Part 3: How Construction Materials and Dust Affect Indoor Air Quality
Cesar Collado
Apr 5, 2022

Don’t… Let the Dust Settle Blog Series

Harmful Particulates Can Circulate in Your Home’s Air

It is difficult to comprehend the fact that our homes may be the source of our sickness. New homes can be just as toxic as old homes. Regardless of the age of your home, most people that are sensitive to allergens are also sensitive to mold and chemicals. Over the years, home construction has evolved from sturdy organic materials such as wood, brick, stone, plaster, and cement to manufactured materials that require chemicals to make. Those chemicals many of which are classified as volatile organic compounds are typically used in plastics, binders and resins, composite wood, insulation, paint, coatings and adhesives, and other treatments for water resistance, stain repellents, or fire retardants. Home furnishings have evolved to meet safety, cost, and durability requirements. Materials such as particle boards, drywall, flame retardants, sealants, and finishes are all made using chemical processes. The most discussed harmful chemical is formaldehyde. The EPA has identified formaldehyde as a carcinogen. Today, there are standards on how much formaldehyde can be off-gassed from materials. These standards are not applied to many materials manufactured overseas in some countries where pollution is not regulated (China, India, etc.).

Building materials such as particle boards, drywall, and sealants are all made using a chemical process.

Over time, all homes will sustain water damage due to flooding, water leaks, humidity, and condensation. The newer materials have finite lifetimes and are not made to last forever. Moisture and time degrade most building materials. Keeping up with moisture problems in your home is your responsibility. You can read more about DIY mold inspecting on your home by reading “I know there is Mold in my Home”.

 

Six Common Building Shortfalls in New Homes

There are six common places where new homes can be vulnerable to “sloppy” building practices. [1]

  1. Air Conditioner Size Selection: Builders often purchase and install HVAC systems in bulk when building neighborhoods or housing developments. The physics of the home changes significantly with different floorplans or direction facing, which may not be taken into consideration.
  2. Kitchen and Bathroom Exhaust/Ventilation Fans: In many homes, the fans will push the exhaust into the attic or other cavities creating localized humidity issues.
  3. House Settling: All houses settle, and minor shifts can cause cracks and leaks throughout a home.
  4. Ground Water Management Outside: Groundwater from rain must be managed to go away from the home to prevent saturation of the foundation or flooding. Additionally, improper watering of landscaping can result in water intrusion.
  5. Gutters and Flashing: Water must be properly funneled away from the home, or the home can suffer water damage.
  6. Unfinished Crawlspaces or Basements: Ventilation effects will spread pollutants in homes where any unfinished space is not properly sealed from the ground, or the foundation does not have a proper vapor barrier.

Regardless of the reputation of a builder, cutting corners in construction is often a fact of life when dealing with thin margins in the building trade. Most contractors optimize margins by using specialist sub-contractors. While they can cut personnel costs and provide efficiencies and scheduling benefits, subcontractors do not share accountability for future problems. In fact, issues often do not develop until after the home warranty has expired.

Chemicals in the Air

It is estimated that there are up to 80,000 chemicals documented by the EPA. Of these only 200 have been properly tested for safety. The EPA is actively working with state, local, and Tribal Governments to reduce air emissions of 188 air pollutants that are toxic to the environment. However, the EPA has only banned these 9 chemicals:

  • Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) were mostly used in electrical equipment, transformers, and hydraulics, but also in applications like plasticizers and fire retardants.
  • Halogenated Chlorofluoroalkanes were popular in air conditioning units, refrigeration, fire suppression, and insulation. The EPA banned them in 1978 to help protect the ozone layer, which shields us from harmful UV rays that can cause skin cancer.
  • One of the worst of the dioxins, 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD), was used as an herbicide, and an ingredient in Agent Orange, which was used during the Vietnam War.
  • Asbestos was widely used for insulation, and in construction of cars, ships, and buildings. It is resistant to heat and fire, and it doesn’t conduct electricity. Asbestos is the primary risk factor for mesothelioma, a deadly form of cancer.
  • Hexavalent Chromium was used in paint creating a hard metal coating. It was also used in cooling towers, so people were inhaling it through the air.
  • Nitrites mixed with 4 banned chemicals for use in metalworking fluids, which lower the amount of heat and friction created by industrial machines. They are mixed mono and diamides of an organic acid, triethanolamine salts of a substituted organic acid, Triethanolamine salt of tricarboxylic acid, and tricarboxylic acid.

As one can imagine, the advocacy, persistence, and resources required to get a chemical banned are enormous. All these efforts to ban chemicals required resources and many years of research as well as litigation with the chemical producers. The chemical industry provides significant funding for lobbying efforts. The reality is that chemicals, old and new, are considered “innocent until proven guilty.”

Getting a particle count, while providing good information, is not entirely helpful because it does not specify which pollutants or chemicals are present in the air originating from the manufacturing of homes and furnishings. Flame retardants, paints, adhesives, particleboard, and drywall are all made using chemicals for one purpose or another.

