China’s explosive economic growth has outstripped its ability to regulate environmental pollution. At the same time, there is little public awareness and regulation around human exposure to lead and mold. As a result, our homes are threatened by many sources of indoor pollutants. Understanding their sources and health impact is the first step to elimination.
What: Indoor air in China has high levels of particulates ranging in size from visible dust down to viruses invisible to the naked eye. Sources include: outdoor air pollution, smoking, human skin cells, dust mites, pollen, pet dander, and mold. It can also contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs), gases that are released as materials they are in break down.
Health effects: Particulates are a lung and nose irritant and may trigger asthma and allergies. VOCs commonly cause burning of the eyes, headaches, and some can lead to cancer.
What: Tap water may have high levels of chlorine used to disinfect, dangerous lead and other heavy metals leached from old piping, and bacterial cysts and other parasites resistant to chlorine treatment.
Health effects: Chlorine, whether drunk, inhaled, or absorbed, is harsh on skin and hair and can form byproducts such as chloroform that are carcinogenic. Lead poisoning through water can lead to mental retardation and cognitive problems. Cysts or parasites can result in gastrointestinal sickness.
What: Lead is a heavy metal commonly found in China in building materials, fuels, soil, consumer products, and even food and water.
Health effects: Lead is very poisonous even at extremely low levels. It has been conclusively linked to neurological damage, retardation of cognitive and physical development, and even violent behavior in children. Lead poisoning is irreversible, so early prevention is the cure.
What: Mold is any fungus that grows on food or damp building materials and reproduces by releasing spores that can be inhaled. Mold is often difficult to locate visually but can be detected by a musty odor.
Health effects: Mold spores can cause respiratory illness, headaches, wheezing and shortness of breath, and flu-like symptoms. Mold increases risk of respiratory disease by 50% and accounts for as much as 20% of asthma. Some molds produce mycotoxins that can lead to severe allergic reactions and fatalities.