indoor air

Controlling Mold Growth Indoors During Spring Cleaning and the Rest of the Year

By Laureen Burton

Spring is around the corner and with the season’s warming weather we often open up our windows and take on the task of spring cleaning. As a toxicologist for EPA’s Indoor Environments Division, I’m often asked if I have any indoor air quality tips that people might use during spring cleaning.  One step people might not think of  is to check for excess moisture that could lead to mold growth and take steps to prevent mold from becoming a problem in the home.

Remember, the key to mold control is moisture control.

Molds are everywhere in the environment and can grow on virtually any organic substance where moisture and oxygen are present. There are molds that can grow on wood, carpet and insulation. Mold growth will often occur when excessive moisture accumulates in buildings or on building materials.  If the moisture problem remains undiscovered or unaddressed, not only can the damage from mold growth be costly, but it can affect your home’s indoor air quality and the health of people sensitive to mold, too. Potential health effects and symptoms associated with mold exposure include allergic reactions, asthma, and other respiratory complaints.

To avoid that, here are some tips you can use:

  • Clean and repair roof gutters regularly.
  • Make sure the ground slopes away from the building foundation, so that water does not enter or collect around the foundation.
  • Identify and fix plumbing leaks and other water problems immediately.
  • If you see condensation or moisture collecting on windows, walls or pipes dry the wet surface and reduce the moisture/water source.
  • When water leaks or spills occur indoors – ACT QUICKLY.  If wet or damp materials or areas are dried 24 to 48 hours after a leak or spill, in many cases, mold will not grow.
  • Scrub any visible mold off hard surfaces with detergent and water and dry the area completely.
  • Keep air conditioning drip pans clean and the drain lines unobstructed and flowing properly.
  • Keep indoor humidity low.  If possible, keep indoor humidity below 60 percent  — ideally between 30 and 50 percent — relative humidity.  Relative humidity can be measured with a moisture or humidity meter, a small, inexpensive instrument available at many hardware stores.

For more information and links to EPA mold guidance, please visit our mold website. Happy spring cleaning!

About the author: Laureen Burton is a chemist/toxicologist with EPA’s Indoor Environments Division where her work for the last 15 years has addressed pollutants and sources in indoor air.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Oklahoma School Shows How to Improve Indoor Air Quality

Isn’t it great when a plan comes together? Schools across the nation are finding out that a good indoor air quality (IAQ) plan can make a big difference for a child’s education and health. As an asthmatic, I know firsthand the importance of creating a healthy indoor environment. As the schools coordinator for EPA Region 6, it’s great to see schools being proactive about addressing IAQ comprehensively and making students’ health a priority.

One school in particular ─ Ponca City Public Schools in rural Oklahoma ─ is a good example of how to take action to improve IAQ for students and staff. These efforts can be replicated in any school, and it is definitely a lesson worth sharing.

The school district started by reaching out to experts and finding mentorship from other school districts that were dealing with similar issues. They soon began using EPA’s IAQ Tools for Schools Kit, which became an invaluable asset. The kit helped them develop an IAQ management program, identify and prioritize improvements, and communicate successes.

To focus its efforts, Ponca City organized an IAQ team to help coordinate actions. EPA’s guidelines helped the team identify specific tasks to improve school IAQ. They worked through technical concerns and challenges using the Framework for Effective School IAQ Management. Steps toward improvement included minimizing clutter in classrooms and ensuring adequate air ventilation.

A key to the program’s success was communication: communicating their efforts helped secure buy-in and support. By implementing an online survey, everyone was involved in the process, which also gave the district an opportunity to evaluate its new initiative through feedback. Anyone interested in improving a school’s IAQ should take note: sharing your program’s goals, activities, results and next steps is essential to gaining community buy-in and sustaining a long-term IAQ management program.

Ponca City’s road to success proves to me that any district — regardless of location or size — can work to develop a successful IAQ management program. Research links improvements in school air quality to enhance academic performance.  I was amazed to see how proud IAQ team members became of the work they do each day once they understood the connections between IAQ, health and academic achievement. I am proud of Ponca City’s tale, and I hope other school districts make the commitment to create healthy environments in our nation’s schools.

