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Health effects of indoor pollution PDF Print E-mail

Exposure to chemical pollution indoors impacts our health and wellbeing with children, pregnant and breastfeeding women at greatest risk.

It’s known that exposure to certain indoor pollutants can cause short-term health problems such as headache, fatigue, coughing, sneezing, dizziness, and eye, nose, throat and skin irritation.

In the work environment indoor air pollution has been shown to affect people’s ability to concentrate and to do their tasks well and has been termed ‘sick building syndrome’. There have been legal challenges for compensation by people who have become ill as a result of exposure to indoor air pollution in their workplace.

It is now understood that the same thing can happen inside our homes and ‘sick home syndrome’ is a real problem that occurs especially during renovations and after a house is first built and the levels of chemical pollutants are much greater.

The long-term health effects from exposure to indoor chemical pollutants are less understood although concerns have been raised that regular exposure to indoor pollutants could be linked to the promotion of certain cancers, respiratory illness, immune system changes, behavioral and learning disorders.

Further information see:

CSIRO Manufacturing and Infrastructure Technology, Indoor Air Pollution Assessment and Control

Why children are at greater risk

Children are many times more sensitive to chemicals than adults due to complex biological, physiological and behavioral factors. For example, kilogram for kilogram, children are exposed to more toxic chemicals in food, air and water than adults. They breathe twice as much air as adults and are at much greater risk of over-exposure to indoor air pollutants.

Children are at high risk of chemical exposure during renovations and new construction of houses, but their unique sensitivity to chemicals is not widely understood nor taken into account in the development of products and standards and in the management of air quality. Inquisitive children also often want to be involved in DIY projects around the home where they may be inadvertently exposed to chemicals that are dangerous to their health.

Newborns and children up to the age of three are at particular risk because they are undergoing such rapid development and growth in body organs and systems. Teenagers are also at risk and are especially vulnerable to neuro-toxic chemicals because their nervous systems are undergoing significant developmental changes.

For further information see:

WHO Children’s Health and Environment Program

Childhood cancers

The Centre for Children’s Health and the Environment at the Mt Sinai School of Medicine states there is medical and scientific evidence that childhood exposure to common hazardous chemicals is linked to rising rates of some childhood cancers, including brain cancer, testicular cancer and lymphocytic leukemia.

Chemicals of concern include some household chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides, paint thinners, PCBs, lead and mercury.

Further information see:

Centre for Children’s Health and the Environment

Endocrine (hormone) disruption

Common chemical pollutants found in our homes are also linked to endocrine (hormone) disruption. Hormone disruption occurs when the effects of a natural hormone is blocked by a synthetic substance, or by the substance directly interfering with the endocrine glands. Chemicals that have this capability are called endocrine disruptors.

These substances have been shown to alter the function of oestrogen, androgen, thyroid hormone, and even the hormones of the pituitary gland. Certain insecticides, herbicides and fungicides as well as industrial chemicals such as detergents, resins, and plasticizers are among the kinds of chemicals that are proven or suspected of being endocrine disruptors.

Further information see:

Our Stolen Future


Australia has one of the highest rates of childhood asthma in the world, with one in four children suffering from the disease. The Commonwealth Department of Health and Aging indicate that up to 60 % of asthma deaths may be associated with avoidable factors. 

Known triggers of asthma attacks include tobacco smoke, paint, aerosols such as hair spray, perfumed products and volatile organic compounds or VOCs. The question of whether exposure to these substances causes asthma remains unanswered.

For more information see:

Department of Health and Ageing

Women and chemical exposures

Women are also at particular risk from exposure to indoor air pollutants because some chemicals can bio-accumulate (build-up) in their bodies, contaminating blood and breast milk and impacting on the health of future generations. Pregnant and breastfeeding mothers are at higher risk because chemical exposures during those times can directly impact the health of the baby.

The Australian Environment Protection and Heritage Council released a report in 2005 on the study of human milk contamination in Australia in relation to organochlorine pesticides (OCPs) and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs).

The study found that overall concentrations of OCPs in the breast milk of the Australian women used in the study were low compared to international studies. It was noted that in this instance, the banning of OCPs in the mid 1980s has had a positive affect.

The levels of PBDEs detected in breast milk were however higher than those levels observed in Europe and Japan, but lower than those in North America and Canada.

Organic solvents found in household paints, varnishes, thinners, glues and degreasers have also been found to contaminate breast milk. The US Natural Resources Defence Council Healthy Milk Healthy Baby campaign alerts the community to the problem of common chemicals contaminating breast milk. The key message is “Say YES to breastfeeding and NO to toxic chemicals in the environment”.

Further information see:

Environment Protection and Heritage Council (2005) Organochlorine pesticides (OCS) and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) in the Australian Population: Levels in Human Milk. US Natural Resources Defence Council Healthy Milk Healthy Baby
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