Alberta Cancer Foundation

Find out what’s in the air you breathe

Winters in Alberta are cold. And so we batten down the hatches, make sure our windows and doors are sealed up tight and that the furnace is blowing warm air. Then wait for spring to come.

Unfortunately, the lack of fresh air in our homes could be harmful to our health. Both chemical and biological pollutants have no way to escape unless we take the proper measures to get rid of them. This can include anything from mould and pet dander to radon and carbon monoxide.

Though people with allergies, asthma, lung diseases, or suppressed immune systems are most vulnerable, dirty air can affect anyone. Luckily, there are ways to combat all the pollutants, either yourself or by hiring a professional.

Chemistry Set
Chemical pollutants can either be gases or particles. They can come from things like oil and gas appliances, paints, scents, pesticides, household cleaning products and air fresheners.
“There are many pollutants in the home,” says Beth Nanni, program specialist for environment and infectious diseases for The Lung Association, Alberta & Northwest Territories. “The most harmful are second-and third-hand smoke.” Second-hand smoke is what other people breathe when a smoker lights up. Third-hand smoke is the pollutants that linger – absorbed by curtains, linens, furniture and clothes – long after the smoker has gone.

When uranium breaks down in our soil, it causes a gas to be released. This gas, radon, is odourless, tasteless, and invisible, making it hard to detect. Radon is a leading cause, second only to smoking, of lung cancer. Outside, the gas is diluted by fresh air, but in our homes (where it enters through cracks in the foundation) it can become quite harmful. Nanni warns, “You can breathe in high levels of radon without knowing it.”

Kits to test for radon are available in many home building stores. If radon is found in your home you’ll need to seal any cracks in your foundation and make sure that your basement is well ventilated.

Carbon monoxide is another major chemical pollutant. “Many Canadians die every year and thousands of others become ill or need medical attention from carbon monoxide poisoning,” Nanni says. Carbon monoxide is produced in fireplaces, wood and coal stoves, space heaters, gas appliances, charcoal grills, camp stoves and automobile exhaust fumes.

Carbon monoxide gets into the bloodstream and prevents the blood from carrying oxygen. In small doses, it makes us sleepy; in large doses it will cause loss of consciousness and death.

To protect from carbon monoxide is as simple as buying a carbon monoxide detector. Professionals advise putting the detector in your bedroom. A qualified technician should inspect your gas appliances yearly. And never start your car, lawn mower or snow blower in an enclosed area. Don’t let these run to warm-up in an attached garage even if the garage door is open. Hide car-start fobs out of reach of small kids especially if you have an attached garage.

Nanni cautions against scented products (perfumes, shampoos, body lotions, air fresheners, candles and cleaning products). “These scents are often made of 95 per cent synthetic chemicals designed to make our neurosensors think we are smelling a particular scent. While some people are only mildly affected by scents, others have severe reactions, including headaches, dizziness, fatigue, anxiety, loss of appetite and difficulty concentrating.” Scented products can also cause an asthma attack.

Biological Subversity
Biological pollutants are or come from living sources including mould, bacteria, pollen, viruses, animal dander, fungi and dust mites. It’s virtually impossible to rid our homes of all biological pollutants, but we can take steps to minimize them. The two things that biological pollutants need to survive are nutrients and moisture. The most affected areas of our homes, therefore, are those that supply one or both of these things: bathrooms, basements, mattresses, carpets, etc. Nanni says, “Controlling moisture is key.”

She suggests using exhaust fans in the bathrooms and kitchens, monitoring the humidity in your home and keeping moist surfaces, such as kitchen counters, bathtubs and shower stalls clean and dry.

The Lung Association also suggests reducing clutter, using a HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Arrestance) filter in your vacuum cleaner, covering your mattress with a mattress cover, replacing furnace filters and bathing or grooming your pet regularly.

Find Out More

The Canadian Lung Association has published a booklet called The Healthy Home Audit that you can order or download. In its 20 pages, you’ll find all the problems you could have with air quality in your home, how to test for them and how to fix them. Visit

Asbestos is still used in buildings today. It can be found in pipe and duct installation, furnaces, flooring, ceiling tiles and textured paints. While the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation says, “Asbestos can be used safely, and public concern has led to improved product design.” But asbestos is a known cancer causer if inhaled. Asbestos fibres released during renovations on older homes can be dangerous. Before you lift old tiles or cut into ductwork, call an asbestos testing company, and then, if necessary, another company that can remove asbestos according to safety regulations. Find out more at Health Canada,, and enter “asbestos” in the search field.

It’s harmful to the environment and breathing the fumes can be dangerous. Making a bleach solution is tricky because we can’t control the pH of the water or ensure the time needed for proper disinfections. Bleach ends up doing more harm than good. Interested in making your own cleaning products? See