Air quality in buildings is a growing concern for public health officials, especially as they become more tightly sealed to save on heating and air-conditioning costs.

People subjected to poor indoor air quality display reduced cognitive performance and even complain of various symptoms that are the basis of a real medical diagnosis, “sick building syndrome” (SBS).

Sufferers report fatigue, headache, dizziness, and nausea, and the severity and duration of symptoms are directly tied to time spent in the building.

SBS is thought to be a direct result of exposure to indoor pollutants, carbon dioxide (which in higher concentrations may affect cognitive function), and about 150 volatile organic compounds that we naturally excrete, including carbon monoxide, hydrogen, methane, ammonia, and hydrogen sulphide.

The most common indoor air pollutant?

Formaldehyde is released through pressed wood products and countless other consumer products.

The solution to building sickness?

Try to encourage ventilation in your home or office with either open windows or vents.

Wet dust and use a HEPA vacuum regularly. And, if you spend many hours in one location, consider an air purifier, or even better (and much less expensive), mother nature’s air purifiers: plants.

Decades ago, house fires would claim thousands of lives every year, but the tragedy wasn’t due to cooking mishaps or our furniture spontaneously combusting.

Smoking in the house was common, and smouldering cigarette embers that landed on our sofas and easy chairs set whole homes ablaze.

With pressure to find a solution, the tobacco industry pawned responsibility onto manufacturers of furniture, forcing them to incorporate the use of chemical flame retardants.

The result?

Utter ubiquity of endocrine disruptors in the environment and our bodies.

The specific chemicals in question are PBDEs, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers, which have now been in use for over thirty years in consumer electronics, furniture, and mattresses.

They’ve been linked to cancer, neurological deficits, and impaired fertility.

Peer-reviewed studies have shown that even a single dose of these chemicals administered to mice during development can cause permanent changes to the brain. Which can lead to impairments in learning, memory, and behaviour.

In humans, studies have shown that higher levels of PBDEs in umbilical cord blood coincided with lower IQ in childhood. Even after other complicating factors like the mother’s IQ were controlled for.

Like BPA, phthalates, and PFASs, PBDE chemicals were probably designed to stay put. But they easily migrate, and since they are most abundantly used in furniture, their most frequent hangout is house dust.

As a result, we are frequently exposed to them, and the highest levels of contamination are found in those most vulnerable to their effects: children and infants.

And let’s not forget our pets, who love to roll around on our carpets and furniture they are at high risk, too.

Cutting down on your exposure to these endocrine disruptors isn’t easy, but it is indeed possible.

Ensure that your home has adequately placed and fully operational smoke alarms.

But follow these simple steps to purge the chemicals:

  • Choose flame retardant–free furniture.

Flame retardants are not necessary to reduce house fires. Many of the larger manufacturers are in the process of removing these toxic chemicals from their wares.

  • Have children? Read labels.

Clothing made for children often contains chemical flame retardants. Always buy children’s clothing (especially pyjamas) labelled as a flame retardant–free.

  • Avoid farmed fish.

European and US-farmed salmon have particularly high levels of PBDEs. Choose wild fish (e.g., salmon) whenever possible.

  • Choose brominated flame–retardant–free electronics.

Many companies are now forgoing brominated flame retardants (BFRs), which include PBDEs, in their products. The environmental organisation Greenpeace releases an annual “Guide to Greener Electronics,” which you can check for up-to-date information on companies making the greatest effort.

  • “Wet dust” or use a HEPA filter vacuum.

Dusting with a damp cloth or sponge helps to trap contaminated dust. Still, using a vacuum with a high-efficiency particulate absorbing (HEPA) filter is the ideal way to remove dust if you have conventional furniture, carpets, and curtains.

  • Use an air filter.

A high-quality air filter can help cut down on household dust, which will reduce your exposure not just to flame-retardant chemicals, but many of the previously mentioned chemicals as well.


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