Just Breathe: A Look at Chemicals and Vapors in our Air

With this week pegged as National Inhalants and Poisons Awareness Week, it seems appropriate to take a look at the chemicals and vapors we inhale (unintentionally) in our homes and workplaces. Seemingly innocent everyday items such as air fresheners, cleaning supplies, and furnaces emit pollutants. Depending on where we work, we can breathe in toxins from a sick building or fumes from paints and solvents or even industrial contaminants.

Three substances that “naturally” exist in our indoor environments to some degree are:

Carbon dioxide. Used as a food additive, to carbonate soda beverages, and in some fire extinguishers, carbon dioxide is a multi-purpose gas. Yet, in moderate to high volumes, carbon dioxide causes headaches, increased heart rate, nausea, vomiting, and other symptoms, eventually leading to acidosis, cardiovascular impairment, and nerve damage in long-term exposure.

Particulates such as dirt, dust, smoke from the environment are difficult to eliminate entirely. However, they aggravate existing respiratory weaknesses, decrease lung function, and irritate breathing cavities.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are indoor gases from paints, cleaning supplies, copiers, printers, adhesives, and other common materials. A high concentration of VOCs, usually in areas of poor ventilation, can lead to headaches, skin reactions, nausea, dizziness, fatigue, and other discomforts.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), improving air quality is best achieved through removing the source of irritation, cleaning the air, and enhancing ventilation. Of course, you have to be aware of what gases or vapors are in your air—which is where testers and monitors come in. A few to consider:

Extech® Portable Indoor Air Quality CO2 Meter can be used in office buildings, greenhouses, schools, and more. A maintenance-free nondispersive infrared sensor alerts users to exposure.

Casella® Microdust Pro Dust Monitoring Kit (shown left) measures dust concentrations that comply with OSHA regulations. Using an infrared light scattering technique to provide real time dust and particulate measurements.

Datalogging VOC Detector with Alarm is highly sensitive to VOCs and solvent vapors such as methylene chloride, acetone, naphtha, perchloroethylene, and trichloroethylene. The LED bar graph displays the hazard level of gas or vapor. An audible alarm also alerts you to dangerous levels. Responds in as little as one minute.

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