer and premature death. Californians spend over 45 billion dollars each year on these health impacts, according to a study by the California Air Resources Board. This is in part because they spend about 90% of their time indoors, which is typical for people living in a developed country.

Scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have identified which indoor air pollutants cause the greatest health consequences. In a paper published in Environmental Health Perspectives, they reported that fine particles with a diameter of 2.5 μm or less, formaldehyde and acrolein are the worst indoor contaminants for non-smoking households.

Fine particulates are found indoors mainly due to cooking, burning candles or incense, tobacco smoke and outdoor sources that leak inside. These fine particulates cause significant health problems – stroke, heart disease, chronic bronchitis and premature death.

Formaldehyde is mainly emitted by materials used in home construction and furniture, such as particle board, paneling and foam insulation. It also comes from cooking and tobacco smoke. Formaldehyde is a lung irritant that can trigger asthma attacks and it may cause cancer.

Acrolein was used as a chemical weapon in World War I. Acrolein in the home is primarily from cooking (especially oils) and tobacco smoke. It is a strong irritant for the skin, eyes and nasal passages.

“Think about what you're putting in your home,” says Melissa Lunden, a Berkeley Lab staff engineer. “Most of us have to cook, but do you need the candles, incense and air fresheners? Freshening your air requires taking stuff out, not putting more stuff in.”

Berkeley Lab scientists are now looking for ways to improve indoor air quality by developing better standards for residential buildings and new tests to measure these hazardous pollutants. For example, their Berkeley Lab report recommends to regulators that whole-residence ventilation rates should focus on controlling formaldehyde and acrolein, whereas filtration should be used to remove fine particle pollutants.

Since cooking is a major source of indoor air pollutants, Berkeley Lab scientists have also evaluated the effectiveness of cooking exhaust hoods. Their study results showed that cooking hoods should be redesigned and new rating standards are needed to help consumers know how effective a cooking hood is at removing pollutants. However, they also found that indoor air quality can be significantly improved by simply cooking on the back burners of your stove, using higher fan settings and turning the fan on before you start cooking. Further research on cooking-induced pollutants is underway using a new demonstration kitchen to study real-life cooking conditions. During these studies, Tosh Hotchi’s stir-fries and cookies are just a happy bonus for his co-workers like Melissa Lunden.

Learn more about how air quality affects your health this week during Air Quality Awareness Week.

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Category: Blog, Environment, General, Health, Sustainable Health

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Jennifer Huber

About the Author ()

Jennifer Huber is a medical imaging scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory with more than 20 years of experience in academic science writing. She received her Ph.D. in Physics from the University of California Santa Barbara. She is also a freelance science writer, editor and blogger, as well as a science-writing instructor for the University of California Berkeley Extension. Jennifer has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area most of her life and she frequently enjoys the eclectic cultural, culinary and outdoor activities available in the area. Read her previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.
  • http://www.facebook.com/susan.goldsborough.92 Susan Goldsborough

    I am amazed that wood stoves and fireplaces weren't identified as residential wood burning is a major source of particlate pollution both inside and outside! For more information, go to http://www.familiesforcleanair.org

    • WritingInstructor

      Burning wood is definitely a source of indoor air pollution, but it is a more significant contributor for fireplaces that aren't properly ventilated. The sources mentioned in the article are larger contributors if the fireplace or wood stove work properly.

      • http://www.facebook.com/susan.goldsborough.92 Susan Goldsborough

        The research that I have seen does not support your conclusion. Even with proper venting, 15 to 17 % of the particulates produced stay within inthe home along with benzene, dioxin, and nitrogen oxide.

    • Donald Ross

      Well, it's a California study and not many Californians have homes with fireplaces. It's rare you're allowed to use them anyway.

  • http://www.facebook.com/guduru.karthik Guduru Karthik

    this is a serious issue arising around us. the current technology it is still confusing which option to choose . their are air filtration systems available but looks like non of them are most efficient http://www.airconcern.co.uk/blog/what-are-the-different-types-of-indoor-air-purifiers

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Matt-Ringer/100003355812872 Matt Ringer

    The effects of poor indoor air quality include eye irritations, respiratory infections, sinus problems, headaches, asthma and allergies. An all-natural paint additive has been developed, that, turns any newly painted wall surface, into a permanent air, purification system no electricity or filters required. The Air-ReNu, technology permanently maintains healthy indoor air quality and removes offensive odors

    Air-ReNu is safe, effective and a permanent solution for unhealthy air.

    • WritingInstructor

      This sounds like a product advertisement, not entirely appropriate as a comment.

  • http://www.southbeachsmoke.com/ecig-review-sites.aspx South Beach Smoke

    Air pollution is a serious issue, you can't imagine how many health related problem you can face due to it.