Crop sprayer

Children and Adults are Breathing Highly Polluted Air in Our Homes

by John P. Thomas
Health Impact News

Indoor air contamination has become a central issue today because most of us spend up to 90% of our time indoors and we are breathing and re-breathing the same old polluted air all day long.

The problem is worse for very young children, because the air quality is much worse at floor level. Many toxic substances are heavier than air and sink down to floor level. The air zone where a baby breathes is less than 2 feet above the floor. This is in contrast to an adult’s breathing zone, which is 4 to 6 feet above the floor. For example, mercury, pesticides, radon gas, and lead dust linger at floor level. In one study, the pesticide Chlorpyrifos was found to be nearly four times more concentrated at 5 to 10 inches from the floor compared with the air 2 feet or more above the floor in a room with a window open for ventilation. [1]

I remember a time in the mid-1980s when I accidentally nearly killed my dog with ant and roach killer. My wife and I were finding roaches in our laundry room where we also fed our dog. So, during our next trip to the grocery store, we visited the insecticide display. We found an aerosol can of insecticide. We read the label, which had some vague warning about not using it around pets. I didn’t really understand what that meant. I thought that you shouldn’t spray it on pets or their bedding. I cleaned the room thoroughly and pulled out all the pieces of dog food that had gotten lodged under the washing machine. Then I applied a liberal dose of the spray around the washing machine. I then went up to the kitchen and sprayed under the kitchen range where we saw an occasional roach.

The next day we observed the dog do something very strange. She walked into the kitchen and started licking the bottom drawer of the range. We told her to stop, but she kept going back as if she was being drawn by a magnet. Later I decided to wash off the dog slobber from the stove and then noticed the residual smell of the roach poison. I then understood the vague warning on the pesticide can. The reason that you shouldn’t use it around pets is that they will have an uncontrollable desire to eat it.

By the time I got the whole picture in my head, the dog must have spent hours over several days licking up the roach spray that was in her sleeping quarters. It took a number of weeks for her to get sick, but she nearly died from kidney and liver damage. Fortunately, she recovered, but only after considerable suffering and financial expense.

I Now Count the True Cost of Using Pesticides

I am telling this story, because we, as Americans, have an incredible level of intolerance for pests. We hate mosquitoes, roaches, ants, wasps, mice, rats, and any kind of critter that eats the plants in our gardens. In the 1980s I would gladly have reached for a can of bug spray before I would have reached for a fly swatter. I would rather have sprayed something to kill bugs rather than to have removed their food source. I would rather have declared chemical warfare on pests rather than to eliminate the environmental factors that were inviting and encouraging their presence. I wasn’t that different from most Americans. I hated pests and was dedicated to killing them all.

According to an EPA survey, 75% of U.S. households use at least one pesticide product in the home. Another EPA study suggests that 80% of most people’s exposure to pesticides occurs indoors and that measurable levels of up to a dozen pesticides have been found in the air inside homes. Pesticides emit hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) and volatile organic compounds (VOC). These pollutants can contribute to health problems that may affect residents, the neighborhood, and the community. [2]

I have learned a lot over the past 30 years about the dangers of pesticides and how the use of chemical warfare methods may end up harming human life much more than they harm insects, weeds, and mice. We now know that when insecticides are used in the indoor environment, they linger for years. They accumulate with every application to the point where indoor air quality is 2 to 5 times more toxic than outdoor air.

In some cases, indoor air can be 100 times more toxic than outdoor air. Such poor quality air is caused by accumulated pesticides, fragrances, phthalates from plastics, and toxic dust from fire retardant chemicals, lead paint, and hundreds of other products. In fact, a 2009 study found 586 individual chemicals in the air of 52 homes. The pesticides diazinon and chlorpyrifos were found in the greatest amounts and both were found in all of the homes tested. Twenty-seven different organochlorine pesticides were detected. They found p,p’-DDE, the toxic breakdown product of the banned pesticide DDT, in more than 90 percent of homes. Amounts of PCBs were generally low but were found in more than half the houses. They were detected in 56 percent of the 52 homes studied. Phthalate chemicals were found at very large concentrations in indoor air. [3]

We All have Pesticides in our Homes even if We don’t Use Pesticides

We need to focus on pesticide exposure in our homes, because this type of toxic exposure is often overlooked. Sometimes people think, “Well, I don’t use pesticides, so I must not have these chemicals in my apartment or house.” Wrong! Unfortunately, pesticides can linger for generations in a home. As noted above, traces of degraded DDT were still found in homes in 2009 even though DDT was banned in the US in 1972.