About the author: Stacy Murphy has been the schools coordinator for EPA Region 6 —serving Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas and 66 tribes — since March 2006. He is responsible for coordinating all activities related to the impact of indoor environmental quality in school districts, and the main tool he uses when discussing IAQ with school districts in his region is the IAQ Tools for Schools Action Kit.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Radon: A Leading Environmental Cause of Cancer Mortality

By Dr Susan Conrath

Throughout my career as a Public Health Service Officer and EPA employee, I have always been surprised by the relatively low level of radon awareness throughout the country. Radon is a Class A carcinogen- we know that it causes cancer in humans. But, this huge environmental risk is not on most individuals’ “radar screens.” Radon is a radioactive gas that comes from the breakdown of uranium in soil. Since it is a gas it can easily move through spaces in the soil and escape into the air where it is diluted. However, when radon enters a home through cracks in the foundation or other openings, it becomes trapped inside and can accumulate. You can’t see, smell or taste radon, but it’s there. In fact, its discovery as an indoor air issue occurred when an individual, Stanley Watras, set off radiation alarms in a nuclear power plant because his home’s levels were so high.

Many people do not realize that radon is the number two cause of lung cancer in the U.S.; exceeded only by smoking. For never-smokers radon is the number one cause of lung cancer. Scientific studies have confirmed the risk and show no evidence that there is any “safe” level of radon.

As shown on our Health Risks Page radon-induced lung cancer deaths [at the U.S. average indoor air concentration of 1.3 picocuries/Liter of air [1.3pCi/L]] are in the same general range as deaths from leukemia and lymphoma and are greater than a number of selected cancers that we currently spend large amounts of money to research and/or combat.

Protect your family! The only way to know if you have radon in your home is to test. Testing is easy and inexpensive. If your level is high fix the problem. It’s one of the best investments you can make for your family’s health and it will enhance the future sales potential of your home by making it a healthier place to live. Learn more about how to test and fix for radon.

If you are building a house or having one built, radon-resistant new construction [RRNC] techniques can be used to avoid having to deal with high radon concentrations. It’s less expensive to install RRNC during construction than to have to fix a radon problem at a later date.

About the author: Dr Susan Conrath is a CAPTAIN with the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. She works in the Office of Radiation and Indoor Air as an epidemiologist and international expert on radon risk.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Science Wednesday:Five Letter Word for an Inert, Radioactive Gas

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection.Previous Science Wednesdays.

By Jack Barnette

The other day, I was trying a rather difficult crossword puzzle when I stumbled across this clue – a five letter word for an inert, radioactive gas. Well, it’s got to be R-A-D-O-N. I know that one because radon and indoor air quality issues are a big part of my job at EPA. I wish the rest of the puzzle was that easy!

January is National Radon Action Month, so I’m blogging to increase awareness of radon’s dangers – and fortunately, here I can provide a lot more information than a crossword clue.

Radon is a naturally occurring gas that comes from radioactive uranium in soil and rocks. Since radioactive materials break down and change over time, you might guess that uranium disintegrates. It does, into radium, and after more time, radium disintegrates into radon. Since radon is a gas, it moves around easily through soil and flows from the ground into the atmosphere or into homes, schools, and other buildings. Are you starting to get why I’m concerned with the radon levels in homes?

It’s crazy but true that our own homes can actually make it easier for radon to enter. Take where I live for example; in our cold Midwest climate we need to heat our homes. As we heat the air, the warmer air rises and creates higher pressure upstairs and lower pressure downstairs, or what I can best describe as a low-powered, but steady and insidious vacuum sucking on the soil underneath the house. Yeah, my house sucks! This is a major reason why we see elevated levels of radon in some buildings.

What’s even more insidious is that while you can’t see or smell radon it can still harm you.. Radon releases alpha particles as it continues to break down. In your lungs, alpha particles slam into tissue and cause damage. Breathing in too many alpha particles can cause serious health consequences, including cancer. Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer, and the first cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers.

To protect the health of yourself and your family from radon, remember these tips: Test, Fix and Save a Life. The only way to know if you have elevated levels of radon in your home/school is to test. If you find high levels (4 picoCuries/L or more), fix your home – it’s easy, and might just save a life; check out EPA’s radon website. I wish the rest of the puzzle was as easy as testing for radon!

