Here’s what you need to know about viruses, bacteria, molds, and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) in the air we breathe, how they affect our health, and how to mitigate their risks. The pandemic has elevated indoor air quality from a niche concern to priority number one, for everyone from office managers to hospital administrators and school principals and staff. What exactly is present in the air we’re breathing has suddenly become important, but many of us don’t know how to navigate or understand the risks of airborne pollutants. The most common airborne contaminants which have the potential to wreak havoc on our health and cognitive abilities include VOCs, bacteria, molds, and viruses. Read on to learn more about each of these pollutants, where they’re commonly found, the risks they pose to our health, and how to reduce their presence in your indoor space.
What are VOCs?
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are gases that emanate from liquids or solids.
Many common items, found in homes, offices, schools, businesses, and even medical centers, contain chemicals that may become VOCs. They can emit VOCs while they are in use, and sometimes while they are stored.
Common sources for VOCs, according to the EPA, include:
- paints, paint strippers, and other solvents
- aerosol sprays
- cleansers and disinfectants
- moth repellents and air fresheners
- stored fuels and automotive products
- dry-cleaned clothing
Formaldehyde is an especially common VOC. It is present in pressed-wood products, glues and adhesives, permanent-press fabric, and certain insulation materials. It can also be generated by smoking or cooking. The American Cancer Society states that high levels of the chemical have been linked to cases of cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) officially classifies formaldehyde as “carcinogenic to humans.” According to the American Lung Association, long term exposure to formaldehyde and other VOCs can cause several adverse reactions, such as:
- eye, nose, and throat irritation
- difficulty breathing
- central nervous system and organ damage
Chemically-derived contaminants aren’t the only harmful pollutants lurking in the air. There are several biological substances present in indoor air, which can have a negative effect on health, quality of life, and academic and career performance.
Microscopic organisms that have the potential to cause disease, and viruses can be present in the air in the form of tiny particles. They often spread via water or mucous droplets, which are expelled into the air when people sneeze or cough, which travel through the air and infect those present. Diseases ranging from the flu to measles to Chickenpox are caused by airborne viruses. Viruses that cause respiratory illnesses, including COVID, can remain suspended in the air for hours. With researchers finding that a stunning 1 out of 4 hospitalized COVID patients in the UK acquired the virus while in the hospital, and a recent study published in Emerging Infectious Diseases found that offices are a hotspot for COVID transmission, the risks of airborne viruses in indoor spaces are clear.
A form of fungi that feed off animal and plant matter in the environment, molds can grow nearly anywhere with moisture. Molds breed via spores released into the air, which can easily be inhaled by people in homes, offices, schools, and medical settings. Breathing in mold spores can cause irritation, dizziness, and other unpleasant symptoms in healthy people. But for people with compromised immunity or preexisting conditions, molds present in the air can be life-threatening. Infections caused by mold spores at a Seattle hospital were linked to the deaths of six patients.
Bacteria are small, single-celled organisms. While most bacteria are harmless, some have the potential to cause serious illness and even death. Legionella is a common bacteria that is often found in cooling systems, cooling towers, and water systems in commercial buildings and hospitals. Most public spaces, including hotels, shopping centers, and medical centers can use water-based HVAC systems in which the legionella pathogen can thrive. The bacteria can cause Legionnaires disease, a form of severe respiratory atypical pneumonia. People generally contract the disease via airborne droplets containing legionella, which are often distributed through contaminated air conditioning systems. 1 out of 10 people infected with the disease die.
Where do indoor pollutants live?
The short answer: EVERYWHERE. Indoor pollutants, including VOCs, viruses, molds, and bacteria live everywhere from the bathroom and bedroom in your home, to the office, to schools, shopping centers, and medical clinics.
The EPA lists several common biological contaminants and VOCs in office spaces, including:
- Biological contaminants from dirty ventilation systems or water-damaged walls, ceilings, and carpets
- Cleaning materials and restroom air fresheners
- Asbestos from insulation and fire-proof building materials
- Formaldehyde from pressed wood products
- Pesticides from pest management efforts
Additionally, viruses like COVID-19 and influenza can also be present in the office. When employees work in close quarters, the risks of those viruses spreading are even higher. Notably, an EPA report links contaminated office air to more employee sick days and a marked plunge in employee efficacy.
While school kids have always caught bugs in the classroom, COVID-19 transmission has become a major source of worry for parents and administrators alike. Schools have emerged as hotspots for the virus, leading to institution-wide quarantines. Beyond COVID, other commonly found airborne contaminants in schools include:
- Molds, significantly reduce air quality and can trigger allergies.
- VOCs are generated by materials like paint, turpentine, and other art supplies, and the custodial staff’s cleaning supplies
- Exhaust from cars and buses idling in the parking lot
With the vast majority of us spending 90% of our time indoors, and the EPA finding that concentrations of many indoor pollutants are found at significantly higher levels indoors than outdoors, it’s important to stay abreast of what contaminants are potentially floating around in your indoor air. Studies link poor indoor air quality at home to a myriad of health issues. Whether in the bathroom, bedroom, or living room, VOCs, molds, viruses, and bacteria may all be found in the home. Because molds thrive in damp spaces, they are more likely to be found in your bathroom, where steam from the shower and water running in the sink creates an appealing, moist environment. VOCs can be created by aerosol-based cleaning tools you use in your home on an everyday basis, and visitors and loved ones have the potential to bring bacteria and viruses with them into the home.
Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are often present in hospital and medical center air. They’re also known as superbugs, which may lead to severe, even life-threatening, illness in patients. The CDC classifies these nasty pathogens as a major threat to public health. Viruses are also common in hospital air, including COVID, as well as molds. VOCs, especially extra-strength cleaners and disinfectants, are also present in indoor air in medical settings. Poor hospital air quality has been linked to worse patient outcomes by several studies,
Mitigating the risks of poor indoor air quality
Indoor air purifiers remove airborne pollutants using a variety of methods. Some utilize HEPA and carbon-activated filters that trap pollutants as they pass through. Electrostatic fields and ionization that draw in airborne contaminants are featured in other systems. But there’s one particular air purifier that’s proven to neutralize the COVID-19 virus and is super effective at removing other viruses, bacteria, molds, and VOCs (including formaldehyde) from the air. TADIRAN AIROW™ leverages proprietary technology to transform existing H2O (water) molecules in the air into pathogens eliminating hydrogen peroxide, which actively cleanses and purifies the air. TADIRAN AIROW’s unique air purifying technology has proven to be extremely effective at eliminating the COVID-19 virus. In FDA-cleared lab tests, the system has been proven to eliminate viruses, molds, and bacteria at a rate of up to 99%. If you’d like to learn more about the best air purifier technologies to mitigate the risks of contaminated air in your school, business, medical center, office, or home, get in touch with us here at Tadiran. We’d love to guide you in your search.