Asthma awareness helps people identify issues in their homes

May 26, 2011

In recognition of National Air Quality Awareness week, Garfield, Eagle, Mesa, and Pitkin Counties, along with the City of Aspen and the US Environmental Protection Agency, have partnered together to raise awareness about indoor and outdoor air quality issues, encouraging our communities to ‘share the air.’

Even her own laundry detergent may trigger an attack. Sometimes it helps to go outside and get fresh air, but sometimes she just can’t catch her breath. Aspen resident Cari Anne Holcomb has had issues with asthma for the last ten years, and her condition seems to be getting worse.

People often associate air quality with the outdoors, thinking about emissions from vehicles or other industry sources. However, what they may not know is that the air inside of homes is often more polluted than outdoor air. It is polluted by personal care products, cleaning supplies, and other products treated with chemicals. Because people and pets spend up to 90% of their time indoors, this is particularly concerning. May is National Asthma Awareness Month.

People suffering from asthma feel like they are being choked and can’t catch their breath. For Holcomb, on extreme days there can be several minutes where she just can’t breathe. Asthma attacks can range from persistent coughing and scratchy throats to severe reactions. Holcomb’s asthma is considered moderate. “It’s frustrating that there can be things in your life you don’t have control over,” she said. “You can’t help it, but you have to deal with it. I just try to keep it all in balance.”

Pitkin County Environmental Health Manager, Carla Ostberg, says that volatile organic compounds (VOC) are chemicals found in common household items, and are key contributors to indoor air pollution. These pollutants can cause or worsen allergies, respiratory illnesses – such as asthma, heart disease, cancer, and other serious long-term conditions. VOCs are found in scented candles, carpets, nail polishes, paint, air fresheners, dry-cleaned clothing, building material, and even some home furnishings, such as pressed-wood furniture. VOCs evaporate into the air when these products are used, or sometimes even when they are stored. “I always say that scented candles are the nicest smelling form of pollution you will ever welcome into your home,” said Ostberg.

For Holcomb, dealing with asthma has been even more difficult than she would like to admit. Sometimes she finds herself struggling for breath and doesn’t even know where the trigger is coming from. “People don’t realize that the things they put on, or have in their home, or use at work can be harmful, especially to those who suffer from asthma,” she says. “For me it’s not a ‘preference,’ like whether I like a particular fragrance or not. It’s a physical reaction that occurs. I don’t have control over it. I would prefer not to have this allergy or asthma at all, but this is what it is.”

Ostberg advises that you can help clear the air and improve your own health, as well as help those around you, by controlling the chemicals that you invite into your home or workplace. Increasing the amount of fresh air brought indoors helps. Even opening the window a crack can improve ventilation. Ostberg cautions to never mix products, such as cleaners, and always follow manufacturers’ instructions when using and storing items that may release pollutants into the air.

To find out more information on improving the quality of indoor air, contact Garfield County Public Health at 970-625-5200.

Air Quality