Indoor Air Pollution: The Causes and Consequences

In recent years, news headlines have frequently illuminated the challenges posed by outdoor air pollution. However, despite posing an equally significant threat, indoor air pollution has yet to garner the same levels of attention.
March 29, 2022

In recent years, news headlines have frequently illuminated the challenges posed by outdoor air pollution. Data on smog-choked cities and car emissions, spotlighting the rising rates of respiratory diseases in polluted countries, have heightened public awareness of the dangers of pollution. However, despite posing an equally significant threat, indoor air pollution has yet to garner the same levels of attention.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), nearly seven million lives are claimed annually by illnesses brought on by global air pollution, with household air pollution being responsible for an estimated 3.2 million premature deaths in 2020 alone. It's a staggering statistic that underscores the severity of this issue.

What Is Indoor Air Pollution?

In essence, indoor air pollution refers to the air quality within our homes, workspaces and classrooms. Various factors can impact air quality, including pollutants created by materials and products from within the home or office. 

Over time, these invisible pollutants pose a notable risk to our well-being. In fact, as the issues surrounding indoor air pollution have become more prevalent, illnesses exacerbated by indoor pollution have been termed ‘sick building syndrome’ (SBS).

What Creates Indoor Air Pollution?

Indoor air pollution can be created by many different things, some of which are easily fixed and others which require more work. Here are just a few causes of pollution within the home:

Combustion Sources

These are the primary creators of indoor air pollution. They include using natural gas, oil, or coal to heat our spaces, cook our meals, and make electricity. Even those cosy wood-burning stoves and fireplaces we love can release stuff into the air that's not so good for us.

An estimated 2.4 billion people worldwide cook using open fires or inefficient stoves fuelled by kerosene, biomass and coal, generating harmful household air pollution.

Household Products

Many household products harbour volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are gradually absorbed into the ambient air. A surprising number of ordinary household items, such as paints, cleaning agents and air fresheners, can release varying levels of VOCs over time. Ensuring proper ventilation whilst using some of these items is essential. 

In a study conducted in 2015, researchers discovered that some air fresheners can elevate indoor concentrations of terpenes, xylenes, aldehydes, and esters, all of which can become toxic when present in high concentrations.

If this comes as a surprise to you, you’re not alone. The same study also found that many manufacturers of air fresheners emitted names of toxic VOCs but listed ambiguous constituents like “fragrance” and “parfum”.

It was revealed that over two-thirds of the surveyed individuals were unaware that fragranced products release VOCs. Furthermore, 60% of respondents stated that they would not have used these products if they had been aware of this fact.

Building Materials

A number of building materials predominantly used in older buildings contain toxic chemicals such as lead, mercury and asbestos. All of these are known to be dangerous to human health if damaged, adapted or moved. 

Asbestos, for example, may be present in older building materials such as tiles, insulation, or drywall, while homes constructed prior to 1978 often contain lead paint. Removing or demolishing these materials can release hazardous chemicals into the air or dust.

Fortunately, new builds typically use more sustainable and non-toxic materials, while the use of asbestos within the UK was banned in 1999. 

Biological Pollutants

Nature's miniature troublemakers include mould, pollen, pet dander, and dust mites. While these are frustrating problems to anyone with allergies, there are simple fixes everyone can make to reduce biological pollutants' impact on our health, such as extra cleaning, ventilation and air purifiers. 

Tobacco Smoke

The smoke emanating from cigarettes, cigars, and pipes can be extremely hazardous in an indoor environment. Tobacco smoke contains over 7,000 chemicals, including at least 70 that are known to be carcinogenic, including nicotine, carbon monoxide and formaldehyde.

Astonishingly, reports also suggest that tobacco smoke generates ten times more air pollution than the exhaust from diesel cars. 

What Are The Health Risks of Indoor Pollution?

Indoor air pollution is a concern for everyone, but it can be especially problematic for people with already present health issues.

Poor indoor air quality can worsen your symptoms if you have conditions like asthma, bronchitis, or emphysema. Children are also at risk because their smaller airways can become irritated more easily.

So, while working to reduce outdoor pollution, we must also pay attention to the air quality inside our homes. It's a crucial part of keeping ourselves and our loved ones healthy.

How To Reduce Indoor Air Pollution

While indoor air pollution carries several health risks, the good news is that there are many options for cleaning up the air quality in your home or workplace. 

Here are just a few easy ideas to try:

Eco-Friendly Cleaning Products

If you've ever found it hard to breathe after bleaching your bathroom, you'll know how damaging toxic cleaning products can be to your health. It's a great idea to switch to eco-friendly cleaning products. Brands such as Method, Delphis and Bio D offer some great options.

Not only can it be good for the air quality in your home, but switching to more environmentally friendly and non-toxic cleaners saves around 6.2 billion lbs of chemicals and 30 million trees per year. 

Non-Toxic Candles

Scented candles can be a lovely way of making a house a home. Still, they can also contribute to poor air quality, as cheap candles perfumed with synthetic oils disperse chemicals and other nasty toxins when burned. Many candle manufacturers produce modern candles using paraffin wax, a by-product of gasoline production derived from petroleum.

You can find non-toxic, vegan candles with the same beautiful scents, just without the damaging effects of pollution. Brands such as Grow Fragrance Candles use soy and coconut oil for wax, plant-based fragrances, and cotton wicks. 

Improve Ventilation

It may seem obvious, but a great way to increase the air quality in your house is simply to open up the windows and let some fresh air in! Keeping your windows shut allows chemicals and allergens to build up.

If you work in the middle of a busy city or live on a main road, keeping your windows open might not be possible, so investing in air purifiers could help improve your situation. Consider purchasing high-quality air purifiers with HEPA filters to remove airborne particles such as dust, pollen, pet dander and mould spores. 

Reduce Humidity

High humidity levels decrease air circulation, trapping pollutants and other harmful particles in the air. At certain levels, humid rooms create breeding grounds for bacteria, viruses and mould. 

In small office spaces, where humidity levels often remain high, it's essential to promptly address and fix all sources of moisture and leaks to minimise the spread of mould.

House Plants

For a more passive solution, you can also invest in some houseplants. Plants naturally improve air quality by capturing airborne pollutants and VOCs. Peace Lillies, Aloe Vera, Weeping Figs, Boston Ferns and Spider Plants are a few of the best indoor plants for improving air quality. 

Aside from the health benefits, they're also a great way of brightening up a dull room and are proven effective at improving your mood and reducing stress.

So, while we’re doing all we can to improve the air quality outdoors, we must not forget about the air we breathe in the office, at school and within our homes. We must embed pollution reduction practices into our everyday lives for our and the planet's health.

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