Willamette Winters and Indoor Air Pollution: A Tale of Inversion, Radon, and Toxins

As winter envelops Corvallis, residents will close their windows, shut their doors, and turn to their wood-burning stoves, gas fireplaces, and central heating systems. While wrapping yourself in a blanket on a cold December morning and enjoying the smell of burning wood may be a wonderful image, it could carry significant health hazards.

Indoor air pollution—yes, indoor—is a major health concern during the winter months. As houses close up, leaving the bitter cold outside, toxins from sources like combustible materials—coal, kerosene, oil, wood, and cigarettes—can build up inside a home. Deterioration of items such as household insulation, wet carpets, pressed-wood furniture, and cleaning products can also produce toxins.

In today’s economy, efficient homes are a hot commodity. Technology within homes is getting better and new houses are keeping the heat in during the winter and banishing it during the summer better than ever, lowering heating and air-conditioning costs. Triple-paned windows, higher levels of more effective insulation, and sealing locations where outside air can get inside are examples of ways to increase home energy efficiency, but these fixes could be detrimental in the long run.

Radon gas is something that has gotten quite a bit of attention recently; it’s the number one cause of lung cancer among non-smokers. You may think this number is benign, since most that get lung cancer are smokers, but lung cancer among never-smokers is the sixth most common cause of cancer deaths in the country. It is estimated that radon causes about 20,000 of those deaths annually. Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that has no odor, color, or taste. A by-product of the breakdown of uranium in rocks, soil, and water, it can enter homes through vents, windows, doors, and any other air-entry point. Under most circumstances, air moves in and out of a house and pollutants are not a major concern. However, when homes are sealed up and the air becomes still, gases like radon can cause serious harm to your health.

In Oregon, our weather systems come from the Pacific Ocean, and typically move the air around, pushing out the old as new fronts move in. When there are no fronts coming through, sometimes instead of temperatures declining as elevation increases, a phenomenon called an inversion layer occurs in the Willamette Valley. This means that the top of Mary’s Peak can become warmer than the temperature in Corvallis. When this happens, air is trapped on the valley floor and we see fog, clouds, cold temperatures, and stagnant air. A perfect storm could be brewing, so to speak, should the valley experience an inversion layer as people seal their homes from the lingering cold and stoke their fires.

Luckily, there are easy ways to mitigate indoor air pollution and let yourself breathe easier.

First and foremost, open a window or door occasionally. Yes, it’s cold outside, but if you can get some airflow through your home, many of the toxins and pollutants will find their way out the window. Perhaps while out of the house for a day, leave an upstairs window open. Since heat rises, re-heating the upstairs is easier than the downstairs.

Second, make your home a non-smoking zone. To each their own, but cigarettes, unlike wood-burning stoves, have no chimney that pipes the chemicals outside of the home. All of the by-products of cigarette smoke stay inside and can cause tremendous harm in the form of second-hand smoke.

Third, test for radon. The test is simple and easy and can be ordered through organizations like the American Lung Association. There are a variety of tests, but for the most part, a short two- to seven-day screening test is sufficient to determine whether more testing needs to be done or if your home has no radon issues.

Lastly, clean your home, but do so naturally. Get out the vacuum cleaner and remove all the dust bunnies under your couch. Find the sources of odors and get rid of them instead of covering up the smell. Synthetic cleaners and air fresheners, while they’re easy fixes, add to the problem. Air fresheners that claim to be scented often utilize illegal—and toxic—compounds. Fragrances are a “trade secret,” so companies are not required to list the ingredients, often petroleum-based chemicals, on the label. Instead, use natural fragrances and odor absorbers, like sliced lemons and baking soda. And while on the natural fix, bring the outdoors indoors with a fern or aloe vera plant. Indoor plants act as natural air purifiers, absorbing pollutants through the roots and foliage. In no time, your house will be smelling fresh and your lungs will be happy to be breathing clean air.

By Brendan O’Callaghan