/ Health, Home & Energy

Is your home making you sick?

indoor pollution cleaning spray

Talk about air pollution, and it’s likely you’ll think of car emissions and polluted streets. But we spend 90% of our lives indoors, and the odourless and unseen gases, chemicals and small particles in the air, could literally make you sick.

Worse still, the products you’re using to mask the bad stuff – the lemon and pine you associate with cleaning products – could actually be the bad stuff.

Some people are more susceptible to the effects of indoor pollutants too – for example, if you suffer from asthma, are sensitive to allergens indoors or have heart and lung disease.

Looking for air purifiers? We’ve tested 10 models to see how well they remove pollen, dust and smoke from the atmosphere. 

Indoor pollution put to the test

So, where’s the evidence of indoor pollution? We sent lab technicians to three ordinary semis: a supposedly ‘draughty’ Victorian one; a 1950s house made airtight with improvements such as double glazing and cavity wall insulation; and a new-build.

We wanted to see how much pollution was generated before and after bursts of common activities in kitchens, bathrooms, living-rooms and bedrooms. For example, when we vacuumed, did the cleaning, used air-fresheners and scented candles, cooked a fry-up and burned the toast.

We discovered surprisingly high levels of pollutants with potential long-term health effects in all the test houses.

For example, we found very high levels of volatile organic compounds (or VOCs) in every room we tested. Results were as much as 34 times the UK Building Regulations recommended maximum level – although measured over a busy 30 minutes, not 24 hours.

This was after activities including burning candles and using plug-in air fresheners, scented washing powder and toiletries such as antiperspirant and perfume.

What are VOCs?

VOCs are chemicals found in a wide variety of materials in the home and from outdoors, that can evaporate into the air at room temperature, producing vapours that we inhale.

VOCs (especially terpenes including limonene and pinene) can combine with ozone from outside air, particularly during hot weather, to form gases including formaldehyde. This is a breathing irritant that can cause sensitisation reactions, and – at very high levels – is carcinogenic.

We also saw very high increases in particulate matter – tiny particles that can enter your lungs, potentially causing serious health problems over time – in all our test-house kitchens.

How you can breathe easy

So what does this mean for you? Well, this shouldn’t make you anxious about every scented candle you burn, or open fire you light. This is about the longer-term view.

In workplaces, employers are required to provide ventilation for adequate fresh air. Inside our own homes however, the quality of the air is in our own hands, and it’s all about controlling sources of pollution and maximising ventilation.

Choose products and activities that will minimise pollution in the first place, ventilate before and after polluting activities such as cooking, vacuuming and using toiletries. Keep trickle vents open, use extractor fans and don’t block air bricks.

Are you concerned about indoor air pollution? What do you do to keep your home ventilated?

Comments
Profile photo of Melanie Train
Admin

I find that products that have a vanilla scent give me an instant headache and make me feel really nauseous. I’ve given away quite a few scented candles because of the reaction I have when/if I burn them.

Profile photo of duncan lucas
Admin

Funnily enough the strong smell of vanilla does the same to me Melanie .

Profile photo of wavechange
Admin

My advice is to avoid buying household products sold as sprays or aerosols.

I am an asthmatic and some scented products can leave me short of breath. When staying away from home my first job is to round up reed diffusers, plug-in air fresheners and even bowls of fresh potpourri. I consign them to the back of a cupboard, out of harms way.

At home, I keep the trickle vents above my windows open and the house has a chimney, which helps provide ventilation. I usually use the cooker extractor hood when cooking and always when frying.

Thanks for this Conversation, Joanna. Is there any more information about the VOCs discovered in the Which? tests done on properties?

Profile photo of John Ward
Admin

Early double glazing installations rarely had trickle vents and they are still regarded as an optional feature rather than the default provision. I think they are essential to maintain a cross-flow of air in a home even in cold weather. They don’t all have to be open but it is good to have at least one open on each floor on each side of the house that has a window. Keeping internal doors open helps cross-ventilation. Modern enclosed bathrooms and en suite shower rooms don’t help because the extractor fans never pull out enough air to remove the particles quickly and freshen the atmosphere, and bathrooms are probably the worst rooms for using pollutants for a variety of purposes.