About the author: Jack Barnette is an environmental scientist with the Air and Radiation Division in EPA’s regional office in Chicago. Mr. Barnette has been with the U.S.EPA since 1984. Before joining EPA Barnette worked for the Illinois state environmental agency. Mr. Barnette works on a number of environmental and public health issues including indoor air quality, radiation protection, asthma education, and air monitoring.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Improving Air Quality in Schools to Celebrate Children’s Health Month 2011

By Lou Witt, Indoor Environments Division and Kathy Seikel, Office of Children’s Health Protection

With an emphasis on healthy schools, this year’s Children’s Health Month brings back memories of life as a student. When we were children, not many people focused on indoor air quality in schools. Until fairly recently, few made removing asthma triggers a priority. Industrial strength pesticides and cleaners were used liberally, and teachers smoked in their own separate lounge. Times have changed. Now we understand how important a healthy environment is to the learning process.

Children are uniquely affected by environmental hazards due to their body size and their immune and respiratory systems not being fully developed. A well located, thoughtfully designed, soundly built and efficiently operated school can help ensure a safer, healthier learning environment for children, allowing them to thrive and succeed.

Join EPA this October and throughout the year as we work with partners to promote healthy environments where children live, learn and play. Proven, cost-effective and often simple actions can directly benefit everyone’s health. Indoors, testing for radon, removing furry pets and stuffed animals from classrooms, using low/no VOC products and going smoke-free are common. The physical location of a school also can affect students. A properly located building can help reduce children’s exposure to harmful pollutants by ensuring a potential school site is safe from contaminants and environmental hazards.

If your community is renovating a school, building a new one or wanting to improve the health and performance of students, Children’s Health Month is the perfect time to get involved. Two great places to visit that will get you started are EPA’s new School Siting Guidelines, which can help mitigate outdoor environmental risks; and the Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools Action Kit, which provides guidance and helpful instructions for teachers, staff, students and the community.

Better indoor air quality protects children’s health. To see how you can help create a healthier school environment for youth in your community, visit www.epa.gov/schools/ and www.epa.gov/iaq/schools

Learn more and tell us how you celebrated Children’s Health Month by promoting green, clean and healthy schools!

About the authors:

Kathy Seikel, a senior policy analyst with EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection, has worked for EPA since 1984 and remembers when, as a college student in the 70s, smoking by students and teachers was allowed in all classrooms.

Lou Witt, a Program Analyst in EPA’s Office of Radiation and Indoor Air, is promoting indoor air quality risk reduction

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Indoor Air and Schools: Creating a Healthier Learning Environment

By Brandy Angell

Ready for school? It’s that time of the year and we all can relate to the end of summer and the beginning of back-to-school preparations. As a new mom, this time of year has given me a new perspective. Ethan is just 8-months-old but these past months have taught me a lot about the values of preparation and that it’s possible to overanalyze everything in your child’s surrounding environment. Eventually, I would like to think the neurosis fades away but my mom serves as a reminder that you never stop worrying about your children. As kids head back to school, I wonder if school staff and parents consider whether children are returning to a healthy learning environment?

Between last minute preparations and summer vacations, the school’s environment and its impact on occupant health can be easily overlooked. However, levels of pollutants indoors can be higher than in outdoor air and poor Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) is associated with fatigue, nausea, allergies and asthma and can also have an effect on concentration, attendance, and student performance.

With the help of the Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools you can learn how to identify, correct, and prevent indoor air problems that can trigger asthma attacks and other health problems in order to create a healthier learning environment. Here are some tips:

  • Learn more about IAQ issues, related health effects, and how student performance is affected. EPA’s free resources can help you use your voice to promote a healthier learning environment and discuss indoor air with parents, community organizers, and your school community. The  Action Kit shows schools how to carry out a practical plan to improve indoor air.
  • Help manage asthma in the schools. Many of the same asthma triggers found in homes can also be found in schools. Learn how to reduce exposure to asthma triggers in your school. Work with your healthcare provider to create an asthma action plan and give a copy to the school nurse, coach and other caregivers.
  • Build momentum for a school environmental health project. With the help of curricula, students can learn about the indoor air environment and how it directly affects them!

