Suburban smog: Cooking, cleaning pollutes the air inside your own home

FORT COLLINS, Colo. — Home may be where the heart is, but new research from Colorado State University finds the typical American abode may contain numerous airborne toxins as well. Study authors originally set out to determine if cooking and cleaning within one’s home results in exposure to potentially harmful chemicals. Their hunch was right.

These findings are rooted in a large, collaborative research experiment conducted in 2018 that attempted to map out the airborne chemistry of a typical home. That project, called HOMEchem, brought together 60 scientists from 13 different universities under one suburban roof near the University of Texas at Austin. Scientists engaged in a variety of typical “home activities” like cooking and cleaning, all while documenting the resulting chemistry via sophisticated instruments.

Now, researchers at CSU have taken all of the data collected during HOMEchem and analyzed it according to health effects. This led to the identification of numerous observed compounds that are known human toxins. Similarly, other compounds were deemed “likely human toxins,” per the latest Environmental Protection Agency models. Most of these compounds tend to be emitted in low quantities, and can be removed fairly easily with proper ventilation.

‘Indoor air isn’t going to kill you’

Still, study authors note modern medicine simply doesn’t have a strong understanding of the possible health impacts connected to both the individual compounds and their complex mixtures indoors. “Indoor air isn’t going to kill you, but we do find that indoor air has many more ­– and often times at higher levels – known and potential air toxics versus outdoors, particularly when you’re cooking,” says Delphine Farmer, associate professor in the Department of Chemistry at CSU, in a university release.

The extensive task of managing all that data in a meaningful way was led by study co-author Anna Hodshire, a former CSU postdoctoral researcher with skill in analyzing data from atmospheric instrumentation.

“I think it’s very interesting that there are so many compounds emitted from common household activities, and that the majority of these compounds have not been studied from a toxicity perspective,” Hodshire explains. “This doesn’t automatically mean that all of these compounds are toxic ­– but it does point to the fact that a lot more work needs to be done to assess some of the compounds that are emitted frequently in high concentrations from household activities.”

Which toxins were found in the air?

Among the numerous compounds detected and measured during HOMEChem, a few usual suspects kept appearing over and over. Both benzene and formaldehyde were frequently observed in varying quantities. Additionally, the not as well known acrolein, considered a pulmonary toxicant emitted by lumber and burning fats, was identified as a potential compound of interest warranting further investigation. Another compound of concern is the understudied isocyanic acid, known to react with proteins in the human body.

Study authors report cooking activities tend to produce larger amounts of potentially toxic compounds, akin to what is seen in wildfire smoke. Prof. Farmer adds that this makes a certain degree of sense, considering a wildfire can be considered an “extreme form of cooking.”

All in all, study authors conclude there is still a lot of research to be conducted regarding our understanding of everyday exposures to potential toxins. “We have done our part now, and hopefully there’s enough information for others to pick up the charge and see what compounds are important to study,” Prof. Farmer concludes.

The study is published in Environmental Science & Technology.