Only in the last decade or so have double-glazed casement windows had two-position locking latches so that a small ventilation gap can be left open. Not a good idea to leave them in that position on the ground floor when the house is vacant or overnight because the window can be prised open, but on upper floors they can be left like that while residents are in bed; they are also good in children’s rooms because the window is effectively locked ajar and cannot be opened any wider.

Even in the winter when the central heating is on all day it is a good idea to open a window or a garden door from time to time just to change the air and make the house smell fresh; it doesn’t have to be for long.

I am not sure that we should live in a totally sterile environment, and all food preparation and cooking releases some ‘pollution’, but as a society I think we have become too heavily influenced by hygiene marketing and have an array of sprays, gels, carpet powders, plug-ins and other things that just add to the toxic overload and all competing with each other to achieve an unnatural fragrance that a good blast of fresh air will supply for nothing [unless you live near a soap factory or a die works or in Bury St Edmunds which has a massive beet-sugar factory in the middle of the town that covers the entire district with a sickly atmosphere – not harmful though, I understand, just too much of a good thing].

Profile photo of Beryl
Admin

Hairspray is another product that can have an adverse affect on some people and historically it has already had two potentially carcinogenic propellant aerosols removed from it (vinyl chloride and methylene chloride) in the last ten years. Specific ingredients are now referred to as fragrances and are not listed on the label so it is not known what has replaced them.

I have now switched the highly perfumed laundry powder I used to use to Waitrose own unperfumed brand for sensitive skins. It certainly does a good job on my cotton white laundry and I am very impressed with the result. I have yet to find a washing up liquid that doesn’t make me sneeze.

My upstairs double glazed casement windows don’t have trickle vents but instead have the two positioned locking latches (John mentions in his comment above,) which are usually kept open in the main bedroom when I am at home. There is more than enough ventilation in my kitchen, which is always tested during the annual boiler service and I also use the extractor fan when cooking. I always open the bathroom window
even in very cold weather after showering and close the door to keep the rest of the house warm.

Profile photo of John Ward
Admin

While effective ventilation is good for healthy living it is even better to stop using products that cause the problems in the first place. The combination of unknown chemicals and hermetically-sealed living arrangements is probably responsible for more health problems than we realise. And it’s not just in our homes – shops, hotels, restaurants, pubs, cinemas, and all sorts of other places are using cleaning sprays, carpet deodorisers, laundry and dry-cleaning chemicals, floor polishes, and other products which get embedded in the fabric and furnishings, suspended in the atmosphere, and recirculated round the air-conditioning system.

I was interested that, in the Which? test, one of the properties used was a Victorian semi. The Victorian builders were the leading developers of the sash window for domestic properties. They had been around for a long time but only in grander places mostly with high ceilings and they were both simple and draughty. The Victorians improved the construction of wooden sash windows which were particularly beneficial alongside the other Victorian introduction – gas lighting. When fully closed and with the sash fastener on the meeting rails tightened, a well-made sash window was virtually draught-proof, but by opening the window by a couple of inches at the top and bottom a flow of air was provided that would remove stale smells [coal fires, candles, and gas lighting among others] and let in outside air [which admittedly was not of the purest in industrial districts]. Cool air would enter at the bottom of the window and hot air would escape from the top opening. The improved ventilation of houses and enforced standards of building separation to admit more air and light were two of the main contributors to public health and the lowering of infant mortality rates. Unfortunately the Victorians were using some fairly gruesome compounds for daily domestic tasks and I was reading recently about the widespread use of arsenic in interior decorations, especially wallpapers, that was never prohibited; the manufacturers just stopped using it when other chemical dyes became available in the latter part of the nineteenth century but arsenic was still in use into the twentieth century. I think we have come a long way since then but we have to be constantly on the look-out for modern chemicals that are being sneakily introduced into our homes, largely on the back of cunning advertising and marketing ploys. The Victorians also came up with carbolic soap [Lifebuoy among others] which had antiseptic properties but could also irritate the skin; this was considered to be virtuous and a sign of its efficacy!