Ethan may be five years away from his first day of school, but at least I know there are steps we can take to help keep him healthy. What actions will you take to create a healthier school environment?

About the author: Brandy Angell is a public affairs specialist with the Office of Radiation and Indoor Air’s Indoor Environments Division. She joined EPA in 2009 to focus on improving children’s health in the school environment and reducing the burden of asthma.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Environmental Justice: Protecting Our Schools

By Lara Lasky

All kids, no matter where they live, deserve the opportunity to learn in a safe environment. Poor indoor air quality — IAQ — in schools can lead to lower academic performance and increased absences. Kids are the ones who suffer the most from unhealthy indoor environments since they spend about 90 percent of their time indoors. Unfortunately, not all kids have clean indoor air where they live, learn and play. That’s where environmental justice, better known as EJ, comes in.

The goal of EJ is quite simple: to ensure that everyone in the U.S. enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment. It means reducing environmental risk disparities and educating the community about what these environmental risks are. And for kids, it means making sure that every child has a clean, safe learning environment.

In many places, communities promote EJ through EPA’s IAQ Tools for Schools Program, which helps school districts develop a plan of action for IAQ management. Many low- and no-cost components of EJ are already included in the program, such as strategies for integrated pest management and reducing environmental asthma triggers. You can learn more about EJ and the IAQ Tools for Schools Program at the upcoming IAQ Tools for Schools National Symposium, January 13 to15 in Washington, D.C.

Here in Region 5 (which includes Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin and 35 tribes) schools and districts promote EJ in a variety of ways. For example, the Healthy Schools Campaign works with schools and community groups throughout Chicago in an effort to reduce disparities in asthma and obesity in schools. And, believe it or not, promoting EJ in your own community might be easier than you think.

Start small and build on existing programs. Engage kids in efforts to identify and reduce environmental health hazards in school design, maintenance and construction through education, technical assistance and advocacy.  Have science teachers create Green Squad projects — as San Francisco Public Schools did — for students to learn about and assess environmental conditions in their schools. Partner with local hospitals to offer asthma screening for children. Start small and grow. Our kids deserve it.

About the author: Lara Lasky has been with EPA for five years and currently serves as the Region 5 environmental justice program coordinator.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Are You Ready for a Snowstorm?

By Lina Younes

Luckily meteorologists in the Washington, DC metro area are not forecasting a major snowstorm in the near future. Nonetheless, as survivors of Snowgeddon 2010, my family and I are beginning to discuss preparations for the next major North American blizzard. We’re not all on the same page, though. While my youngest is praying for another major snow storm so that she can stay home and go sledding, my husband and I are debating the pro’s and con’s of investing in a snow blower and/or generator.

During the first day of Snowgeddon 2010, we were without electricity for 15 hours.  Energy Star windows kept the house comfortable for nearly 12 hours. When it started to get cold, we lit a fire and had great family time around the fireplace. While a cozy fireplace is still an option, we have to make sure that we burn firewood wisely.  Smoke produces a combination of gases and fine particles from burning wood. If you don’t use your wood-burning appliance properly, you can expose your family to serious health effects,
especially if they suffer from heart or respiratory diseases.

Personally, I am very concerned about the use of generators around the home. These gasoline-powered appliances can produce deadly concentrations of carbon monoxide in indoor air. Even though I know we have to operate generators outside to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning, the mere thought of the nearby exhaust scares me. Although we have a carbon monoxide detector, don’t want to have my family anywhere near that exhaust.

Now the other thing we’re also debating is the issue of the snow blower. It was not fun shoveling those tons of snow and we have the “battle scars” to prove it. Furthermore, gas-operated equipment like snowblowers and generators are also sources of air pollution, something we should all try to prevent. The only thing that is making me consider investing in this high ticket item is the probability that if we buy it, it won’t snow this year. We shall see. Are you preparing for snowgeddon 2011?