To further emphasize the lingering presence of pesticides in our indoor living spaces, I will highlight a research study published in 2013. Researchers measured pesticide content in the homes of 20 families living in a Boston housing development. The families had children between three and 11 years old, and the children spent at least 80% of their nights in the house. Researchers took air samples and wiped residue from kitchen countertops, from the floors in bathrooms used by children, and from carpets to collect pesticide residue. [4]

The researchers found a wide selection of pesticides in the samples. Eight different pesticides were found in the air samples. Half of the air samples contained one or more pesticides. The surfaces that were wiped produced these results: 38% contained pyrethroids such as permethrin; 24% contained cypermethrin; 24% contained fenthion; and 7% contained Chlorpyrifos. Some of the pesticides had been lingering in these homes for many years after the chemicals had been removed from the market. [5]

Outdoor Pesticides are Tracked into Our Homes on Shoes

Numerous pesticides are used in public spaces such as in parks and even on sidewalks. Anyone who walks or plays in such spaces will be exposed to pesticides and will bring the pesticides home on shoes and on clothing. The process by which people bring pesticides into their homes was examined in two research studies. These studies evaluated the spreading of pesticides within the homes of farmers who used pesticides on their farms. They found that when farmers removed their shoes before coming indoors and when they removed their work clothing in an area such as a laundry room, the amount of pesticide residue in their homes was substantially reduced. [6, 7]

Pesticides Come into our Homes through Open Windows and Doors

We now know that pesticide residue can linger in our homes for many years after the pesticides were used. We also know that pesticides can be brought into our homes on clothing and shoes. However, pesticides also come into our homes through open windows. This happens on farms where pesticides are used, but this also can occur in homes located far from farms. The wind can carry pesticides for miles and enter through open windows and doors. [8, 9]

It may not be Easy to Remove Pesticides from Our Homes

In another study, researchers examined the effectiveness of using cleaning methods for removing pesticides from the homes of 10 farming families. They measured the pesticide residue on window sills, carpet, and linoleum floors.

House dust was analyzed for six organophosphate pesticides. They then steam cleaned the carpets and washed the window sills and floors. They found that they were able to remove almost all of the organophosphate pesticide residue from the carpets. They were able to remove a large portion of the pesticides from window sills, but the cleaning of linoleum floors was ineffective for removing total pesticide residues. Some pesticides remained on linoleum after cleaning.

The researchers concluded that it is possible to remove some pesticide residue from a home, however, the type of surface being cleaned and the specific pesticides that are present on surfaces will limit cleaning success. (Please note: the exact definition of the word linoleum is unclear. I do not know if the researchers were referring to both modern sheet vinyl flooring as well as older linoleum products, or whether they were specifically referring to only older types of “linoleum” floor covering.) [10]

Illness due to Toxic Pesticide Exposure in our Homes is Seldom Diagnosed

Even though most every home in America probably has some level of pesticide residue, and we know that many health conditions and diseases are related to pesticide exposure, we find that our modern healthcare system seems to be unconcerned about indoor pesticide contamination. Doctors may ask us about our alcohol and drug use, ask us about our sexual practices, and sometimes ask us about our diet, but when was the last time a doctor asked you about your pesticide exposure?

What are the Health Consequences of Pesticide Contact?

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA), pesticides emit hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) and volatile organic compounds (VOC). These pollutants can contribute to health problems that may affect us in our homes, in our neighborhoods, and in our communities. Exposure to pesticides may cause: irritation to the eyes, nose, and throat, damage to the central nervous system, damage to the kidneys, and increased risk of cancer. When the exposure is chronic, meaning daily or constant, then damage to the liver, kidneys, endocrine, and nervous systems can occur.

