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Asthma and Other Respiratory Irritants

Asthma in children is the leading chronic illness in the United States. Environmental pollutants commonly trigger asthma attacks in children who have a genetic or acquired predisposition to the disease. Children are particularly susceptible to air pollutants because they breathe a greater volume of air relative to their body weight.

Indoor Air Pollutants

Poor indoor air quality has been linked with asthma symptoms, as well as with other respiratory problems in children, such as increased frequency of respiratory infections, bronchitis, and pneumonia.

Indoor air pollutants can be described as:

There are many sources of pollutants, both indoor and outdoor. Pollen originates from plants; dust mites, cockroaches; people and animals transmit viruses; people, animals, soil, and plant debris carry bacteria; and pets are sources of saliva, animal dander, and dung. In addition, the protein in urine from rats and mice is a potent allergen. When it dries, it can become airborne.

Central air handling systems are a potential breeding ground for mold, mildew, and other sources of pollutants. These ventilation system may distribute pollutants throughout the home. Drapery, bedding, and other places where dust collects can also harbor these contaminants.

Controlling the humidity level in a home can minimize the growth of some sources of pollutants. Standing water, water-damaged materials, or wet surfaces also serve as breeding ground for mold, mildew, bacteria, and insects. Dust mites are one of the most powerful biological allergens and can exist anywhere.

Health Effects

Asthma is described as a narrowing of the airways in the lungs that causes difficulty in breathing. Some pollutants release disease-causing toxins and can trigger asthma attacks and other allergic reactions, including allergic rhinitis (an inflammatory response in the nasal passages--symptoms may include nasal congestion, sneezing, or a runny or itchy nose) and hypersensitivity pneumonitis (a lung disease caused by exposure to a variety of inhaled agents). Symptoms of allergic reactions to mold and mildew may include sneezing, watery eyes, coughing, shortness of breath, dizziness, lethargy, fever, and digestive problems.


Some studies suggest that exposure to passive smoking is responsible for 150,000 to 300,000 annual lower respiratory tract in 7,500 to 15,000 hospitalizations in the United States each year. Second-hand tobacco smoke has been found to have multiple health effects on children, including increased risk for:

  1. Never smoke around children, especially where children play. If you need to smoke, smoke outside away from children and never smoke in a vehicle when children are present.
  2. Ensure that your air ventilation system is clean. A well-designed ventilation system that is properly maintained and operated, in most cases, takes care of normal amounts of air pollutants automatically. Install new air filters quarterly, make sure that drain pans are clean and slant toward the drain and ensure that air handling units are clean.
  3. Prevent moisture build-up. Ventilate the attic and crawl spaces to prevent moisture build-up. Control humidity levels to prevent condensation on your windows, and dust mite activity. Thermometers purchased at hardware stores that measure temperature, humidity, and barometric pressure will help you monitor the humidity level. When the humidity is high, close windows and use air conditioner and/or humidifier.
  4. Clean humidifiers. If using cool mist or ultrasonic humidifiers, clean the appliance according to manufacturer's instructions. Refill with fresh water daily. Because humidifers can become breeding grounds for mold, mildew and bacteria, evaporation trays in air conditioners, dehumidifers, and refrigerators should be cleaned frequently.
  5. Clean or remove water damage. Water-damaged carpets and building materials can harbor mold and bacteria. It is very difficult to completely rid such materials of pollutants. Thoroughly clean and dry water-damaged carpets and building materials (within 24 hours if possible) or consider removal and replacement. Always replace carpet padding if carpets have not dried within 24 hours.
  6. Keep your home clean. Dust mites, pollen, animal dander, and other allergy-causing agents can be reduced, although not eliminated, through regular cleaning.
  7. Do not vacuum or sweep when children are in the home. Vacuuming actually can increase airborne levels of allergens and other pollutants. Central vacuum systems vented to the outdoors or vacuums with high-efficiency filters (HEPA filters) are helpful in deterring airborne dust.
  8. Run water through unused floor drains and sinks. Sewer gas is a build-up of a variety of chemicals, such as hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, and methane. Sewer gas may emit when drains are dry. Sewer gas can cause eye irritation, respiratory tract problems, dizziness, headaches, and nausea. Prevent sewer gas build-up and emissions by pouring a gallon of bleach water solution down drains not routinely used. Use approximately one teaspoon of bleach per gallon of water. If there is a severe odor, use a 10% bleach solution.
You should CONSIDER:
  1. Limit the number of indoor plants. Although indoor plants are not a major source of mold spores, it is recommended to limit the number of houseplants because molds can grow in the dirt, and children may be allergic to the pollen in flowering plants.
  2. Remove animals with long hair. Removing animals from a home can be an emotional issue, but many children are allergic to animal dander.


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