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Other Indoor Air Pollutants

Paints, Cleaners and Other Solvents

Many paints, varnishes, adhesives, cleaners and other products used in the maintenance and remodeling of buildings give off volatile organic compounds (VOCs) — chemicals that evaporate in the air — that could lead to indoor air quality problems.  

The health effects of VOCs vary widely depending on the type and concentration of chemical in the air; the length of time a person is exposed to the chemical; and a person's age, pre-existing medical conditions, and individual susceptibility. Eye and throat or lung irritation, headaches, dizziness, and vision problems are common symptoms from exposure to VOCs.

Residents, property managers, and painting and remodeling contractors can take simple steps to reduce short term exposures to harmful chemicals from these common products.


Image of buying Non-VOC Paint

Product Selection

Products that are VOC-free or low-VOC are available in many cases. Information on VOC content is typically found on a product’s label or can be found on the product’s material safety data sheet (MSDS), which should be available from retailers that sell paints and other chemical products and contractors that use them. The MSDS provides details on the concentration of specific harmful chemicals in a product, as well as procedures for responding to overexposure.

Unfortunately, “Low-VOC” is not a clearly defined term, and manufacturers may apply this term differently.  However, some guidelines may help. 

For example, Green Seal, an organization that develops sustainability standards for products, services and companies, has developed a standard for paints and coatings (PDF, 576KB) that specifies the following VOC limits:


Volatile Organic Compounds Limits in Products
Product Type VOC Level (g/L)
Flat Topcoat 50
Non-Flat Topcoat 100
Primer or Undercoat 100
Floor Paint 100
Anti-Corrosive Coating 250
Reflective Wall Coating 50
Reflective Roof Coating 100

It is advisable to compare product labels to find the applicable product with the lowest available VOC content.


Ventilation

Although product manufacturers usually place proper-use labels on retail product containers, these labels often contain only general language such as "only use in ventilated areas." Such labels are not detailed enough to explain practical methods of reducing human exposure to the chemicals in these products. Unlike large office buildings and schools, private single family homes, townhouses, and apartments are usually not mechanically ventilated.

Many people mistakenly believe that air conditioners and furnaces adequately filter indoor air. Most air conditioners and heating systems do not provide ventilation as they recirculate air and do not remove contaminants. 


Don't Get Trapped Indoors with Bad Air

Hot or cold weather encourages residents to close windows and rely on air conditioning or heating units. If you do indoor painting, you could be accumulating VOCs in the unventilated space.  Follow the ventilation recommendations below instead!  

 

A common misconception regarding the “off-gassing” of VOCs is that it ceases once the paint or other substance is dry, or if there is no detectable odor. Most paints and other products will continue to release harmful vapors for several days after application.  For example, while many latex paints appear to be dry after several hours, ventilation should be continued for no less than 48 hours, and preferably 72 hours, beyond that time. Some of the more powerful organic compounds released through "off-gassing" are below human odor thresholds.  

Image of Paint in Multi-Family Home

Multi-Family Housing Concerns

Paint and floor product off-gassing is a particularly problematic concern for residents and property managers of multi-family apartments and condominiums because vapor-laden "shared air" can move between spaces. Painters and contractors should be aware that harmful vapors migrate across common walls, ceilings, and floors through gaps around pipes, between floors and walls, and through electric outlets. Such problems can be avoided if all apartments being painted or remodeled are properly ventilated with exhaust fans, even if no one is living in the painted unit, to prevent the accumulation of such vapors in unhealthy quantities in surrounding residences.

Property managers and condominium owners should also consider providing advance notice to neighboring residents that a unit is going to be painted or remodeled, enabling them to increase their own exhaust ventilation. Inspections should be conducted to ensure that ventilation is maintained for least 48 to 72 hours after painting, floor refinishing, or other remodeling activity involving chemical products is complete. In addition, property managers might consider temporarily providing fans to residents who are remodeling their unit.


Healthy Painting and Remodeling Guidelines

Image of Proper Paint Procedure
  • Try to schedule painting and other activities involving chemicals for fall or spring, when windows are more easily left open for ventilation.

  • Choose 100% non-VOC paints and related products, or ask for assistance in selecting low-toxic, low-VOC products from qualified retailers or contractors.

  • Keep windows wide-open for at least 48 to 72 hours after painting, refinishing floors, or other activity involving chemicals.

  • Use window-mounted box fans to exhaust vapors from the work area. If fans cannot be used, make sure that rooms being painted or remodeled have proper cross-ventilation.

  • Provide advance notice to adjacent units that a job is to begin.

  • Take frequent fresh air breaks while painting and use masks or other respiratory protection. Avoid painted rooms for at least 72 hours whenever possible.

  • Keep pregnant women and young children from freshly painted rooms.

  • Leave painted areas if you experience eye watering, headaches, or dizziness. 


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Carbon Monoxide

Carbon monoxide (CO) is an odorless, colorless toxic gas. Because it is impossible to see, taste or smell, CO can kill you before you are aware it is in your home. At lower levels of exposure, CO causes mild effects that are often mistaken for the flu. These symptoms include headaches, dizziness, disorientation, nausea and fatigue. The effects of CO exposure can vary greatly from person to person depending on age, overall health and the concentration and length of exposure.  

 

Be Aware of the Dangers of CO

Each year, more than 500 Americans die from unintentional CO poisoning.  

