How Does Air Pollution Affect the Elderly? Let’s Talk About VOCs

March 27, 2023

public health
Image: Teona Swift, Pexels

In a previous article, we discussed the way that humidity affects indoor air quality, as well as the importance of maintaining optimum humidity levels for the health and well-being of elderly individuals.

Now, let’s shift our focus to another aspect of air quality: protecting ourselves and our aging loved ones from the harmful effects of air pollution.

Research has shown that people living in polluted urban areas have a reduced life expectancy and an increased risk for respiratory problems and heart attacks.

But how does air pollution affect the elderly? For them, indoor air pollution can pose a severe health threat, with exposure to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) exacerbating pre-existing diseases.

If you are a long-distance caregiver for a parent or grandparent, it’s crucial to understand the types of air pollution and what steps you can take to alleviate the health risks.

In this article, we delve into the issue of air pollution — with a focus on what we can control on a small scale, which is indoor air quality — and its impact on senior health. We will explore a few solutions that can help you protect your elderly loved ones from this invisible threat. So sit tight and join us as we navigate this important topic.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Sources of (Indoor) Air Pollution We Don’t Always Notice

exposure to air pollution
Image: Ron Lach, Pexels

When we think of air pollution, most of us imagine massive industrial factories releasing dark clouds into the sky. Or endless traffic lines with exhaust fumes wafting through the air. Those who have the means to make significant changes in their lives can take various measures to limit their exposure to outdoor pollutants, such as renting a home in a less polluted city region or even retreating to a rural area.

But air pollution is often invisible — think of the “sick building syndrome”, when you find yourself more tired than usual or displaying allergy-like symptoms due to the unhealthy environment you live or work in.

Below are the most common types of pollutants you need to be aware of:

  • Natural pollutants like mold and radon: controlling the humidity levels and ensuring proper ventilation can protect us from the health risks associated with them. Additionally, sealing any cracks in the foundation or basement of our homes is an extra precaution we can take against the radioactive gas that usually seeps through them.
  • Combustion — it can unleash many harmful substances like carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter into the air. Without proper ventilation, either traditional, by opening the windows, or with the help of fans, the use of fireplaces and furnaces can become a major health concern. Gas stoves can also leak CO, so it’s crucial for every home to have a CO detector.
  • Particulates (such as dust and asbestos). According to the Environmental Protection Agency, they are defined as a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets in the air. They are most commonly referred to as PM2.5 and PM10, according to their size, measured in microns — so they are really tiny, at least 5 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

PM10 is inhalable and can lead to coughing and irritation, but it doesn't usually penetrate the gas exchange area of the lungs. In contrast, fine particulate matter, that is smaller than 5 microns, can be breathed in and cause severe damage to the respiratory system.

  • Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). Believe it or not, the furniture, carpets, paint, and cleaning products in your elderly parent’s home can release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) — substances that form gases at room temperature — that can negatively impact their health.

So How Does Air Pollution Affect the Elderly?

respiratory diseases
Image: Anna Shvets, Pexels

Individuals with respiratory difficulties, young children, the elderly, and those who are more sensitive to chemicals are more prone to irritation and disease from air pollutants.

Generally, elderly individuals spend more time indoors, so it’s important to be aware of the air quality and adjust accordingly.

When it comes to VOCs, benzene, ethylene glycol, formaldehyde, methylene chloride, tetrachloroethylene, toluene, xylene, and 1,3-butadiene are some of the most common examples that could be present in our homes.

Formaldehyde is used in glues and resins, dyes, textiles, disinfectants, and building materials. It is classified as a human carcinogen and long-term exposure to formaldehyde and other VOCs can lead to liver and kidney damage, and even central nervous damage.

A 2022 study on indoor air pollution in elderly centers found that when there was a lack of room ventilation, the concentration of VOCs exceeded the limit values. The same study mentioned that frequent cleaning is crucial to keeping bacteria and fungi away from the home and from the elderly’s lungs, respectively.

Another study from 2013 in France showed that, among various monitored age groups, elderly citizens who were exposed to indoor aldehydes and VOCs had a higher risk of breathlessness than younger individuals.

All in all, poor air quality can lead to a range of health problems for older adults in their homes, including:

  • Inflammatory diseases
  • Respiratory diseases
  • Sick building syndrome (SBS)
  • Building-related illnesses (BRI).

How Can We Keep VOCs in Check?

respiratory health
Image: Cottonbro Studio, Pexels

Eliminating air pollution altogether is not very likely to happen. But we can limit it to the best of our abilities and significantly reduce its health risks.

1. Fix the Root of the Problem

First off, you need to make sure your loved one’s home is not exposed to harmful compounds from furniture and building materials.

Opt for second-hand furniture if you can (it would have released most toxins in it) or look for companies that build non-toxic furniture. Try to create a minimalist living space — the fewer unnecessary products they have, the fewer VOCs are emanated.

2. Open Windows and Doors

Make sure your aging parent gets plenty of fresh air every day!

Ventilation, HVAC systems, and air purifiers are some of the solutions suggested by the American Lung Association to reduce particulate matter pollution and VOC concentration.

Be careful when choosing an air purifier, as it can be a double-edged sword. According to these MIT researchers, while some devices can actually destroy VOCs, they also generate harmful compounds in the process. Their safest recommendation is to opt for air cleaners that use activated carbon filters.

3. Use Cleaning and Personal Care Products Without VOCs

Read the labels of the cleaning products you buy and go for the ones that don’t emanate VOCs. As for personal care products, unscented formulas are the way to go. Explore what options are available in your area and give your senior loved one a ready-made list of safe products they can buy.

