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Lung Disease & Respiratory Health Center

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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 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.

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."

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