The air you breathe at home might be worse than the world’s most polluted cities

There is no feeling in the world quite like cooking Thanksgiving dinner. The oven runs for hours, roasting turkey and stuffing, releasing buttery, Maillard reactions into the air. Pop open a bottle of wine with family while you finish the gravy, and life is good. All of Maslow’s needs seem met, if only for a few moments.

But as we discovered by reading a chilling profile on new air quality research in The New Yorker by Nicola Twilley, things might not be so good for you and your family. While cooking Thanksgiving dinner, indoor carbon dioxide levels can spike to levels so high they could theoretically impair brain function, while fine particulate matter exceeds the air of the city with the dirtiest air on earth, New Delhi.

You won’t read these findings in any scientific journal yet, but you probably will soon. The early data comes courtesy of a project led by Colorado State University and University of Colorado called Homechem–or House Observations of Microbial and Environmental Chemistry–in which 15 research groups from nine different universities collect data inside a prefabricated home at the University of Texas. There, researchers cook, clean, and hang out, all while taking unprecedented measurements as to how our activities impact indoor air quality.

Given that 90% of our time is spent indoors, you’d think this would be a topic we know a lot about. Yet little research has methodically studied indoor toxins. Pressing public health issues spurred by rapid urbanization has most researchers focused on the compounds in outdoor air. But what this group of researchers found inside was shocking. Some takeaways:

  • Cooking is terrible for indoor air quality–and bad enough at times to make air quality reach what urbanists would deem “polluted” levels. Quick stir-fries and long bakes alike both appear to have detrimental effects on air quality–but for how long, and to exactly what areas of your home, isn’t entirely clear.
  • Cleaning supplies are bad, too. In fact, in Los Angeles–where some research is occurring now–cleaning supplies could be so damaging that their volatile chemicals are leaching from indoors to outdoor air, creating more smog than the area’s more regulated cars.
  • Teenagers are contributing in their own special way. Writes Nicola Twilley: “[Homechem researchers] recently collaborated on a separate study of nearby high schools and found that the highest emission levels were always of the same two chemicals, found in exactly the same ratio at every location. After a little bit of detective work, they identified the culprit: Axe body sprays, which the teenage boys of Texas apparently apply lavishly in classrooms between periods.”

Overall, things look bad–very bad–for our indoor air quality. The good news is that many of the worst moments for air quality don’t seem to be sustained, but spike, like in the moments you make a stir-fry. However, because the nature of airborne chemicals is so complicated, foods, cleaners, and toiletries can actually interact with one another in difficult-to-deconstruct ways.

Back in 2016, WHO determined that 4.2 million people around the world die early each year because of outdoor air pollution. So how is our indoor air affecting our health? We may be many years from finding out, because this research is ongoing–and even when it’s complete, more research will need to prove a definitive link between these indoor compounds and our health. Until then, I for one am going to dream about the possibility of installing a fresh-air intake system. Even if these measures don’t fix indoor air quality on their own, we do know such interventions can affect the indoor biome of microorganisms in a way that is important to our general well-being.

Clearly, we need to entirely rethink the way we build housing. But good luck tearing Axe body spray from rancid 14-year-old boys.

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