Clearing The Air Indoors

The night after Sandra Ruffin had her Boone (N.C.) home recarpeted, she and her six-year-old daughter fell ill. Ruffin's heart raced. She suffered night sweats and muscle pain. Her daughter developed a bad nose bleed, a sinus infection, and blisters on her tongue. Ruffin suspected the chemicals in her new carpet. When she complained, the retailer ripped the carpeting out. But the Ruffins didn't recover. Four years later, Ruffin can't work because she gets easily disoriented. She also has permanent heart damage, and her daughter has asthma.

The Ruffins' case is extreme. But they claim to be among the growing ranks of victims of indoor air pollution. Chemicals, microbes, and lack of ventilation are increasingly seen as sources of illness. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, indoor air is often more seriously polluted than the air outside, even in big industrial cities--and since most people spend the bulk of their time indoors, the problem is wide-ranging. Most recently, indoor pollution hit the news when on July 29 a congressional subcommittee heard testimony on the quality of air in plane cabins.

MEMORY LOSS. Physical reactions to indoor air pollution often resemble flu or allergy symptoms. Commonly, they include itchy eyes, runny nose, sore throat, headache, dizziness, and fatigue. But more severe ailments can arise, from memory loss to asthma and even Legionnaires' disease.

It was efforts to conserve energy, sparked by the fuel crises of the 1970s, that led to elevated levels of indoor contaminants. Planes cut back on fresh air to reduce the fuel needed to pressurize and cool cabins. And builders started constructing better-insulated homes to conserve heat. Newer airplanes are being designed without air blowers over the seats, and modern office buildings have sealed windows.

The Association of Flight Attendants has been complaining about poor air quality in planes for a decade, ever since airliners, which used to circulate 100% fresh air every three minutes, cut back to circulating 50% fresh air every six to nine minutes. Recirculated air exposes passengers and crew to excess carbon dioxide as well as to airborne illnesses, AFA spokeswoman Dee Maki testified. The Federal Aviation Administration claims that planes are adequately ventilated, but it is cooperating with the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta on a study of disease transmission on airplanes. There is some evidence that flu viruses flourish in plane cabins, and the CDC is concerned about the possible transmission of tuberculosis.

What can you do about air quality in planes? Diana Fairechild, a former flight attendant and author of Jet Smart, a book of in-flight health tips, says pilots control the air vents. "Ask the flight attendant to tell the pilot to have full utilization of air," she advises. If your lungs hurt or it's hard to breathe, ask for an oxygen bottle--extras are carried for the crew for use in emergencies. Also, try lubricating the inside of your nose with baby oil to protect the mucous membranes from drying and cracking, which can make it easier for viruses to get in, she says. Drink lots of water, and avoid alcohol and caffeine, which are dehydrating.

Poor ventilation is also the primary source of pollution in office buildings. Blocked or badly located vents, a polluted outside air source such as a truck-loading dock, and bacteria buildup can cause illness.

EXPERT ADVICE. If you think your building is making you sick, keep track of your symptoms and when they occur. And find out if others have similar symptoms. Your building manager can hire industrial hygienists trained in diagnosing and solving indoor air problems. Employees can call the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health to get health-hazard evaluation information. You can do this anonymously if you fear reprisal from your company.

Other causes of indoor pollutants are chemicals, such as formaldehyde, used in carpeting, furniture, paints, cleaners, and building materials. More familiar culprits are tobacco smoke, radon, asbestos, lead, and pesticides. The best way to safeguard your environment is to eliminate the source of the pollution. Failing that, increase ventilation.

The EPA advises thorough drying, cleaning, or replacement of water-damaged carpets or building materials, since they can harbor toxin-releasing bacteria and mildew. Don't buy more paint, varnish, or glues than you need. They can leak carcinogens such as benzene when stored. And of course, follow directions: Use only in well-ventilated areas.

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      800 858-7378 
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