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With the onset of winter most of us will be spending more time indoors. In addition to the bouts of cabin fever that can bring on, time indoors can impact your health in very real ways, depending on the quality of your indoor air.

It's a key issue for the American Lung Association, which warns that poor indoor air quality can lead to infections, asthma and even lung cancer. Even less-severe effects are irritating – headaches, dry eyes, nasal congestion, nausea and fatigue.

Modern, well-built homes are more air tight than they once were. While that helps keep energy costs down, an air tight dwelling keeps pollutants like mold, dust and tobacco smoke inside. The more time you spend indoors, the more exposure you have.

Natural ventilation moves air into the house through doors and windows. It's highly practical in the spring and summer but less so in the fall and winter.

Tobacco smoke

You don't have to smoke in the home to have a real problem with the indoor polluting effects of tobacco. The American Lung Association says secondhand smoke contains some 200 known poisons, such as formaldehyde and carbon monoxide, and at least 60 chemicals known to cause cancer.

Among U.S. nonsmokers it causes an estimated 3,000 lung cancer deaths each year and up to 50,000 heart disease deaths. In children, especially infants, it is responsible for pneumonia, lower respiratory tract infections and ear infections.

It may also cause asthma, asthma attacks, and makes attacks worse. And it should go without saying – no one should smoke around children.

Cumulative effect

The problem with indoor air pollution is that a single source might have a negligible effect but, when several sources combine, the risk level can rise. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has produced a safety guide to help consumers avoid these dangers.

The guide suggests ways you can tell if your home has a pollution problem. They include the most obvious, like monitoring your health for any symptoms of respiratory distress. It might be a cold but it might be a reaction to something in the air.

If you think your symptoms may be related to your home environment, don't hesitate to discuss them with your doctor or your local health department.

Awareness

If you suspect poor indoor air quality you can try to identify potential sources. The presence of these sources does not necessarily mean that you have an indoor air quality problem, but being aware of the type and number of potential sources will make you more sensitive to the issue.

Finally, be aware of any signs that suggest problems with the ventilation in your home. Signs that can indicate your home may not have enough ventilation include moisture condensation on windows or walls, smelly or stuffy air, dirty central heating and air cooling equipment, and areas where books, shoes, or other items become moldy.

The CPSC guide says it will be easier to detect odors in your home by going outside for a few minutes, then check for noticeable odors when you return.

Air ducts in heating and cooling systems will get dirty over time but the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says its not clear that having heating system ducts cleaned will reduce indoor pollution. The agency says studies have not shown that cleaning ducts actually prevent health problems.

But EPA says it is a good idea to have the ducts professionally cleaned if you observe mold growing inside the hard surface of the system. Also, change air-intake filters on HVAC systems on a regular basis.


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