Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Environmental Elements that Affect Air Quality

By Krista Peterson

Environmental health is not limited to plant and animal life; human health is also a concern. While we tend to think of pollutants as man-made chemicals that contaminate our environment, there are also many naturally-occurring substances that humans have turned into pollutants through overuse or misuse. Some of these are used in buildings and can therefore have serious effects on indoor air quality. When renovating or working in older buildings, be mindful of the presence of these substances.


All occupied buildings require a great deal of energy for heating or cooling the air – between 43% and 60% of each monthly electricity bill, according to EPA estimates. Once this air is treated, it is imperative that it be kept insulated and sealed in the building in order to maintain energy efficiency. Before the 1980s, one very common insulator was asbestos, a thread-like mineral that could be easily combined with other substances to add strength and heat resistance to them. Despite its effectiveness, asbestos is now known to be extremely hazardous to the health of those who work with and around it.

When the materials containing asbestos are damaged or worn, tiny fibers of the material break away and float into the air, where they can be breathed into the lungs. Once in the body, these fibers can cause a variety of health problems, including lung scarring, asbestosis, and mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lungs. Symptoms of mesothelioma can lay dormant for 20 to 50 years before becoming apparent, and when they do, they can easily be confused with other, less deadly lung problems. Since there is often a delay in diagnosis, mesothelioma life expectancy is, on average, only 9 to 12 months. Because of the seriousness of these health consequences, asbestos should only be removed and disposed of by licensed abatement teams.


Another naturally-occurring substance that humans have unwisely brought into their homes, lead is a soft, pliable metal that is resistant to corrosion and conduction. For these reasons, it was once used extensively in pipes and plumbing systems. It also used to be added to gasoline to prevent engine knocking, though the gas sold commercially today is unleaded. But perhaps lead poses the most danger in house paint, where it was once mixed in as a pigment. Houses or other buildings painted before 1978 may still contain coats of lead paint.

Like asbestos, the lead paint isn’t dangerous when undisturbed. However, once the paint starts to chip and peel – and especially when painted materials are sanded, cut, or demolished – the lead can become dust that, once again, can be easily breathed into the lungs. Heavy metal poisoning affects nearly every system in the body, particularly the nervous system. It is most dangerous for infants and children, whose nervous systems are still developing, and babies still in the womb. As of April 2010, the EPA requires that any construction or renovation job that will disturb more than six square feet of lead-based paint be undertaken by a certified professional.

Professional abatement teams have access to specialized protective equipment such as masks and respirators that protect their lungs from the dangers of airborne substances like lead and asbestos. As tempting as it might be to undertake these jobs one’s self, it is not worth the health risks. Mesothelioma symptoms are almost always fatal, and lead poisoning can affect a child (or an adult) for the rest of his or her life. The quality of the air in a home or office can have profound consequences and should be carefully monitored in order to protect the health of the inhabitants.

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