More about snow and ice

About the author: Lina Younes has been working for EPA since 2002 and chairs EPA’s Multilingual Communications Task Force. Prior to joining EPA, she was the Washington bureau chief for two Puerto Rican newspapers and she has worked for several government agencies.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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The Louisiana Recovery School District: Healing and Thriving

modBy Tiffany Delcour

Indoor air quality (IAQ) in schools is my top priority – and here in the Louisiana Recovery School District (RSD) we’ve had our work cut out for us since Hurricane Katrina to ensure that our schools are as safe and healthy as they can be. But believe it or not, the issue of IAQ didn’t begin with Katrina. Now, don’t get me wrong, Katrina damaged 80% of our school facilities and caused $1.8 billion in damages. Five years later, we are still feeling the effects of Hurricane Katrina on our school district and in many places we have vast, modular campuses instead of permanent school buildings. But really the issue of IAQ started with deferred maintenance costs before the storm.

Deferred maintenance costs are an issue that many, many school districts can relate to, especially older districts with aging buildings. Over time, deferred maintenance can lead to high levels of carbon dioxide, moisture, humidity, HVAC issues and more – universal concerns for school districts, not just those located in hurricane recovery areas. They are issues that RSD is now tackling in all of its schools – including the ones that weren’t damaged by Katrina.

After Katrina, RSD created a district-wide, master rebuilding plan that encompasses all aspects of the rebuilding process — including the issue of IAQ. It also includes a component for preventative maintenance and long-term planning. EPA’s IAQ Tools for Schools Program has been integral to the RSD recovery process.

Last year RSD was featured at the IAQ Tools for Schools National Symposium as a Featured School District. There we shared our story and challenges and received mentorship on how to effectively utilize the IAQ Tools for Schools program. And after we got home, we got to work. The program provided an already-established structure and framework, complete with guidelines and best practices, from which we created an RSD-specific IAQ strategy. We established an air quality team at each school, implemented recommended guidelines, prioritized remediation issues and employed focused preventative maintenance strategies. And we’re happy to report that this year RSD will be attending the Symposium again to share these successes.

We would encourage anyone who is concerned about the health of students, staff, and school buildings in their communities to attend the Symposium – January 13-15, 2011, in Washington, DC. You’ll leave inspired, informed and ready to take on the world.

About the author: Tiffany Delcour joined the Louisiana Recovery School District a little over a year ago as the IAQ coordinator. She has worked directly with EPA’s Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools Program as a featured school at the IAQ Tools for Schools Symposium and currently serves as a mentor to other school stakeholders.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Hispanic Heritage 2010 – Indoor Air Quality (IAQ)

By Carmen Torrent

Is the air in your home healthy? Do you know how harmful substances got there and what to do about them? These are important questions to ask. Asthma triggers, mold, radon and secondhand smoke are all known to reduce the quality of indoor air.

As a Latina, one of the most important values for me is my family. I hold close to my heart not only my immediate family, but also my extended family of friends, neighbors and my three dogs.

A healthy family is an important part of our heritage. However, families often don’t know how important good indoor air quality (IAQ) is to their health. My neighbor, whom I love dearly, is a sweet, elderly woman who is mostly home-bound. This is actually not unusual, for the average American spends more than 90 percent of their time indoors. When I found out she has asthma, I helped her identify her triggers. I went through her house with her and pointed out how dust mites, mold and animal dander and other problems can be controlled to help reduce asthma triggers. Now she has an asthma action plan, takes the proper medication, and is controlling the quality of the air in her home. Learn more about those asthma triggers and watch the video “Breathing Freely: Controlling Asthma Triggers.”

Breathing clean air (whether indoors or outdoors) is essential for good health. The first step is to identify the source of pollutants and then take action to resolve any problems. Some key actions we should all take to protect our families include:

  • Get the mold out! Some people, such as infants and children, are especially vulnerable to mold exposure. Fix or eliminate any water problems, clean up the mold and control humidity levels.
  • Test and fix your home from radon. In fact, radon is the #1 cause of lung cancer among non-smokers. You don’t know if you have a radon problem unless you test your home. Learn about how to get a test kit.

Remember, we can all control the quality of our own indoor air while preserving our heritage and the health of our loved ones.

About the author: Carmen Torrent a public affairs specialist in EPA’s Office of Indoor Air.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.