What are home allergens?

Allergen and Air Testing: Combustion Pollutants and Secondhand Smoke

What are combustion pollutants?

They include gases, particles and excess water vapor produced as a byproduct of burning fuels such as natural gas, propane, wood, oil, kerosene, coal and tobacco. The resulting harmful gases include carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide, as well as particulates and excess water vapor.

Why should I be concerned about them?

Under certain conditions, such as combustion pollutants can cause adverse health effects. Carbon monoxide, an odorless gas, can be fatal. Nitrogen dioxide can damage the respiratory tract and sulfur dioxide can irritate the eyes, nose and respiratory trace. Smoke and particulates irritate the eyes, nose and throat, and may exacerbate chronic respiratory illnesses such as asthma. They also have been associated with cancer. Too much water vapor can lead to moisture problems in the home, including the growth of mold.

How do combustion pollutants get into the home?

Combustion pollutants enter the home from a variety of sources. Unvented or improperly maintained or installed vented cooking and heating appliances that burn fuels– furnaces, boilers, water heaters, fireplaces, stoves, space heaters, ranges and clothes dryers–can introduce combustion pollutants. These pollutants also are caused by tobacco smoking, automobile exhaust entering from a garage, and activities involving the use of internal combustion engines or burning, welding or soldering.

How can I determine if combustion pollutants are affecting my health?

They may be the culprit if fuel-fired combustion appliances are being used and you feel bad only when you’re inside the home and the symptoms disappear when you leave, or if more than one person in the home has similar symptoms. A noticeable increase in moisture problems can also be a sign of combustion pollutants in the home.

What causes combustion gases (including carbon monoxide) to build to dangerous levels?

Harmful build-ups of these gases can occur when exhaust from combustion equipment is not properly vented or used, is not in good working order and is not regularly inspected for safe operation. Some homes may have a problem with “backdrafting”. That’s when the air pressure inside the home is less than the air pressure outside, causing combustion by-products from furnaces, water heaters, fireplaces and similar equipment to spill back into the room rather than being vented outside. (Sometimes flue gases can be drawn back into the home when several sources are being exhausted at once). Backdrafting can also occur when natural draft appliance exhaust is pulled back into the house by mechanical ventilation–like a down-draft kitchen power vent. Tobacco smoking inside the home also contributes.

How can I reduce the risk from combustion gases?

The most important practice is to keep all combustion equipment well-maintained and inspected for safety. Experts recommend having having your combustion heating systems inspected by a trained professional every year. Such inspections should look for blocked opening to flues and chimneys, cracked or disconnected flue pipe, dirty filter, rust or cracks in the heat exchanger, soot or creosote build-up, and exhaust or gas odors. Also, always operate combustion equipment for its intended purpose and make sure it has been installed correctly. Consider using vented appliances whenever possible. You should install a carbon monoxide alarm, which will alert you to dangerous levels of carbon monoxide–though not detect other combustion by-products. Choose one wisely and keep it in good working order.

What signs can help me determine if carbon monoxide is affecting my health?

Carbon monoxide may be the problem if you feel bad only when you’re inside the home and the symptoms gradually disappear after you have left, or if more than one person in the home has similar symptoms. Remember carbon monoxide bonds tightly to the hemoglobin in red blood cells, preventing them from carrying oxygen throughout the body. Levels of carbon monoxide that can result from common household sources may cause nausea, dizziness, muscle aches, vomiting, and a general weakness throughout the body. These symptoms resemble the flu or food poisoning, and carbon monoxide exposure is often mistaken for these illnesses. Larger carbon monoxide doses can impair judgment, or the weakness becomes paralysis, which can be followed by coma or death. Carbon monoxide victims must be removed from exposure as quickly as possible and require prompt medical attention. Because of the tight bond of carbon monoxide to hemoglobin, recovery is not immediate when the victim is removed from exposure. Carbon monoxide will usually affect all occupants of a household at the same time. This may be a good way of distinguishing it from the flu, but it is important to realize that carbon monoxide poisoning also impairs judgment and such a realization may become difficult to attain.

Is there a way to detect if my home has carbon monoxide build-up?

Carbon monoxide alarms are widely available and should be considered a back-up to BUT NOT A REPLACEMENT for proper installation, use, and maintenance of fuel-burning appliances. Carbon  monoxide alarms are designed to warn you of any unusual build-up of carbon monoxide in your home. These higher levels of carbon monoxide may occur from improperly maintained, installed or used fuel-burning appliances, backdrafting appliances or fireplaces, or idling cars in garages. If a carbon monoxide alarm is to be installed:

1. Make sure the device is certified to the most current Underwriters Laboratory (UL) standard 2034 or the International Approval Services (IAS) 6-96 standard.

2. Install a CO alarm in the hallway near every separate sleeping area.

3. Be aware of all instructions and warning associated with the CO alarm.

4. If battery-operated, install new batteries annually.

Where can I get more information?

Contact your local Extension Office, your state department of health, or the National Indoor Air Quality Information Clearinghouse (1-800-438-4318). Other agencies with information are:

-Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion: (800)CDC-1311

-National Cancer Institute: 800-4-CANCER

-National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: 301-592-8573

-National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health: 1-800-35-NIOSH

-U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, http://www.epa.gov/smokefree