Ecological options are a win-win for the environment and your health.

4. Reduce Exposure to Tobacco Smoke (and Watch Out for Thirdhand Smoke)

If you’ve ever moved home and found that its walls smelled like tobacco smoke even if no one lived there for a long time, you understand how persistent some toxic chemicals are.

In this case, that surface residue is called thirdhand smoke, and it’s actually harmful to your health, much like the passive smoking that we are all familiar with. Benzene, ethylbenzene, and styrene are some of the VOCs emanated by tobacco smoke. 

The solutions can be quite expensive, like repainting the entire walls (with non-toxic paint, of course) or replacing carpets and other affected surfaces.

5. Grow a Green Thumb

Something that we can learn from biophilic design is to incorporate more plants into our indoor landscape. Not only do they have proven positive effects on our mood, but some plants can absorb VOCs, like the English Ivy and the chrysanthemum morifolium.

Here is a thorough article that compares various studies about the air-purifying properties of plants.

6. Consider Aging at Home Technology That Evaluates VOC Levels

Aging-at-home technology has come a long way, from basic wearable devices that monitor vital signs to advanced monitoring systems that provide a secure living environment.

CareAlert, our elderly monitoring system, is equipped with sophisticated sensors that can detect volatile organic compounds (VOCs) — and seven other important parameters — and provide a real-time report on the air quality of your elderly loved one's home. If there's any unusual change in their environment, you'll be the first to know.

Final Thoughts

environmental health
The CareAlert app and the plugged in CareAlert device

Indoor air quality is an increasingly important health consideration, particularly for the elderly, who are a growing vulnerable population in our society.

As caregivers, we need to be mindful of the various sources of indoor air pollution, including natural pollutants, combustion, volatile organic compounds, and particulate matter, and take steps to limit exposure to these pollutants.

By maintaining proper ventilation, regulating humidity levels, and diligently monitoring their living conditions, we can help protect our aging loved ones from these dangerous threats.

In fact, an assessment of the present environment is a crucial first step toward mitigating this complex problem. If you’re looking for a user-friendly device to show you how much the air quality is affected by VOCs, you can count on CareAlert.

5 min read

How Does Air Pollution Affect the Elderly? Let’s Talk About VOCs

How does air pollution affect the elderly? Learn all about VOCs and discover effective solutions to protect your loved ones.
Written by
Alec Whitten
Published on
17 January 2022


Mi tincidunt elit, id quisque ligula ac diam, amet. Vel etiam suspendisse morbi eleifend faucibus eget vestibulum felis. Dictum quis montes, sit sit. Tellus aliquam enim urna, etiam. Mauris posuere vulputate arcu amet, vitae nisi, tellus tincidunt. At feugiat sapien varius id.

Eget quis mi enim, leo lacinia pharetra, semper. Eget in volutpat mollis at volutpat lectus velit, sed auctor. Porttitor fames arcu quis fusce augue enim. Quis at habitant diam at. Suscipit tristique risus, at donec. In turpis vel et quam imperdiet. Ipsum molestie aliquet sodales id est ac volutpat.

Office setting
Image caption goes here
Dolor enim eu tortor urna sed duis nulla. Aliquam vestibulum, nulla odio nisl vitae. In aliquet pellentesque aenean hac vestibulum turpis mi bibendum diam. Tempor integer aliquam in vitae malesuada fringilla.

Elit nisi in eleifend sed nisi. Pulvinar at orci, proin imperdiet commodo consectetur convallis risus. Sed condimentum enim dignissim adipiscing faucibus consequat, urna. Viverra purus et erat auctor aliquam. Risus, volutpat vulputate posuere purus sit congue convallis aliquet. Arcu id augue ut feugiat donec porttitor neque. Mauris, neque ultricies eu vestibulum, bibendum quam lorem id. Dolor lacus, eget nunc lectus in tellus, pharetra, porttitor.

"Ipsum sit mattis nulla quam nulla. Gravida id gravida ac enim mauris id. Non pellentesque congue eget consectetur turpis. Sapien, dictum molestie sem tempor. Diam elit, orci, tincidunt aenean tempus."

Tristique odio senectus nam posuere ornare leo metus, ultricies. Blandit duis ultricies vulputate morbi feugiat cras placerat elit. Aliquam tellus lorem sed ac. Montes, sed mattis pellentesque suscipit accumsan. Cursus viverra aenean magna risus elementum faucibus molestie pellentesque. Arcu ultricies sed mauris vestibulum.


Morbi sed imperdiet in ipsum, adipiscing elit dui lectus. Tellus id scelerisque est ultricies ultricies. Duis est sit sed leo nisl, blandit elit sagittis. Quisque tristique consequat quam sed. Nisl at scelerisque amet nulla purus habitasse.

Nunc sed faucibus bibendum feugiat sed interdum. Ipsum egestas condimentum mi massa. In tincidunt pharetra consectetur sed duis facilisis metus. Etiam egestas in nec sed et. Quis lobortis at sit dictum eget nibh tortor commodo cursus.

Odio felis sagittis, morbi feugiat tortor vitae feugiat fusce aliquet. Nam elementum urna nisi aliquet erat dolor enim. Ornare id morbi eget ipsum. Aliquam senectus neque ut id eget consectetur dictum. Donec posuere pharetra odio consequat scelerisque et, nunc tortor. Nulla adipiscing erat a erat. Condimentum lorem posuere gravida enim posuere cursus diam.

Weekly newsletter
No spam. Just the latest releases and tips, interesting articles, and exclusive interviews in your inbox every week.
Read about our privacy policy.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.