 

Image of a CDC Carbon Monoxide warning poster

 

Sources of Carbon Monoxide

Carbon monoxide is the by-product of the incomplete combustion of any fuel source, whether natural gas, wood, charcoal, oil, kerosene, propane, or gasoline. It can be produced by a wide array of common appliances, including furnaces and water heaters, clothes dryers, space heaters, ranges and ovens, as well as by fireplaces, wood stoves, charcoal grills, and garaged automobiles.

To prevent CO poisoning, it is crucial that appliances and other combustion sources are properly maintained and adjusted.

Proper venting of appliances is also important. Appliances like gas dryers and non-electric space heaters should be vented to the outside. Regular inspections of vents, flue pipes, chimneys, filters, and venting systems for all appliances, furnaces, and gas water heaters should be conducted, checking for blockages, corrosion, cracks, or other damage.



Steps to Reduce Exposure to Carbon Monoxide

  • Make sure appliances are installed according to manufacturer's instructions and local building codes. Most appliances should be installed by professionals. Have heating systems (including chimneys and vents) inspected and serviced annually. The inspector should also check chimneys and flues for blockages, corrosion, and loose connections.

  • Never burn charcoal inside a home, garage, vehicle, or tent.

  • Never use portable fuel-burning camping equipment inside a home, garage, vehicle, or tent.

  • Never leave a car running in an attached garage, even with the garage door open.

  • Never service fuel-burning appliances without proper knowledge, skills, and tools. Always refer to the owner's manual when performing minor adjustments or servicing fuel-burning appliances.

  • Never use gas appliances such as ranges, ovens, or clothes dryers for heating your home.

  • Never operate unvented fuel-burning appliances in any room with closed doors or windows or in any room where people are sleeping.

  • Do not use gasoline-powered tools and engines indoors.


Carbon Monoxide Detectors/Alarms



Most Importantly....

CO detectors/alarms can help prevent exposure to unhealthy CO concentrations, but are not a substitute for proper use and upkeep of appliances and other potential sources of CO.

 

Image of Carbon Monoxide Detector

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recommends the installation of CO detectors/alarms that meet the requirements of the current UL 2034 standard. The CPSC recommends installation of a detector in the hallway near every separate sleeping area of the home. The detector should have a battery back-up power supply, and the batteries should be checked regularly. In addition, the detector should display current CO levels.  

UL 2034 states that “alarms covered by this standard are not intended to alarm when exposed to long-term, low-level carbon monoxide exposures or slightly higher short-term transient carbon monoxide exposures, possibly caused by air pollution and/or properly installed/maintained fuel-fired appliances and fireplaces.” As a result, some building science experts suggest it may be appropriate to install a low-level CO detector alarm, particularly if those susceptible to CO (including infants, pregnant women, or individuals with heart problems) live in the home. Visit this website for a discussion of this issue. 


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Lead

Lead is a naturally occurring element found in small amounts in the earth’s crust. While it has some beneficial uses, it can be toxic to humans and animals.  Lead is particularly dangerous to children because their growing bodies absorb more lead than adults, and their brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to the damaging effects of lead. Most childhood exposure occurs through children's normal hand-to-mouth activity after contact with a source of leaded dust. The most effective prevention of childhood lead poisoning is to reduce or eliminate exposure.

 

Image of Painter

Sources of Lead

Lead was once used in a wide variety of products found in and around our homes, including paint, ceramics, pipes and plumbing materials, solders, gasoline, batteries, ammunition, and cosmetics. However, Federal and state regulatory standards have helped to minimize or eliminate the amount of lead in air, drinking water, soil, consumer products, food, and occupational settings.

Despite the strict standards, lead remains a significant and widespread environmental hazard for children in Maryland. According to the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), the major source of exposure for children is lead paint dust from deteriorated lead paint or from home renovation. 


 

Steps to Reduce Exposure to Lead

Following proper lead abatement procedures is critical if you are undertaking renovations or repairs of a home where lead may be present.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides an excellent guide for addressing lead for contractors, homeowners hiring contractors, or do-it-yourselfers. The guide provides information on determining if lead paint is present, protecting workers and home occupants from exposure to lead during the work, cleaning up the work site after the work is done, and disposing of lead contaminated waste


Lead Regulations

The requirements for managing lead vary depending on whether the property is an owner occupied property or a rental property.

In general, repair and remodeling activities in owner occupied housing units are not subject to specific regulations related to the management of lead. Contractors and homeowners engaged in repair or remodeling activities should follow the EPA guide for proper lead management during repair and remodeling activities that may result in disturbance to paint and other materials containing lead. In addition, Section 3-7 of the Montgomery County Code related to Air Quality contains provisions for the control of dust from construction activities to minimize the potential for the release of lead dust from a property being renovated or demolished. 

The Maryland Department of the Environment's (MDE) Lead Poisoning Prevention Program enforces state laws related to lead in rental properties.  Under the 1994 "Reduction of Lead Risk in Housing Law," MDE:

  • Assures compliance with mandatory requirements for lead risk reduction in rental units built before 1950;

  • Maintains a statewide listing of registered and inspected rental units;

  • Certifies and enforces performance standards for inspectors and contractors working in lead hazard reduction;

  • Performs environmental investigations for lead poisoned children; and

  • Provides oversight for community education to parents, tenants, rental property owners, homeowners, and health care providers to enhance their role in lead poisoning prevention.


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Environmental Protection Agency


Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE):