Many of us are familiar with seasonal allergies that come in the spring with increased pollen in the air. However similar lung and immune reactions can be triggered by particles produced or trapped indoors. To make matters worse, there’s added stress on our immune system from hectic schedules, more sugary “comfort foods”, loss of day/night body rhythm and being in close proximity to others with colds and flus.

How does indoor air get polluted?

According to the Environmental Working Group, indoor air is 2 to 5 times more polluted than outdoor air. This is attributed to the accumulation of pollutants that originate within the home and outdoor pollutants that are brought in and trapped inside. I’m susceptible to allergies all year round so I’m always looking for ways to improve indoor air quality. Recently I’ve been investigating further on how chemical pollutants in my home may be affecting my allergy symptoms and overall immune health. Virtually everyone is exposed to chemical pollutants and the negative effects can be seen in both the short and long term. Here, I’ll review a few sources of indoor pollutants that can affect our immune systems. 

  1. Flame retardants (PBDEs, PFRs, TPHP and others) can be released by upholstered furniture, electronic equipment (like computers and TVs), mattresses, and curtains. These pollutants are linked to brain toxicity, hormone issues and cancer.
  2. VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds), like formaldehyde, emanate from glues, paints, stains, carpets, gas stoves,
    cleaners, air freshners. Formaldehyde is linked to respiratory and allergic symptoms in children and cancer. I was exposed to formaldehyde for long periods of time studying and tutoring in the cadaver lab for 1.5 years. I remember regularly having fatigue and headaches after spending 2-3 hours in the lab. If you suspect symptoms related to significant chemical or mold exposures, consider Organic Acids Tests to assess the effect it’s had on your body’s detox mechanisms.

  3. PFCs (Perflourinated chemicals) like PFAS, PFOA (Teflon), PFOS (Scotchguard) are present in waterproofing and non-stick/stain in carpets, floor wax and nonstick cookware. These chemicals are not easily degraded so they persist in your environment and body; they are also linked to hormone, kidney and immune issues.
  4. Fragrances also contribute pollutants to indoor air. These can come from air freshners, cleaning products, fabric softeners, scented candles and personal care products. Products often don’t label the exact compound used to create their particular scent – the term “fragrance” can refer to any number of ingredients including phthalates, VOCs and essential oils. Many of these fragrances can trigger allergies, asthma and skin irritation.
  5. Mold and mildew are sources of indoor pollutants that many are familiar with. Both types of fungus grow in areas that are warm and humid: areas of water leaks/damage, bathrooms, kitchens, windows/window sills in any room and equipment like humidifiers. One study links higher risk of flu-like symptoms with mold and damp areas of the home. Children exposed to higher levels of fungal spores have been shown statistically to have worse asthma symptoms. These pollutants are also linked to chronic conditions like fungal sinusitis.

  6. Dust is a combination of all kinds of debris that gets released into the indoor environment: human/animal hair and loose skin cells, paper fibres, soil particles, textile fibers, insect fragments, fungal spores, pollen, etc. so it’s not surprising that we often have allergic symptoms around dust.

What can we do about it?

Wow, that’s a long list of pollutants and that’s just a fraction of them – there are many others. It’s a little overwhelming to think about how to respond to each type of pollutant. But thankfully, the following strategies can help reduce many different types of pollutants at once. And because it’s something that affects us thousands of times per day (every time we breathe) even small changes can have a significant impact. 

Like improving nutrition, cleaning up air quality requires many small steps: reducing the sources of pollutants, preventing its accumulation and regularly clearing it out of the home. In addition, supporting the immune system every day helps to reduce allergy symptoms and promotes better immune health for the next spring season.

Reducing the source:

  • Consider taking your shoes off at the door to prevent tracking in outdoor dirt, pesticides, pollen etc. These allergens can accumulate in carpets and furniture contributing to symptoms.
  • Every time I replace a household product, I try to look for safer alternatives (avoiding some of the above chemicals). EWG Healthy Cleaning Guide can be helpful for checking what cleaning products contain harmful pollutants. I also suggest using simple ingredients such as baking soda whenever possible as many chemicals are not listed on product labels. When buying new furniture, mattresses and doing renovations check the EWG Healthy Home Guide for choosing safer options. Recently when we replaced our furnace system, we opted for a higher efficiency (MERV 11) filter that captures smaller air particles than our previous system.

Clearing it out of the house:

  • Whenever possible, particularly on sunny days, open windows for a couple of hours midday, even when it’s cold out, to allow the off-gassing of chemicals such as formaldehyde to ventilate. This also helps to dry out areas prone to moisture.
  • Vacuuming and dusting with a damp cloth will reduce much of the dust in the home. I find weekly cleaning of the area around the head of the bed (pillows, behind/under the headboard, etc) particularly helpful for my year-round allergy symptoms. 
  • Choose cleaning equipment like vacuum cleaners, air filters and furnaces with HEPA filters whenever possible. Don’t forget to clean or replace furnace filters regularly (typically every 6-12 months) as this can have a great impact on indoor air. 
  • Regularly check for and clean water leaks to avoid mold, mildew and bacterial growth. Areas to check: under the sink, windows/window sills, front loader washing machine, bathroom, reservoir of humidifier, essential oil diffusers, the area around the dishwasher, and areas of previous flooding or water damage. 

With many factors involved, improving indoor air quality can feel like an overwhelming task. It’s my hope that this article helps you identify pollutants that may be contributing to your allergy symptoms and gives you a few ways to start improving your indoor environment. 

In health,
Dr. Carin

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