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Indoor Air Pollution: Effects on Health

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What effects do these air pollutants have on our health?

Exposure to hazardous pollutants may have an immediate or a long-term effect, which may not show up for many years. The significance of the exposure depends upon the source, how much is emitted from the source, how harmful the pollutants are, and how much of the pollutants have accumulated within the home.

Some immediate symptoms of exposure may include:

  • Headache,
  • Dizziness,
  • Fatigue,
  • Upper airway irritation of the nose, throat and eyes,
  • Wheezing and shortness of breath.

These symptoms may recur with repeated exposures.


People at Greater Risk

Several factors may influence the vulnerability of an individual's health when exposed to pollutants. The very young and the elderly may experience more problems. In addition, people with pre-existing health problems, such as asthma, COPD and heart disease, can be at higher risk.


Symptom Triggers

Carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and breathable particles released from combustion products can trigger a number of symptoms.

Carbon monoxide, which can interfere with the delivery of oxygen throughout the body, may cause fatigue, headaches, dizziness, nausea, confusion and disorientation when inhaled at high levels. As you may know, when carbon monoxide is inhaled at very high levels it can cause unconsciousness and death. Those with cardiac and respiratory disease may be more sensitive to lower levels of this gas.

Nitrogen dioxide can be very irritating to the upper airways, especially in those people with lung diseases such as emphysema and asthma. Inhaled particles can also be irritating and may contribute to damage within the lungs.

Organic compound exposures may induce symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, eye, nose and throat irritation and memory and visual impairment. However, we need to learn a great deal more about the effects caused by exposure to organic compounds; some are toxic, others are not. Some have been linked to cancer in animals as well as humans.

Formaldehyde is another gas that can be very irritating, causing burning sensations in the eyes, nose and throat.  It can also act as a trigger for those with asthma.

Gas and wood burning stoves. A few studies have been done indicating a decrease in lung function in children raised in homes using gas stoves with inadequate ventilation. Another study showed that preschool children raised in homes using wood-burning stoves as the primary source of heat experienced an increase in respiratory symptoms.

A great deal of uncertainty remains regarding the concentrations and length of exposure required to produce adverse health effects from exposure to indoor air pollutants.  In addition to the studies mentioned above, more studies need to be done in the area before conclusions may be made.


This information has been approved by Nathan Rabinovitch, MD  (January 2016).