Chances are that unless you are hot or cold - or if you smell something funny - you probably never think about indoor air quality. However, scientists know that gases in the air that you cannot see or smell can still affect your health.
The most dangerous gas most of us will ever face is carbon monoxide (CO). Not normally occurring in nature, this gas is the result of oxygen-starved combustion from improperly ventilated fuel-burning motors and appliances like:
Too much carbon monoxide in an unventilated space is deadly. In fact, carbon monoxide poisoning is the most common type of fatal poisoning worldwide. This is why many new homes are built with CO detectors in addition to smoke detectors.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is colorless, odorless and tasteless. It is a naturally occurring gas produced by our bodies. Plants and trees depend on CO2 for life (they take in CO2 and give out oxygen).
While not as deadly as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide can affect your health both directly and indirectly. The direct effect is simple: too much carbon dioxide in an enclosed space – for example, in a submarine – can suffocate you long before the oxygen runs out.
Think this can’t happen to you? Actually, dozens of people die every year as the result of leaky CO2 storage tanks attached to soda machines in bars and restaurants. Others die in dry ice (frozen carbon dioxide) storage lockers used for temporary food storage.
Even if you are never on a submarine, slightly elevated levels of CO2 can still affect your health.
For example, normal outdoor air has approximately 390 ppm (parts per million) of CO2 by volume. At levels approaching 1,200 ppm of CO2 typically found in busy office buildings or classrooms, people report drowsiness and inability to focus. At levels over 5,000ppm found in some factories, workers report headaches and dizziness.
This is why most modern buildings or businesses that store compressed CO2 have carbon dioxide detectors as part of their heating and cooling systems. CO2 sensors control fans that bring in fresh air when needed. In addition to removing the excess CO2 gas, adding fresh air removes floating dirt, dust, bacteria, mold and other airborne particles that can affect your health.
So the next time you take a breath at home, at school or in the office, consider what might be in the air that you don’t know about. Or at least, open a window.