Specific testing for mold, bacteria, heavy metals, and other contaminants will be required to confirm direct evidence of their presence.

The Power of Sense of Smell

There is one true test for the presence of many chemicals or microbial VOCs – using your nose. Chemicals can produce many industrial odors. Bacteria often creates a putrid smell. Mold often produces a musty smell. Odors are created by one or more volatilized chemical compounds that are generally found in low concentrations that humans and animals can perceive by their sense of smell. An odor is also called a “smell” or a “scent”, which can either be pleasant or an unpleasant odor.

Our sense of smell is the strongest, fastest detection, and most precise of the five senses. What differentiates smell from the other senses is the fact that we all detect odors the same way. Touch, hearing, sight, and taste sensations vary between individuals. In 2014, researchers from Rockefeller University determined that the receptors on nerve cells act differently to work in combination with activated nerves where they directly communicate to the brain.

Detail of the olfactory bulb (organ of smell) showing the nerve cells between the bulb and the olfactory epithelium

The reaction is instantaneous. Your nose can detect odors faster than your brain can correlate the smells with memories. Knowledge of this fact is essential for people who are mold or chemical sensitive. A person can experience PTSD from an unrecognized smell causing the body to react like it is being harmed with debilitating symptoms. To further complicate the problem, most consumer “fresh scent” odors in cleaning products are chemical fragrances. When the body encounters chemical toxins, it can only tolerate a fixed amount over a lifetime. This is called our body’s “Toxic Load”. The body must metabolize and excrete these toxins on its own.

If you are mold sensitive and your sense of smell is not very strong, you can ask another person to help. We all know that “person” with super-smelling senses. If you encounter a smell that gives you a reaction, follow your body’s instructions and clear the area. You must either follow a strict safety protocol or hire professionals to address the home.

Indoor Pollutants

With so many of these potential contaminants present in our home air in some portion, they all have one thing in common. They can be distributed widely through a home via the ventilation system or general air currents and settle on surfaces. Where there is dust, you will most likely find contaminants that can impact health. Chemicals, mold debris, and mycotoxins often bind to dust to become airborne. Removing dust from the home in a systematic manner is one of the most effective means of managing IAQ.

 

VOCs

Home furnishings, finishes, and flame retardants can contain Volatile Organic Chemicals (VOCs) that off-gas inside your home over time. In addition, outdoor pollution will always be present in any home as the home breathes and typically has some pressurization that will draw air from the outside when entryways are open. VOCs and other gasses such as toluene, benzene, alkenes, aromatic hydrocarbons, esters, alcohols, aldehydes, ketones, radon, combustion gases, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon dioxide, ozone, and the ubiquitous formaldehyde are often present in trace amounts. It has been proven that there are more than 7,000 toxic substances identified in cigarette smoke. Additionally, toxic chemicals are often used in  household cleaning products

Gases

Combustion and cooking appliances increase carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide levels. Natural elements, such as Radon can seep in from the ground. Outdoor gas pollutants account for a significant portion of indoor pollution.

Organic Debris
Yard landscaping, soils, soot tracked inside, pet dander, human skin cells, dust mites, dust mite feces, pest, pest feces, and various types of dust.

Mold

Mold is ubiquitous. There are approximately 100,000 known mold species. Mycotoxin-producing molds such as aspergillus, penicillium, stachybotrys, and others are commonly found in water-damaged homes built with drywall. Considering these facts, it is likely impossible to find any home that does not have some type of mold spores except for highly managed clean rooms in hospitals and manufacturing processes.

Ventilation Effects

Central electrostatic systems, ventilation rates, temperature, noise levels, dust control compliance.

Pay attention to areas that may be responsible for moisture that can result in mold such as leaks and poor ventilation.

Dust Management Tips

  • Clean from the top down. Start by dusting higher surfaces with damp microfiber cloths.
  • Turn the HVAC fan off before cleaning, and keep it off for approximately 30 minutes after cleaning is complete. This will allow dust to settle. Turning the HVAC fan on after 30 minutes will capture remaining airborne particulates.
  • Change your HVAC air filter every month. Air filters can become clogged. This not only diminishes filter performance, but also places undue strain on the mechanical systems that could lead to system failure. Changing the filter will allow the HVAC system to keep up with filtering the air inside and avoid overtaxing your HVAC system when filters are dirty.
  • Clean blinds and ceiling fans regularly using your preferred tools.
  • Do not forget to wipe down baseboards.
  • Consider purchasing an air purifier for the room you sleep in and any room where you spend considerable amounts of time.

Next week’s article will focus on specific cleaning recommendations to minimize dust in your home and improve Indoor Air Quality.

1. Interviews with Danny Gough, Energy Solutions Inc., Lewisville, NC. September 2019, January 2021.