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As a country, we're used to the idea that air pollution is bad for our health. What hasn't really sunk in yet is the fact that the most problematic air we encounter is often found not outdoors, but inside our homes. This wisdom flies in the face of the basic instinct that tells you that your home is the one place where you can safely shut the door on what ails the world. Yet when we bolt that lock, we're frequently locking ourselves in with bigger troubles.
Case in point is a new study from Johns Hopkins, which finds that the risk of asthma rises with the increase in air pollution inside the home. The study is one of many that have recently connected the quality of the air kids are breathing at home with the number of emergency room visits they make for asthma attacks.
The problem is especially acute in places like Baltimore, where an incredible one-in-five children suffer from this condition. No wonder social workers there are now going door-to-door distributing vacuums with HEPA filters. It's about time.
The problem is that most people just don't realize how much garbage there can be in indoor air and how much of that gunk they're inadvertently creating themselves. Fearful of disease, they banish pests with toxic pesticides. Odors are covered up with synthetic air fresheners that are worse than the problem they "solve." Chemical cleaners just end up making a bigger mess. Then there are the things that even allegedly well-informed people like me don't know about. For instance: third-hand smoke.
That's right. Not first- or second-hand smoke but third-hand smoke, which consists of the toxins that get left behind when cigarette smoke settles on clothing, skin, hair, and anything else that's on or near smokers. Researchers say some 90% of everything a smoker exhales can stick to soft surfaces. Smoking outdoors is no solution because smokers simply carry the resulting contaminants back inside; the levels of tobacco poisons in the homes of outside-only smokers are still up to seven times higher than they are in the air of non-smoker homes. And those smokers are still exhaling poisons for two minutes after their last puff. All of this means that regardless of where they do it, smokers themselves are a source of toxin exposure.
If there's a lesson here it's that you can't be too careful. What we don't know can hurt us, and there's a lot we still don't know. In my house, we've distilled it all down to a couple of simple rules that keep us breathing easier:
First, our windows see action even in the dead of Vermont's perilous winter because even the healthiest home (which I'm sure ours isn't!) can benefit from some fresh air. Two, we keep it natural. So if nature didn't make it or it's not made from stuff that nature made, we're not bringing it home without a good hard look. This is easier said than done, but even trying leaves us better off. Lastly, precaution rules the roost. So it's guilty until proven innocent where consumer products and new technologies are concerned. That makes us perhaps a bit Luddite, but we're not keen on being anyone's atmospheric guinea pig, and we know we're better safe than sorry, no matter how tempting a product may be.
Those are our rules for a safer atmosphere and a healthier house. If you've got others, please share them!