Profile photo of wavechange
Admin

Beryl – I believe the use of vinyl chloride as a propellant in hairspray etc was banned in the 1970s, and not before time.

Methylene chloride (dichloromethane) is a solvent rather than a propellant and I’m not sure when this disappeared from household products. In recent years it has been removed from paint and varnish removers, though it is still available online.

As you say, ‘fragrances’ are not identified, and that must change.

Profile photo of Beryl
Admin

I stand corrected I should have written “ingredients are not always listed”. Having just checked the list of ingredients on my aerosol can of hairspray they read as follows:

Alcohol, Denat, Dimethyl Ether, Aqua/water, Polyurethane, Dimethicone, Glycerin, Hydroxycitronellal, Limonene, Alpha-Isomethyl, Ionone, Argania Spinosa oil/Argania Spinosa Kernel Oil, Coumarin, Linalool, Citronellol, Benzl Alcohol, Geraniol, Benzyl Benzoate, Amyl Cinnamal, Parfumerie/Fragrance, (F.I.L C170584/1).

Apart from the obvious highly inflammable, can anyone translate into which ingredients are potentially harmful/unharmful?

Profile photo of wavechange
Admin

And I should have written: ‘… fragrances are not always identified…’ I suspect FIL relates to the US Fragrance Ingredients List.

Many household and gardening chemicals have been banned since I studied chemistry at university and it is difficult to know which ones are safe. Our hair is dead but many chemicals can penetrate the thin skin on the scalp and as we are discussing, we can inhale them. I hope there are simpler products available.

Profile photo of macleodburra
Admin

The perfume is the worst in my experience but a lot of these are nasties for me. Why not try, “Green People” products or “Home Scents”.

Profile photo of macleodburra
Admin

I agree with a lot of what you say. I use, “Green People”, “Home Scents”, “Healthy House” and “Ecos/ Lakeland organic Paint.” That way I don’t fill my house and body with VOCs and petro chemical pollution.

Profile photo of PSmith
Admin

Most of these modern scents are just artificial chemicals that you don’t need. If you can tolerate them, fine, but many people find respiratory tract symptoms of post-nasal drip, asthma, emphysema, etc are improved without these unnecessary chemicals in their lives.

Admin
C. Hackman says:
23 March 2017

What is the smell that you get after opening a glossy magazine that has been wrapped in a plastic “envelope”? Is it a voc from the ink?
It seems to give me a temporary headache, although that might be psychosomatic!

Profile photo of John Ward
Admin

Really glossy magazines have laminated covers which could also be releasing vapours, as could the plastic envelope itself. Best avoided – stick to Private Eye from a newsstand. Can still make you feel sick though . . .

Admin
Patrick Taylor says:
24 March 2017

I have mentioned before the use of mechanical air exchangers to keep air fresh in a property and also allow the extraction of heat to warm the replacement fresh air. I hope that Which? covers this aspect in its forthcoming report – but I fear disappointment.

The general recommendation is four exchanges an hour but with heating costs most people live in a fug. There has been plenty of research on the subject and it is a shame the subject is so rarely “aired”. The other point is that stale air is also often moisture laden which leads to other problems in the home.

Apropos bathrooms VentAxia [and probably others] for the last twenty years have sold extractor fans controlled by humidistats which continue to extract until the desired moisture level is reached in the bathroom. And it could equally well be used in a kitchen. One wonders why it is not in Building Regs as the dangers of mould and the damage of condensation are hardly new.

