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Why Portland’s air (and my home) stinks

7.10.12 by Stephen Aiguier

I’m coming out of the closet about something: my air stinks. Indoor air quality in existing buildings like my 1920s Northeast Portland bungalow is stale, smelly and causes severe health issues.

The EPA warns that indoor air quality is generally two to five times (and in some cases 100 times) more polluted than outdoor air. This is a serious issue when you consider the majority of us spend 90 percent of our lives indoors. For my fellow Portlanders, this news is more appalling when you consider the toxicity of our outdoor air. In a 2005 national-scale air toxics assessment, the most recent completed, the EPA concluded air pollution in the Portland-metro area put us at the third highest risk of cancer of any metro area in the United States. Only the Los Angeles- and New York City-metro areas were worse.

So our air stinks. But why does my indoor air stink? Many of us assume it’s the toxic stuff people buy, like particleboard furniture and vinyl products like toys and shower curtains, which give off volatile organic compounds (VOCs). This is certainly true, but my wife and I are strictly conscious about not purchasing toxic stuff. For others, like myself, it could be toxic combustion equipment like furnaces, hot water heaters, gas ranges and wood stoves. True again. In fact, gas cooktops emit nitrogen dioxide and other hazardous gases, which have been directly correlated to neurological development issues in early childhood. So certainly toxic materials and combustion appliances don’t help the indoor air quality, but one culprit is potentially worse: poor ventilation.

We generally get our fresh air through infiltration – that means leaks. What we call “fresh” air comes into our homes through air leaks in our siding, wall cavities, electrical plugs, crawl spaces, attics and chimneys. How fresh that air is depends partly on the last time those areas were cleaned – when was the last time you cleaned them?

Our homes are also under near-constant negative pressure, meaning air is sucked out through bathroom fans, stove hoods and the like, and replaced with toxic air that leaks through the building envelope from outside. Other toxins come inside through other means: on our shoes, on our pets’ coats and on the millions of skin cells humans slough off daily. Yuck! We exacerbate the issue by adding gallons of moisture via breathing, cooking and bathing, which at relative humidity levels above 60 percent fuel mold, mildew, bacteria, pathogens and viruses to thrive indoors.

So where does that leave my family and our 90-year-old, stinky home? I decided to take a comprehensive approach to fix the problem. After all, homes live and breath just like our bodies, and the comprehensive solutions—eating right, exercising, and not smoking—always have better results than shortcuts. I’ll write next time about my comprehensive approach to tackle the stinky air problem in my home. In the meantime, think of your body like a home: open your windows and ponder the significance of our bodies being air-tight, vapor-open and breathing through an intake and an exhaust.

This article first appeared in the Daily Journal of Commerce. 

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