The EPA further states that symptoms of exposure to pesticides may include: headache, dizziness, muscular weakness, and nausea. When we consider reactions to both the active and so called inert ingredients in pesticides there can be even more harmful health effects such as: eye, nose, and throat irritation, loss of coordination, nausea, allergic skin reaction, difficulty in breathing, declines in serum cholinesterase levels, vomiting, nosebleed, fatigue, dizziness, and damage to the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system. Remember that the “-cide” in the word pesticide means “to kill”. [11]

The preceding list of symptoms and conditions are commonly experienced by many people, but they are rarely linked to pesticide exposure in our homes. How many billions of healthcare dollars are spent on treating symptoms of pesticide exposure as if they were diseases with unknown origins?

How Do We Remove Pesticides from our Homes?

The removal of pesticide buildup through remediation efforts involving thorough cleaning is clearly a very important step to help us improve indoor air quality. Removing artificial fragrances and perfumes from our homes and clothing is also a very important step toward achieving the goal of having cleaner air to breathe. However, we also must stop using pesticides in our homes to prevent their further accumulation. This may involve a radical change in how we think about pests and how we react to them.

Here are some suggestions that you may find helpful as you move toward creating a pesticide free zone in your home:

1. Dispose of Pesticides

The first step is to dispose of any toxic pesticides. Read the label and look for three special words that describe the toxicity of the product. The words are “CAUTION,” “WARNING,” and “DANGER.” CAUTION indicates low toxicity. WARNING indicates moderate toxicity. DANGER indicates high toxicity. The National Pesticide Information Center provides information describing the level of risk associated with active and “inert” pesticide ingredients. They also have fact sheets on specific pesticide chemicals, and provide contact information for most pesticide manufacturers. I suggest reading the fact sheets about any of your pesticides if you are hesitant about discontinuing their use. [12]

Don’t forget that kitchen, laundry, and bath disinfectants that kill mold and mildew are toxic pesticides. Of course, flea and tick products used on pets can also be toxic pesticides. Please remember that pesticides need proper disposal and should not be put into household trash.

2. Discard Insect Repellant Clothing

This type of clothing is often laced with permethrin, a pesticide that attacks the nervous system of insects. Unfortunately, it puts animals and humans at risk. The chemical seeps out gradually in the washing machine, so waste water that contains permethrin may harm wildlife. We also need to consider the effect of this chemical on those who wear the clothing all day long. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, permethrin appears to cause headaches, asthma attacks, and nausea. [13]

3. Prevent Bringing Pesticides into Your Home on Shoes and Clothing

Develop new habits for managing shoes and clothing. It is a good practice to remove your shoes at the door of your home to avoid distributing pesticide residue throughout your living space. Pesticides cling to shoe bottoms when we walk on grass, sidewalks, and on the floors of commercial buildings.

Similarly, when we think we may have encountered pesticides, then it is a good practice to remove our clothing as soon as we enter our homes. It is best to remove contaminated clothing in a specific location such as near the washing machine and to put them directly into the washer. When children play on the lawns of neighbors who contract with chemical lawn care services, they will probably pick up pesticides on their clothing.

4. Make Your Home Pest Unfriendly

The next step is to modify your household environment so that pests won’t want to live with you. If you provide a cozy habitat for pests, then they will be happy to move in and share your new home with you. You can remove the welcome mat for pests by:

  • Keeping countertops and floors clean. (Some insects love crumbs.)
  • Storing food in screw-cap jars and in sealed zip-lock bags to prevent your food from becoming their food.
  • Frequently emptying trash containers and keeping them tightly closed.
  • Removing moisture wherever possible.
  • Removing standing water from plant trays.
  • Fixing leaky pipes and faucets.
  • Removing or drying out water-damaged materials and wet materials.
  • Removing or blocking off indoor hiding places for pests.
  • Caulking cracks or crevices inside and outside the home to control access.
  • Bathing pets and washing their mats or beds regularly to control fleas.
  • Avoid storing newspapers, paper bags, or boxes.
  • Checking boxes and other packages for pests before carrying them into the house.
  • Blocking pest entryways.
  • Installing screens on all floor drains, windows, and doors.
  • Blocking any passageways through the floor.
  • Placing weather stripping on doors and windows.
  • Keeping doors shut when not in use.