Profile photo of John Ward
Admin

I am interested in your last paragraph, Patrick, as I had not heard of that before. It seems like it should be an essential provision. Many people seem to have isolated their extractor fans in bathrooms, shower rooms and toilets because they don’t like the noise! In any case they only seem to run for a few minutes after the light is switched off and certainly are not effective in clearing the room of moisture or domestic pollution especially if the door is left open because that will short-circuit the air exchange. In such rooms with daylight, if the light is not switched on, there is no air change at all. Where a toilet is adjacent to a kitchen with no intervening compartment the building regulations require a powerful extractor to be installed that will run for at least fifteen minutes after the light is switched off [but if there is no need to switch the light on the extractor is not activated – perhaps it should be interlocked with the door latch or linked to a motion sensor (no pun intended)]. There is no such requirement for other bathrooms etc.

Profile photo of Ian
Admin

“linked to a motion sensor”… Wonderful!

On a slightly more serious note we have a full air conditioning system installed here, which cleans, humidifies (or de-humidifies) the air as appropriate, and heats or cools the air on demand. It became necessary because our lounge and dining rooms overlook the Snowdonia Carneddau range and the sun sets opposite during the summer months, turning the rooms into fair imitations of a microwave oven. The interesting bit is the total cost, including installation, came to a lot less than new double glazing. And the heating effect through heat-pump technology affords us 2.5kw of heating for .5kw of electricity.

As Patrick says, this is something worthy of attention from Which?

Admin
Steve Rickaby says:
25 March 2017

Good point. Many years ago I had a loft fan fitted as an effective treatment for slightly elevated Radon levels (I live in Cornwall). I believe these products were originally designed to combat condensation in new-build properties, but it had the added benefit of making the house much healthier and fresher. The loft fan essentially brings in outside air via the loft space, and runs continuously, so if you have high external pollution levels it might not be such a good idea. It consumes very little electricity – a few watts. More recently I’ve added a fan that automatically circulates the heat from the conservatory into the living room, which has a similar effect. When the jasmine is flowering the scent is spread through the entire house – but maybe that counts as another pollutant!

Admin
Joanne Westmoreland says:
24 March 2017

I have a small indoor ‘garden’ as I’ve heard that plants help to clean the air.

Profile photo of duncan lucas
Admin

Joanne during the day plants take in carbon dioxide but at night its reversed. I play it safe with cacti , just dont stroke them .

Admin
Steve GS says:
25 March 2017

Your printed copy article on this included wood burners on the list of pollution generators. People have been burning wood, coal and heaven knows what else in open fires for generations without noting ill effects. I live in a ‘draughty Victorian house’ (but less so now it has secondary glazing) with a solid fuel central heating system. My living room is two smaller rooms knocked into one – so there are two fireplaces at opposite ends. One has the fire/boiler and I had the other stopped up over 40 years ago, ensuring its chimney was properly swept and a large air-brick installed to give it ventilation – and also to ensure a supply of air for the room heater. So the fire provides cross-flow ventilation by drawing air down the redundant chimney – and all the ‘nasties’ go up its own chimney. Not that they are particularly nasty – I ensure it’s good and hot before burning ‘tree’ wood – until it is, I burn used wood, and anthracite at night to keep it in. Air is always fresh – and yes – I don’t allow anyone to smoke cigarettes etc. indoors.

Profile photo of Ian
Admin

Steve: I spent a huge part of my youth camping and cooking on wood fires. I loved bonfires and had coal fires in most of the houses I’ve lived in. But New Scientist has been publishing research which suggests burning wood on fires is only marginally better than shooting yourself.

Profile photo of Beryl
Admin

???

Profile photo of duncan lucas
Admin

Thats got me wondering too Beryl , the human race have been burning wood for 100,000 of years ,its built into our DNA , sitting round a fire in winter cooking meat etc over a fire and so on , why ,all of a sudden has the New Scientist come out with this Ian ? Does it supply breakdown of our DNA due to fires ? if so its a wonder any of us are still living.

Admin
John says:
26 March 2017

My house has a damp problem and despite some thorough cleaning I always smell mould (or mildew) when I come into the house. Recently, after a bout of flu, I have had a persistent cough which has been going on now for nearly a month. I can’t help feeling the mould is, at least partly, to blame.

I’ve just joined Which? in order to research air purifiers. Can anyone recommend a good way to deal with mould, and has anyone had experience of an air purifier they trust? Thanks.

