Healing your home

May 14, 2011 at 10:54 pm

So… air pollution. We hear so much about the global warming debate, but we rarely hear about how toxins in our air may be impacting human health and happiness. This subject has been on my mind a lot over the past week, and I felt impressed to do some digging about it. How are those toxins impacting pregnant women and their babies?  And how can we protect ourselves?

What I found was that prenatal and early exposure to air pollutants has been linked to a growing number of health and behavioral issues. Here are a few:

Preterm birth

“For the first trimester, the odds of preterm birth consistently increased with increasing carbon monoxide exposures and also at high levels of exposure to particulate matter . . . . Women exposed to carbon monoxide above 0.91 ppm during the last 6 weeks of pregnancy experienced increased odds of preterm birth” (Source).

Reduced fetal growth

“Over the past decade there has been mounting evidence that ambient air pollution during pregnancy influences fetal growth. . . . We found strong effects of ambient air pollution on ultrasound measures” (Source).

Hypertension and preeclampsia

“Exposure to air pollution is associated with elevated blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. . . . [O]ur results suggest that air pollution may affect maternal cardiovascular health during pregnancy. The effects might be small but relevant on a population level” (Source).

Respiratory difficulties

“The present results suggest that pre-natal exposure to air pollution might be associated with higher respiratory need and airway inflammation in newborns. Such alterations during early lung development may be important regarding long-term respiratory morbidity” (Source).

“Prenatal and early-life exposures to CO, PM10, and NO2 have a negative effect on pulmonary function in subgroups of asthmatic children” (Source).

Sudden Infant Death Syndrome

“[I]ncreased SIDS rates were linked to increases in the previous day’s air pollution concentration of sulfur dioxide. They also found that other pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide were also linked to an increase in SIDS rates” (Source).

“Their research demonstrates that SIDS is the result of accidental poisoning due to toxic gases released from baby mattresses. These gases are produced by the interaction of common household fungi with phosphorus, arsenic and antimony, chemicals which are either present naturally in the mattresses or which have been added as flame retardant chemicals” (Source).

Reduced intelligence

“These results suggest that prenatal exposure to airborne PAHs [common air pollutants created in outdoor and indoor air from combustion sources] adversely affects children’s cognitive development by 5 years of age, with potential implications for school performance. They are consistent with a recent finding in a parallel cohort in New York City” (Source).

Mood and behavior problems

“Psychological and toxic effects of air pollution can lead to psychiatric symptoms, including anxiety and changes in mood, cognition, and behavior. Increased levels of some air pollutants are accompanied by an increase in psychiatric admissions and emergency calls and, in some studies, by changes in behavior and a reduction in psychological well-being” (Source).

I can’t help wondering whether air pollution could also be contributing to the rising cesarean rate… but I didn’t have time to look into the particulars of that possibility.  All of this has also got me thinking about magnesium. Magnesium is a detoxifying mineral, so it’s no surprise that many of the same health issues listed above have also been linked with magnesium deficiency. When our bodies are overloaded with toxins and we are low on the substances our bodies need to remove those toxins, it’s no surprise that we encounter complications. How’s your magnesium intake? (I know, I know… I’m obsessed with magnesium.) But, magnesium aside, clearly we’d all be better off with less air pollution.

So what can we do to protect ourselves and our babies from toxins in the air? Given that we spend a large portion of our days and nights within the walls of our homes, I’d say the first and best place to begin cleaning up our air is at home.

Healing Our Homes

One site I consulted explained, “EPA studies show that indoor air pollution levels can routinely be up to five times higher than those found outdoors as a result of contaminants from tracked-in soil, chemical-laden cleaning products, inefficient or unmaintained heating and cooling systems, and the like” (Source).

A NASA website explains in more detail why indoor air can be so much worse than outdoor air:

Synthetic materials . . . give off low levels of chemicals. This effect, known as off-gassing, spreads the VOCs [volatile organic compounds], such as formaldehyde, benzene, and trichloroethylene, all known irritants and potential carcinogens. When these chemicals are trapped without circulation . . . the inhabitants may become ill, as the air they breathe is not given the natural scrubbing by Earth’s complex ecosystem.

[A few decades ago] builders began making houses and offices more energy efficient. One of the best ways to do this was to make the buildings as airtight as possible. While keeping temperature-controlled air in place, this approach reduced circulation. Combined with the modern use of synthetic materials, this contributed to what became known as Sick Building Syndrome, where toxins found in synthetic materials become concentrated inside sealed buildings, making people feel sick. (Source)

All of this brings me to what got this subject on my mind to begin with. Tuesday I went to see my midwife for a 10-week postpartum check-up, and we brought her an orchid plant as a thank you gift. After I purchased the orchid, I took a look at the tag on it. It was full of cool information. Referencing a study conducted by NASA, it said that house plants:

* help remove toxins from indoor air
* help increase energy and health
* help reduce noise

The NASA study also recommended having one plant for every 100 square feet for optimum health benefits. I had heard that houseplants could help improve indoor air quality, but I needed that reminder.  It’s amazing to me how often the solution to our human problems is: PLANTS! More plants!  Eat more plants, grow more plants! Plants, plants, plants!

As of Tuesday there were only two small plants within the walls of my home, both of them very recent additions. On Tuesday and Wednesday I spent some time researching which plants are best at removing toxins from the air, and on Thursday I went to Lowe’s with the $100 gift card my husband received as a race prize several months ago. And I bought plants! Lots of them. And I still can’t wait to get more. It makes me happy thinking of all the toxins my plant friends are removing and all the life-giving oxygen they’re filling our home with. Why did I never think to do this before?

Rather than extend this already lengthy blogpost explaining to you which plants are the best pollution-fighters, I’ll instead direct you to several websites where the job has already been done:

Poor Indoor Air Quality Helped by Indoor Plants in the Home and Office
15 House Plants You Can Use As Air Purifiers
10 Best Clean Air House Plants

And these sites have more tips for improving indoor air quality:

For Greener Planet, Start with Greener Home
5 Ways to Improve Workplace Indoor Air Quality, Reduce Harmful Effects

I’ve always been a sort of tree-hugger, and I do love growing a garden, but this has taken my love of green things to a whole new level. Plants are stinkin’ awesome.