Outdoor air pollution is a serious problem, particularly in urban areas, but poor air quality can affect health and comfort in the home too. We look at what you can do to improve conditions indoors
Outside the home, irritants such as traffic pollution, smog, ozone and pollen can all degrade air quality. Many of these are lessened indoors, but unfortunately other irritants, including volatile chemicals, can be an even greater problem in your home.
In 2018, London Mayor Sadiq Khan commissioned a report on indoor air quality in London’s schools. The Indoor Air Quality Report found that the average person spends over 90 percent of their time indoors, but tends to be far less aware of indoor air pollution than outdoor air pollution.
The report concluded that the UK has the highest prevalence of childhood asthma out of all European countries, with indoor air quality playing a particularly crucial part, as it “may affect the health, performance and comfort of school students and staff.”
Cause and Effect
Of course, conditions can be just as bad in the average household, with allergens such as moulds and house dust mites worsening symptoms usually associated with asthma including wheezing and shortness of breath.
The likely risks depend a great deal on the age of the building. Older houses can contain various types of airborne mould, lead in house-dust and even arsenic in Victorian wallpapers. But modern houses can be equally at risk—from fragrances, chemicals from fire-retardants, paints and other substances.
Other indoor problems include natural emissions of radon gas which can produce radioactive particles; dust mites, a major cause of allergic reactions; formaldehyde, which is used in the manufacture of wood products such as MDF and particle boards; and pet hairs and skin particles. Even if you don’t have a pet in the house, these and other pollutants can be tracked in from outside, and because modern houses are often sealed by double-glazed windows, the pollutants can’t get out.
Children, asthma sufferers and the elderly may be particularly sensitive to indoor pollutants, but anyone may suffer long-term effects on health after long exposure.
Fortunately, there are plenty of steps you can take to improve air quality in your home.
Your first aim should be to prevent pollutants getting into your home. A large door mat at every entrance will encourage visitors to wipe their feet, and will remove a lot of pollutants even if they don’t. A policy of removing shoes and leaving them on a rack by the door will prevent a lot of pollutants being tracked around the house, and wearing slippers in the house also reduces wear and tear on floor coverings.
Though formaldehyde is a naturally-occurring chemical, exposure to high concentrations of man-made formaldehyde vapours can produce symptoms such as headaches, eye irritation, asthma, breathing difficulties, nose bleed, sore throat, fatigue, insomnia, joint pain, nausea and vomiting.
Formaldehyde emission from wood products will reduce over time, but remember it is also found in air fresheners, paints, plastics, pesticides, cosmetics, leather goods, adhesives, resins and synthetic fabrics, so eliminate these from the home where possible. It’s also a combustion by-product of cigarette smoke and of fuel-burning appliances like gas stoves and space heaters, so make sure these are properly vented.
A good way to reduce air pollutants is to remove them from surfaces, and here, a good vacuum cleaner is essential. Good models often incorporate HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filters. Consisting of mats of randomly arranged fibres, HEPA filters should capture 99.97 percent of particles that have a size greater than or equal to 0.3 µm, so they are good for removing lead particles, pollen, pet dander and dust mites. This is of particular benefit to asthma and allergy sufferers.
Regular vacuuming should concentrate on high traffic areas, not forgetting walls, carpet edges and upholstered furniture, where dust accumulates. Follow up by mopping with plain water and a microfibre mop, and wash out vacuum filters regularly.
It’s also worthwhile to fit extractor fans, to use in the kitchen when cooking and the bathroom when using aerosols.
Air purifiers and humidifiers can really help to improve air quality. Purifiers (again often incorporating HEPA filters) can remove most allergens from the air, and models with a high CADR (Clean Air Delivery Rate) can clean a room’s air in minutes. Some have real-time colour or numerical displays of allergen levels.
Humidifiers, which will automatically maintain the atmosphere’s moisture content at a healthy level, can also display real-time air quality. A combined air purifier and humidifier will do both without spreading bacteria, dust or wet patches.
For the wellbeing of you and your children, good air quality is an essential requirement, and one that can offer you all benefits in terms of health, mood and even lifespan.
This feature was originally published in the summer edition of Healthy Child with Dr Rnaj Singh, which you can also read here!