Everyday Life: Safe Household Products, Air Quality, and Equity
A backgrounder on household chemicals and air quality

Household products impact indoor air quality. Because the majority of personal care products (such as shampoos, lotions, perfumes and aerosols), household cleaners, renovation products, furniture, building materials, air fresheners, candles, and incense, are in some part made from petrochemicals, when we use them, parts of them turn from solid to gas, and travel both into the upper atmosphere and into our lungs. The atmosphere is made up of 78% nitrogen and 21% oxygen, and so particles and gases are constantly entering it and undergoing chemical reactions.

Petrochemicals are human-made chemicals derived from fossil fuels, including petroleum, natural gas, and coal. They can travel great distances. Petrochemicals can pollute the air, water, and soil. They may do so during extraction, during manufacturing, during transport, when we use them in our homes, and when they are disposed of as household hazardous waste (such as renovation chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and beauty products like nail polish, perfume, and aerosols). While chemical gases are also released from many natural sources, including volcanic eruptions, forest fires, mould, plants, and bacteria, over the past several generations, humans have synthesized an unprecedented number of new petrochemicals.

While not all chemicals are toxic, and many are essential for modern life as we know it, many are toxic, or have the potential to be, but have not yet been adequately assessed for safety or accessibility. Certain chemical exposures can impact our health acutely (in the immediate short-term), while others can impact our health in the long-term, after many years of cumulative exposure. Chemicals can also be disabling. For people who live with multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), scent sensitivities, or other chronic illnesses impacted by air quality such as COPD, asthma, or migraine, chemicals in the air can create an accessibility barrier.

To help create accessible and healthy environments for everyone, it is important to use least toxic products in your home. Household products play an important role in determining the air quality in indoor spaces, as well as improving accessibility for those who live with MCS. Research has also shown that household products play an important role in contributing to outdoor air quality. Our household use of all these products adds up—collectively, it can impact the air quality of our community, our city, and even contribute to climate change.

In Canada, chemicals are presently assessed for toxicity as part of the 1999 Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA). As of 2022, CEPA was updated with Bill S-5, the “Strengthening Environmental Protection for a Healthier Canada Act.” An important new part of this act includes the right to a healthy environment for all. Groups such as the Coalition for Action on Toxics are currently in the process of making sure this right is followed through in Canada.

Choosing safe and healthy household products

The Eco Living Guide is a useful resource when navigating household chemical product choices. It contains suggestions for healthier scent and fragrance-free product choices and do-it-yourself home-made products that work just as well, and are cost-effective while being healthy and good for the environment. It also contains information on least-toxic ways of living in our homes.

It can be challenging and overwhelming to choose healthy products. There are now many available on the market, and some make claims such as ‘natural’, ‘eco-friendly’, ‘green’, ‘biodegradable’, or ‘good for the environment,’ but it is difficult to verify this information. Greenwashing is when a product promotes itself as being safe and healthy but in fact still contains toxic chemicals. To learn more about avoiding chemicals that can be detrimental to your health, see this guide on how to better choose your products.

The Environmental Working Group also provides a comprehensive list of healthier products in many different categories. Visit their website and check out their consumer guides here.

Indoor air quality, equity, and environmental justice
What is equity?

According to the National Collaborating Center for Environmental Health (NCCEH):

Environmental equity and environmental justice are two often-conflated terms used to describe the approach used to address environmental inequities. Though similar in their meaning, environmental equity represents the circumstance in which no single group or community is at a disadvantage in dealing with hazardous environmental exposures or natural disasters, regardless of their social position. It involves identifying inequities and providing those affected with the supports needed to achieve a position of equity.

Environmental justice goes one step further, and involves the actions and activism necessary to spotlight environmental inequities to address their root cause(s) in a way that leads to long-term, equitable outcomes. The US Environmental Protection Agency further define environmental justice as seeking the equal treatment and involvement of people of all races, cultures, incomes, and education levels in the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental programs, laws, rules, and policies.”

Thus, while disability advocacy and the supporting of access needs for those living with MCS is an issue of equity, it is also connected to environmental justice.

Indoor air quality is one of the most important health, safety, and accessibility concerns there is, because equitable air quality is a key part of environmental justice. In a world where pollution is everywhere, there can be no safe environments without actively working together to create accessible air. Chemical exposures and indoor air quality are part of a larger set of uneven environmental stakes and consequences which vary by gender, class, ethnicity, and ability. Many vulnerable populations are unevenly impacted by air quality and chemical exposure, including visible minorities, Indigenous Nations and other racialized groups, individuals living on social assistance or who are in poverty, individuals who are food insecure or in core housing need, the elderly, young children, pregnant women, and those living with chronic illnesses, chronic diseases, and disabilities.

While everyone is affected differently by the presence of chemicals, scents and fragrances, many Canadians are subject to a disproportionate burden of exposure in their homes and workplaces everyday. Many people endure poor air quality in order to avoid housing insecurity, or to keep their jobs. For example, renters may have different levels and types of exposures than homeowners, which overlap with different levels and types of exposures experienced by those living in poverty. These include: mould, second hand smoke, forced air heating, poor ventilation, pesticide spray, renovation of neighbouring units, and living in proximity to heavy traffic, industry, or other polluted outdoor areas.

Air quality is also being increasingly impacted by climate change. Changes to the weather shape our exposure to both outdoor and indoor air pollution. Increased natural disasters such as drought, hurricanes, and forest fire smoke also influence our exposures to chemicals and air pollution.