Profile photo of alfa
Admin

Hi John,
Welcome to Which. If you register and log in, you will be able to keep track of any replies you might get.

You might like to have a look at Mould Allergy Advice here:
https://www.allergyuk.org/avoiding-respiratory-allergens/mould-allergy-advice

There are air purifiers for mould, but they don’t remove excess moisture in the air. You might want to check out dehumidifiers with HEPA air filters as they might be what you need.

I have a Daikin air purifier (at least 8 years old) to help with hay fever in the summer. I also have a Mitsubishi MJ-E16VX (at least 8 years old now) bought to dry laundry, but works very well at removing excess moisture from a room.

If buying a dehumidifier, it is worth checking water collection rate and the size of the collection tank as some of them are quite small and was the main reason I decided on the Mitsubishi.

Profile photo of macleodburra
Admin

If you look at the “Healthy House” website or phone them to ask advice they have been helping people for many years. A Which recommended “Maeco” dehumidifier is very useful for removing moisture from rooms especially in the winter when outside humidity may be 90%. Cooking, breathing, showering and drying washing indoors creates a lot of moisture and heating moist air is more costly, so a dehumidifier can pay for itself in lower heating costs. (John Lewis and Amazon sell these too). Again “Healthy House” tried and tested air purifiers work and help combat moulds, chemicals etc. Ecos/Lakeland paints are solvent free, organic paints and have different solutions to help this problem without creating pollution! Ask these people they have been researching and helping people for years. Get rid of your gass cooker if you have one. Good Luck.

Admin
Dave3 says:
26 March 2017

I’m pleased that Which? has finally got round to producing an article on ‘nasties’ in the indoor environment – I’ve sent letters and emails several times to Which?, over many years, suggesting the need for research and articles on this subject.

A few years ago, ‘The Ecologist’ magazine published a series of articles, looking at the ingredients list of a number of household products including, as far as I recall, cleaning and toiletry items, together with some cosmetic products. The results were horrifying, as many of them included actual or suspected carcinogens, toxins, central nervous system disruptors, skin penetrators and allergens. I recall that at least some of these were present merely to extend the shelf life of the products.

Since then, I’ve tried to keep well clear of perfumed products (e.g. soap and washing powder), when I can, and I don’t use air fresheners – as a Scot, I obviously prefer opening a window, as it’s free!

It would be helpful if, when publishing product reviews in future, Which? would take up my previous suggestion of listing known harmful products contained in the products tested. If consumers are unaware of their presence, many manufacturers will continue to get away with selling potentially harmful products, rather than being shamed into altering them, for the benefit of consumers’ health.

Profile photo of John Ward
Admin

Unfortunately for many household products the proportion of ingredients by volume is not stated so it is impossible to assess how much influence they might have on the atmosphere or our health. Most of them are unnecessary. The amazing thing is how sales hold up even during what commentators describe as a sharp recession and period of extreme austerity. Either the products are essential for people’s lives or the marketing is extremely good. Many people on limited budgets are persuaded to buy them when fresh air, soap and water, and simpler products would be just as effective. There’s often some boiled water left in the kettle after making a cuppa; put a little household soda in the plughole and pour the water in slowly. Do it frequently and there’ll be no more need for expensive drain unblocking products with all their heavy chemicals.

Profile photo of macleodburra
Admin

Thank you Which magazine for a balanced view from a well respected source. I have a friend who has suffered from, “multiple chemical sensitivity” for about 25 years. In its extreme form it is totally debilitating. While this problem is not generally recognised in Britain it is recognised in Canada and the USA. It is recognised there that people have a right to breathe clean air and so there is legislation to protect them when using taxis, public buildings, schools etc. I would like it if Which magazine could do more research to learn what they know and inform the British public. I am aware that some work places ask staff not to use certain personal chemical products such as, perfumes and deodorants, as these trigger asthma in sensitive individuals.
While you give people advice on what not to use, am I allowed to name companies that produce products without solvents, VOCs and petro chemicals that pollute the home?