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Building Science

Ranking Indoor Air Pollutants

The health impact of many indoor air pollutants is coming into focus

That face above is of a physician, alchemist, and astrologer named Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim.  He is deemed the father of toxicology and is better known by the name Paracelsus.  I begin this article with him because Dr. Brett Singer, at Building Science Summer Camp this year, used an interesting Paracelsus quote: “Poison is in everything, and no thing is without poison. The dosage makes it either a poison or a remedy.”

I wrote about Singer’s mention of the Corsi Code in August and his kitchen ventilation data last month, but his presentation covered more than those two things.  He began with a look at some of the various indoor air pollutants and and which ones we ought to worry more about.  Here’s his list of the biggies:

Of course, if we wanted a full list of every individual pollutant, we’d have to expand this list quite a bit.  VOCs, for example, include a wide range of different chemicals:  formaldehyde, benzene, acrolein, and more.  And, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), “tobacco smoke contains more than 7,000 chemicals, including hundreds that are toxic and about 70 that can cause cancer.”

OK, so which of those should we worry about the most?  Which should we focus our efforts on minimizing?

Singer had a slide for that.  In terms of a quantity called Disability Adjusted Life Year (DALY), he presented a graph of the health impact per year per 100,000 people.  Here it is.

Note that the scale of the graph changes by powers of ten.  Near the bottom of the list, chromium is sitting at about 10-1, or 0.1.  At the top is PM2.5 at about 103, or 1,000.  Clearly then, PM2.5 deserves a lot more attention than chromium.  In fact, it looks like it deserves more…

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  1. User avater
    Paul Kriescher | | #1

    Great summary of an exceptionally important topic for people building, testing...heck, just living in houses and buildings! --Paul K. -Denver--

  2. Glenn Bugge | | #2

    Thank you for this timely information. We will soon be starting construction on a new home and are looking to incorporate a ventilation that will help mitigate these hazards.

    Glenn B

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