Solving Some Common Pest Problems without Pesticides

Sometimes even after taking all the preceding prevention steps, pests may still want to live with you. In those cases, you still have a number of non-toxic options. Consider some of these:

Integrated Pest Management (IPM)

You might want to learn about Integrated Pest Management. You might be able to attract beneficial predators to your outside environment that will reduce the population of insects that could make their way into your home. For example, purple martins (birds), bats, and spiders can eat pests that may impact your home. The use of pheromones and juvenile insect hormones can interfere with communication and the reproduction of pests.

The Old Ways of Pest Management may still be the Best

Of course there are old-fashioned manual methods for pest control. Flyswatters are an effective means of controlling flies and other creatures that come to visit. You can set mechanical traps for rodents such as rats and mice as well as for some insects. My wife has developed expertise with using a glass canning jar or quart size yogurt container for capturing wasps and bees that unintentionally enter our home. When these insects land on a window, wall, or other flat surface, she quickly drops the jar down over the insect and then while the container is still pressed against the flat surface, she slides the lid over the opening. The last step is to take the critter outside and to release it.

Controlling Fleas on Dogs

Flea control on dogs in the summertime can be a problem. But there are simple solutions, which can make everyone happy. Begin by bathing your dog with a nice gentle herbal shampoo. Choose one that you would use on your own hair. Rinse with water and then thoroughly rinse your dog with distilled white vinegar. Finish the process by sponging on apple cider vinegar diluted with an equal amount of warm water. Allow your dog to drip dry. It is not necessary to use harsh chemicals for minor flea infestations. The fleas will drown in soapy water and the apple cider vinegar rinse makes the skin too acidic for a re-infestation. If you are worried about picking up fleas when you take your dog away from home, keep some apple cider vinegar in a spray bottle, and spray your dog before you leave home and when you get back. For raw spots caused by excessive licking, use a few drops in water, and sponge the affected areas with apple cider vinegar. [14]

What is the Cleaning Protocol for Removing Pesticide Residue from Homes?

When I began preparing this article, I intended to present a series of cleaning steps that we could use in our homes to remove pesticide residue. I was surprised to learn that I could not find any cleaning protocols for removing an unknown combination of pesticide residue from residential properties. Manufacturers often describe how to clean up a chemical spill of their pesticide products. But these guidelines are specific to each product.

Some pesticides are water soluble and others are not. I contacted the National Pesticide Information Center to ask them how people could clean out pesticide residue from their homes when they don’t know the names of all the pesticides that have been used. I truly was shocked to hear that they didn’t have any guidance to offer us.

Basically, if we don’t know which pesticides have been used in our homes, and we wish to do a cleanup, then we are on our own. There are thousands of chemicals that could have been used in homes since the mid-1940s, many of which remain toxic, because the indoor environment protects the chemicals from being degraded by sunlight and weather. Even though we do not have specific cleaning guidelines for removing pesticides from our homes, I was able to assemble a few tips that may help us reduce our pesticide levels.

Dusting and Vacuuming

Slay those dust bunnies – don’t let them reproduce in your home. They are not harmless reminders of undone housework. Frequent dusting and vacuuming are important, because dust contains pesticides, mold spores, body parts of dead insects, insect and rodent feces, living dust mites, flakes of dry human skin, flame retardant chemicals from furniture and electronics, driveway sealants, chemicals from plastics, and heavy metals such as lead. Steam cleaning of carpets has been shown to remove a high percentage of pesticide residue. [15, 16]

It is good to dust regularly, but avoid relying on products that may actually pollute your air with fragrance chemicals. I usually use microfiber cleaning cloths for dusting surfaces and floors, because the fibers grab the dust bunnies and won’t let them go until you pull them off and put them in the trash. If you prefer, you can make a nontoxic batch of homemade dusting solution by mixing 2 tablespoons of lemon juice with a few drops of organic lemon oil and a few drops of olive oil. [17]

It is also helpful to use a vacuum that is equipped with a high efficiency filter (HEPA) to prevent fine dust particles from being redistributed in your home through the vacuum exhaust.

