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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.

The Risks From Sick Building Syndrome continued...

These irritants are "a real annoyance but will not result in permanent harm to your health," Pacheco says. "If you move in right after new carpeting has been installed, the smell will be irritating to eyes, noses, causing headaches, nausea. But it dissipates after a few weeks and shouldn't bother you after that."

In some buildings, a renovation has resulted in a badly routed ventilation system. You could be breathing exhaust fumes from trucks at your company's loading dock, says Pacheco. "Changing that kind of problem can be expensive, but not always. There may be a fairly simple solution. But if people are not reporting getting sick, nothing gets done."

The company's bottom line can suffer. "Employees who don't feel well are less productive than those who do," Pacheco notes. "Sick building syndrome has been well-documented, so it's clear that people aren't making it up. Employers should take it seriously. Some manipulations of the ventilation system can help significantly."

Invisible Risks: Bacteria, Molds, Viruses, and Radon

A humidifier with stagnant water, wet carpeting, and water-damaged walls - these are all breeding ground for bacteria, mold, and viruses. Anyone with asthma, allergies, or a hypersensitive reaction can be affected by these water-related problems, resulting in worse asthma attacks.

In fact, you can develop a mold allergy, which can lead to chronic sinusitis or asthma, says Pacheco. "If you have a water-damaged area, you need to fix it. If carpet has been completely soaked, you need to replace it. Regularly clean your humidifier, or you will release bacteria into the air whenever you use it."

Ventilating your attic and crawl space - and keeping humidity levels below 50% -- can help prevent moisture buildup in walls. Take steps to prevent water from leaking into a home.

Radon is a gas that exists in soil or rock containing uranium. The gas can infiltrate basements and crawl spaces of homes built on these deposits. Without a specific testing device, it's difficult to tell whether a home has a radon problem. This radioactive gas leaves no telltale signs; it is colorless and odorless. But exposure to radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer.

"Typically it's a ventilation issue," says Pacheco. "Improve the ventilation, and you've solved the problem. It's a very fixable problem."

Here are three other key risks you may not be aware of:


This common insulation material was used from the 1950s to 1970s to soundproof and cover floors, ceilings, water pipes, heating ducts, and water heaters.

"If you have asbestos around pipes or a water heater, that should be changed," says Pacheco. "But asbestos in tiles shouldn't bother you at all. It's only when you remove them that they will release airborne fibers - which cause health problems."

People misunderstand asbestos, she adds. "A lot of people have the impression that solid objects like these tiles have a little halo of asbestos around them. But it doesn't work that way. You have very limited exposure to the asbestos fibers until you start messing with them. That's when you release air particles into the air."

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