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Indoor Air Pollution: Are You at Risk?

Cigarette smoke and other irritants can build up indoors, causing allergic reactions, asthma, even lung cancer.
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WebMD Feature

Coughing. Burning eyes. Stuffy nose. If these are chronic problems for you, indoor air pollution could be to blame. A home or office can harbor asthma- and allergy-causing gases and air particles.

In fact, indoor air pollution is now recognized as a serious source of respiratory diseases, including lung cancer. During fall and winter months, you're at greater risk, when windows are tightly shut and less fresh air can circulate.

The culprits? "Cigarette smoke is the biggest offender, and also the most fixable problem," says Karin Pacheco, MD, MSPH, a researcher in environmental and occupational health sciences at the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver.

Radon (a cancer-causing radioactive gas) is a problem for many homes, both with and without basements. Bacteria and mold can breed in standing water and in uncleaned humidifiers, wet walls, and damp carpet. Household cleaners, adhesives, and paints also emit noxious fumes.

Good ventilation is the key with most indoor irritants, Pacheco tells WebMD. "Human beings are pretty sturdy, so using common sense will keep you plenty safe. We were meant to live in drafty caves. We need to keep our indoor air circulating - either by opening the windows or keeping ventilation systems running - when we have indoor irritants."

Are you at risk? This guide should help you assess your risk of health problems caused by indoor air pollution.

The No. 1 Culprit: Cigarette Smoke

Nearly 5,000 toxins make tobacco smoke the most toxic indoor pollutant. The greatest percentage of lung cancers is caused by cigarette smoke. Even secondhand smoke raises your risk of cancer, heart attack, and stroke.

"Children whose parents smoke have higher rates of asthma," Pacheco tells WebMD. In fact, smoking causes pneumonia, bronchitis, wheezing, coughing, excess phlegm, and ear infections in young children. In the past 15 years, the number of children with asthma has more than doubled - largely due to tobacco smoke exposure in the home.

The Risks From Sick Building Syndrome

If you've felt headachy and tired at work (and you've gotten plenty of sleep), you could be suffering from sick building syndrome. This term is used to describe symptoms that occur only at work that can't be linked with any illness or other cause. For some people, the symptoms are sore throat, burning eyes, itchy nose.

These symptoms are a reaction to indoor air pollutants - and "usually are a problem of large buildings with ventilation problems," Pacheco tells WebMD. "The classic case is a municipal building built in the 1970s that has been extensively renovated. When it was first built, it had adequate ventilation. But when they put up partitions, it changes the air flow."

New carpeting, adhesives, upholstery, copy machines, pesticides, and cleaning fluids can give off formaldehyde and other noxious compounds. Without adequate ventilation, these fumes can cause a variety of allergic reactions.

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