Clean Your Heating and Cooling Equipment

If your home uses a forced air system for heating and cooling, be sure to change the filter frequently. Don’t wait until it looks dirty.

Also, the ducts that are used to deliver air into your living space will accumulate large amounts of dust. There are companies that you can hire to thoroughly clean the inside of your duct work, which will prevent toxic dust from recirculating through your home.

Standard furnace filters will capture large dust particles, but there are more efficient filters that will capture much more dust. Some people with other types of heating systems use a stand-alone air filtering machine, which they place in the living space of their homes.

Wash Hard Surfaces

My final suggestion is to frequently wash floors, countertops, and other hard surfaces. Be sure to use a nontoxic cleaner that does not contain fragrances, antibacterial chemicals, or fungicides for killing mold. The goal is to clean these surfaces more often to avoid the accumulation of pesticides and other unwanted toxic substances.


The modern reality that we all share in this world today is that we are surrounded by thousands of toxic chemicals. No one has ever examined the combined health consequences of the chemical soup that is in our homes. I wish we could just stick our heads in a hole in the ground and ignore the entire mess, but we don’t have that luxury.

People used to say that cleanliness is next to Godliness, but such a thought has fallen far from modern thinking. We seem to be too busy to pay attention to such mundane activities like dusting and cleaning, but our health may really depend on returning to a basic traditional practice of caring for the hearth and home. To protect our health and the health of our family, we will need to make cleaning a high priority to stay healthy.

Yes, we may need to adjust our priorities. Yes, we may need to do more physical labor to keep our homes clean. Yes, we may not always enjoy the process. However, if we start the process of frequent cleaning, we may avoid numerous unwanted health conditions. We may find that living with reduced levels of pesticide in our home environment makes us healthier, stronger, and more mentally alert.


[1] “3 Shocking Facts About the Air in Your Home,” Christopher Gavigan, Healthy Begins Here, 7/29/2009.

[2] “Indoor Air: Pesticides in the Home – Additional Information | Improving Air Quality in Your Community,” US EPA, Retrieved 7/24/14.

[3] “3 Shocking Facts About the Air in Your Home,” Christopher Gavigan, Healthy Begins Here, 7/29/2009.

[4] Lu C1, Adamkiewicz G, Attfield KR, Kapp M, Spengler JD, Tao L, Xie SH.; “Household pesticide contamination from indoor pest control applications in urban low-income public housing dwellings: a community-based participatory research,” Environ Sci Technol. 2013 February 19, PMID: 23363037.

[5] “Pesticide Residues Continue to Linger in Houses Long After Spraying,” R.E.A.L. Natural, Retrieved 7/29/2014.

[6] Lozier MJ1, Curwin B, Nishioka MG, Sanderson W.; “Determinants of atrazine contamination in the homes of commercial pesticide applicators across time,” J Occup Environ Hyg., 2012, PMID: 22506545.

[7] Arbuckle TE1, Bruce D, Ritter L, Hall JC.; “Indirect sources of herbicide exposure for families on Ontario farms,” J Expo Sci Environ Epidemiol. 2006 Jan, PMID: 16015277.

[8] IBID.

[9] “Roundup Weedkiller Found In 75% of Air and Rain Samples, Gov. Study,” Sayer Ji, GreenMedInfo, 2/20/2014.

[10] McCauley LA1, Travers R, Lasarev M, Muniz J, Nailon R.; “Effectiveness of cleaning practices in removing pesticides from home environments,” J Agromedicine. 2006, PMID: 17135145.

[11] “Indoor Air: Pesticides in the Home – Additional Information,” US EPA, Retrieved 7/29/2014.

[12] National Pesticide Information Center.

[13] “Pesticide Removal Strategies For The Home,” (How to keep sketchy chemicals out of your home, by Leah Zerbe from,, Retrieved 7/24/2014.

[14] “Distilled White Vinegar: A Non-Toxic Cleaner,”, 8/20/2014.

[15] IBID.

[16] See abstracts of articles published in the journal, Environmental Science and Technology, in PubMed. Search for “house dust.”

[17] “Distilled White Vinegar: A Non-Toxic Cleaner,”, 8/20/2014.


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