Improving Indoor Air Quality

The 2013 Canadian Committee on Indoor Air Quality and Buildings report sheds light on strategies to improve indoor air quality. Some of these strategies include:

  • removing chemical products (including scented and fragranced products) from the home
  • addressing sources of pollutant intrusion and mitigating them, such as by installing filters on air-intake or forced air vents, or creating a smoke and scent-free home environment
  • using a HEPA and/or activated charcoal air filter
  • improving ventilation, such as by opening windows, or installing properly functioning stove hoods and bathroom fans
  • in more extreme cases, reducing the off-gassing of building materials and furniture (such as by replacing them with non-off gassing alternatives, by temporarily removing them from the house, or by installing materials which block off-gassing from occurring), or, if necessary, relocating to a safer environment

If you are a homeowner, you can ask your neighbours to notify you when they carry out repairs so that you can close your windows and air exchanger. As a tenant, you may want to ask for notification of repairs, that repairs or renovations not be carried out during the winter months, that mould be removed correctly, that non-toxic products be used to clean hallways, etc.

Mould and air quality

Another big source of exposure which impacts air quality in our homes is mould. Mould has always been with us; it can be found just about everywhere. Basically, where there is life, there is mould. Problems arise when concentrations of mould grow in contained spaces, such as our homes, or when we live in very humid areas.

The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) estimates that more than 60% of finished basements have mould in their drywall. They also found that about 40% of the mould in these basements is toxic, which means that if you have a finished basement, your chances of having unhealthy mould in your house are greater than 25%.

Mould and health

There are thousands of species of mould that come in several shapes and colours. Some are allergens, others can sensitize you (meaning that they might make you more likely to react to other allergens) and still others produce toxins, known as mycotoxins, which can be very dangerous. An important growing body of research is investigating the links between mold exposure and health effects such as chronic fatigue, neurological symptoms, cognitive impacts like brain fog, and immunotoxicity. Stachybotrys, a black mould, is by far the most toxic to human health. There are other black moulds, so it is important to note that if it appears black, it does not necessarily mean it is Stachybotrys.

The following are some of the symptoms people may experience as a result of mould exposure:

  • Sneezing
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Cough and post nasal drip
  • Itchy eyes, nose and throat
  • Watery eyes
  • Dry, scaly skin
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness

(Source : Mayo Clinic)

If you are concerned about mould exposure impacting your health, it is possible to pay for tests to have blood tested for mycotoxins or for antibodies to certain species of mould. It is sometimes difficult to connect symptoms with mould exposure. Symptoms can vary and be intermittent, because mould may give off different toxins at different times of day and at different temperatures.

Managing mould

The best strategy for managing mould exposure and health is prevention. Mould grows in humidity levels above 70%. Buy a hygrometer at your local hardware store, and use it to measure humidity levels. Humidity should be between 30% and 55%, closer to 30 in the winter. Remember that a reading in the middle of the room may be lower than one taken near a window or behind furniture. Increase ventilation or use a dehumidifier to get rid of excess humidity, but make sure to clean it regularly to prevent mould growth. Do not place heavy furniture against an outside wall.

Make sure the home is properly drained. Gutters and downspouts should drain away from the home, and soil should be graded away from the home.

Mould needs moisture and humidity in which to grow, although some species continue to produce spores even when dry. These spores attach to the dust in your environment and can contaminate your whole house. In a house with high amounts of mould, spores may grow on cellulose (including mattresses, stuffed items, books, paper, drywall and insulation). If you notice visible signs of mould, such as around bathroom caulking, or on damp walls or ceilings, you can be sure there is much more than the eye can see.

Mould will begin to grow on a damp surface within 24 to 48 hours. To prevent mould growth, any leak or water damage should be opened up and thoroughly dried within 48 hours.

**Of note is that mould may also grow in houseplant soil. If you are sensitive to mould it is recommended you reduce the number of houseplants.**

Is there mould in my home?

If you suspect the presence of mould, you may need to seek out a reputable professional who can inspect and test the air quality in your home. Cultures can be taken from a petri dish or from house dust (some experts suggest that dust sampling is more accurate). Mould sampling will tell you if you have an unacceptable level of mould in your indoor air. An inspection with a device that measures humidity in the walls will indicate where the problem might be. Professionals may also have miniature cameras that allow them to spot hidden mould inside walls, or infrared cameras, which can indicate temperature changes and where moisture may be infiltrating. There are also dogs trained to detect the presence of mould.

Once you have located the problem, all visible wet and mouldy material, as well as a larger area where mould may have begun to grow, must be removed. This must be done by a professional who can ensure that the area is properly contained so that spores are not released into the rest of the house.

Once the source has been removed, you must proceed with a ‘spring cleaning.’ This involves washing as many items as possible in hot water, putting stuffed items such as mattresses and sofas out in the sun, and washing walls and ceilings as well as every horizontal surface in the house with a damp cloth and unscented soap, then rinsing once again with a wrung-out cloth. Removing the source completely is generally sufficient. If contamination is extensive, you can conduct a second air quality test after six months.

**Note: do not use bleach when cleaning mould, as it will encourage the mould to release spores or mycotoxins. Never let any professional apply a fungicide inside your walls, especially if you have multiple chemical sensitivities. Food grade hydrogen peroxide may be used if you absolutely want to put something in the wall.**