Most people are worried about what effect pollution is having on their bodies, but only in a very vague, general way. With so much contradictory information surrounding the topic, many aren’t quite sure whether there’s something they should be doing and, if so, what this is.
Our Contaminated Living Spaces
Although most historians and economists would disagree, engineers often think of human history as a progression from stone to bronze to iron working. Some would say that we are still in the Iron Age, given the pervasiveness of steel alloys in industry and our daily lives.
Arguably, though, the Chemical Age started around the year 1900. As if a switch had been flipped, the industrial applications of science began to snowball and it became possible to synthesize everything from medicines to explosives. In one sense, this was a fantastic achievement; consumer products are now cheaper and more plentiful than ever before. On the flip side, our environment is more polluted now than at any other point in history. The water you drink, for instance, is almost certainly laced with industrial waste, fertilizer, and even excreted pharmaceuticals.
What Are You Really Breathing?
Even worse, though, is how noxious substances manage to sneak into the air we breathe, especially indoors where we spend the majority of our time. The EPA notes that the air quality inside buildings is typically 2 to 5 times worse than that outside, and sometimes as much as 100 times worse.
Luckily, what we normally think of as air pollution is clearly on the decline:
However, at the same time, our lavish use of artificial substances may be causing indoor air quality to steadily worsen. Although we usually can’t smell it, the paint on our walls, residues from detergents, the artificial fibers we wear, inkjet cartridges, the plastic casings of our gadgets – all of these emit noxious fumes. This happens constantly, and without adequate ventilation this can lead to alarming concentrations of solvents, plasticizers, and other volatile chemicals in your home.
How Harmful Is This?
The short answer is that nobody knows for sure. In a very few cases, individuals develop severe allergies to all sorts of chemicals, even to the point where they more or less have to abandon modern life. For most of us, this isn’t necessary. At the same time, we can’t be sure that the toxins we’re breathing in aren’t harming all of us in a number of ways. If you often feel dizzy or nauseous inside some particular building, for instance, indoor air pollution may well be to blame.
Scientifically speaking, it’s rarely possible to say in any particular case that poor indoor air quality definitely caused cancer or asthma. It’s not even certain that low levels of contamination cause symptoms similar to actual toxic exposure – breathing in pure mineral spirit fumes will certainly kill you or at least result in brain damage, but some would argue that using this solvent to paint a fence causes no harm at all.
If someone should actually be hospitalized or die from air pollution inhaled over the long term, their case would probably be recorded in terms of the proximate medical cause, perhaps pneumonia or cancer. The factors that really lead up to a person getting sick are often impossible to determine, meaning that the actual risks of indoor air pollution may be higher than theoretically-derived statistics suggest.
Better Safe Than Sorry
There remains a significant amount of doubt as to whether household chemicals are a major health hazard, especially when several different chemicals are combined. Everybody hopefully knows that you really shouldn’t mix bleach and ammonia, as this produces highly toxic chloramine gas. Even scientists who devote their career to the subject, though, aren’t totally sure how all the tens of thousands of chemicals we commonly use interact, especially when some cocktail of them gets into the human body.
Something which is pretty much generally accepted, though, is that people suffering from health conditions such as asthma or endocrine problems are more vulnerable to chemical exposure. It seems reasonable to assume that generally healthy people are affected in a similar way, even if this doesn’t show up as clear-cut symptoms.
This fear has led some people to abandon all artificial cleaning products in favor of homemade, natural alternatives. The jury is still out as to whether this makes a difference, but it certainly can’t do any harm. In fact, since even officially prohibited chemicals are often found in household cleaning products, it may be the most rational choice.
Going Green, One Fern at a Time
Even if you’re not willing to change your lifestyle that drastically, a much simpler option exists. Keeping a couple of plants in your home or office costs very little money or effort and has several other benefits, too. Green, living things can help break up the rectangular lines many interior spaces are cursed with, help people to feel calmer, and they absorb noise, improve humidity, and perfume the air.
A common myth here is that plants improve indoor air quality by increasing oxygen levels, but the amount of oxygen a plant produces in one day is only a tiny fraction of what you need to live.
These have been linked to tumors, hormone imbalances, fertility problems, and respiratory conditions. In fact, breathing in these chemicals goes hand in hand with a whole laundry list of debilitating or life-threatening symptoms.
Which Plants to Choose?
Simply keeping a few plants indoors is one of the most effective and economical ways to reduce all of these risks. Even if nobody has ever accused you of having a green thumb, the following chart should provide you with a starting point:
Creative Ways to Fit Plants into any Home
Although there’s no need to go over the top with your indoor garden to get the benefits of plant air filtration (research suggests one small plant per 100 ft2 (9 m2) is all that’s required), many people end up deciding that if they’re going to be taking care of indoor plants at all, those might as well serve a decorative purpose.
Some ideas include:
- Most houseplants are on the small side, but there’s no law that requires this. A largish indoor tree makes a bold statement, and can be mounted on castors for easier relocation.
- Your kitchen windowsill is the ideal place for a few potted herbs: pretty as well as practical.
- Interested in tropical plants such as orchids? You could try to grow one in an indoor greenhouse – there are plenty ideas to build one yourself.
- Plants can grow down as well as up. You could, for instance, hang some ivy high up in one corner of a room for a very stylish look.
- For plants near eye level, such as on a desk or counter, the container’s appearance is very important. Consider looking for something unique in thrift stores or on Etsy.
- If you’re reasonably handy with a drill and screwdriver, you can also create a vertical garden indoors by mounting plant containers directly onto an otherwise dull wall.
- Multiple smaller plants, such as different kinds of succulents, or a miniature groundcover combined with some taller species, can share the same container, creating a little DIY landscape.
- Indoor water features help to control pollen and dust levels indoors, and can certainly incorporate plants. You can construct a tranquil little brook in your own living room or foyer.
Technological Air Purifying Solutions
So even if you already have a couple of houseplants, you might want to invest in a filter machine to complement their work. Most air conditioners don’t provide any air purification or circulation at all. Except for providing a basic lint filter, they just keep re-circulating the same stale air through a building. For this reason, you might want to supplement your indoor plants with a dedicated air purifier. If you have a decent amount of greenery in your house, you probably don’t need one with a carbon filter, although these are certainly useful for eliminating odors in a short amount of time.
Opinions vary on whether electrostatic or HEPA filtration works best at scrubbing particles out of the air, although HEPA has the advantage of not producing ozone. Ozone isn’t toxic, but high concentrations of it will probably irritate the mucous membranes of your lungs and eyes. In either case, your air purifier won’t perform well if you don’t periodically clean it and change the filter. And if you have one with an ultraviolet anti-microbial function, your whole family will be safer during flu season.