From car exhausts to building construction, and city-wide clouds of pollution to colossal power plants with billowing masses of smog, it can be easy to think of air pollution as something you leave outside the door when you walk in - allowing you to breathe easily within your home without the worry of adverse health or other related problems.
In fact, this couldn’t be further from the truth - with the World Health Organisation listing air pollution, including indoors, as one of the most significant and progressive risks to the health of both adults and children within a household.
When it comes to indoor air quality facts, indoor pollution is becoming more of concern worldwide than it ever has been before, prompting the government, scientists and even commercial companies and properties to take a closer look at precisely what we’re breathing in behind closed doors.
And the UK isn’t the only country working towards a pollutant-free, or at least reduced (pollutant) future, with many countries including the US and China realising the growing concern that is indoor pollution. The following indoor air pollution facts can give you some insight into exactly what air pollution is, and why we should be talking about it more.
What is indoor air pollution?
Whereas outdoor air pollution is commonly categorised as large-scale, industrial or machinery-based pollution - caused by factories, cars and other vehicles - the air pollution we experience in the home is far less evident in nature.
A 2016-2018 report by the RCP, or Royal College of Physicians, called ‘Every breath we take: the lifelong impact of air pollution’ goes into depth about the subject of indoor air pollution and how this affects people on a day to day basis, but here are a few of the major pointers we can take home from the RCP’s work and the work of other scientists and studies into the nature of air pollution:
The polluted air we breathe in is a combination of different forms of indoor and outdoor pollution
Unless you live in an entirely hermetically-sealed bubble with your own personal air source, it’s not possible - or feasible - for pollution to stay on your doorstep when you come home. It’s just not that polite!
Particularly in cities like London, where outdoor pollution is at its worst, various contaminants and chemicals can easily filter into properties and circulate, leaving no option for those living in pollution-heavy areas but to breathe in pollutants, regardless of being indoor our outdoors.
This poor situation is further compounded by the fact that the average family home is more than capable of unknowingly producing its own internal pollution, often referred to as VOCs, or volatile organic compounds.
Indoor air pollution can be created from everyday family life
It might feel like anything done inside the home is a drop in the ocean in comparison to the impact of factories and vehicles, but in fact, so many things in the household can cause pollutants that they cannot be ignored!
Here are just a few of the chemicals, processes and day-to-day events that can cause VOC-based pollution in the home:
• Cooking food at a high temperature, resulting in smoke
• The installation of new carpets
• Cleaning the kitchen and oven with specialised cleaners
• Using air fresheners and deodorisers
• Lighting a fire in an open fireplace
• Using charcoal for heat or cooking
• Owning a dog, cat or another animal that produces dander
• The appearance, and cleaning of, damp, mould or mildew
• Painting a room with fresh household paint
From the list above, you can see that what scientists and doctors such as those at the RCP class as ‘VOC’ pollution also counts as what we’d commonly call allergens - the release of a chemical into the environment in an airborne form that can cause anything from sneezing and coughing to asthma attacks and skin conditions, according to Which.
In fact, a lot of indoor air pollution causes within a property are due to the overdevelopment of certain chemicals and processes, resulting in the creation of items that might last longer, clean better or smell nicer - but in the long term are far more detrimental to health.
The worst type of pollutant can be found indoors
The concept of indoor air pollution being a risk to your health might seem like something that’s far off in the future, but in fact, the reality of pollution is happening in the UK right now, and in other countries around the world.
In 2017, the continually declining quality of air in the UK resulted in the European Commission demanding a plan for the reduction of the harmful chemicals that the population breathes in daily.
Major contributors to this ‘dirty air’ are vehicles and factories, but indoor pollution because of chemicals and processes also play a part as particulate matter (or PM).
The most damaging form of pollution to humans, PM, had caused at least 37,500 premature deaths in the UK as a result of breathing in particles that can cause serious lung and heart issues.
It has even been suggested that using a wood-burning stove indoors just once would expose a family to far more PM than standing in a busy roundabout during rush hour - and with over 1 million of these stoves in the UK, it’s a growing problem.
According to research by the UN in 2017, at least 44 cities in the UK failed to meet the standard for air quality because of this pollutant, for which the use of charcoal, wood burning, and other chemicals greatly contribute.
These included Glasgow, London, Leeds and Manchester, who all have very high levels of PM per cubic metre. Whether you’re outdoors all day or in an office, it’s likely that if you’re living in a major city in the UK, you’re getting a high dose of pollution no matter where you are.
We spend more time indoors than ever before
With people now spending up to 90 percent of their time in one room or another, with far less time in the sun, it’s where we’re most exposed to these harmful chemicals and particles.
However, it’s not just those unnatural materials causing indoor air pollution - the quality of our air is also affected by not letting the outside in enough.
According to Professor Louis-Jean Couderc, a Parisian respiratory expert, the key to our increasing respiratory problems, from asthma to coughs to a simple allergic reaction, is directly linked to the quality of our air - and as we stay inside so much, this is directly related to our own individual atmospheres.
That means things like mould or damp have a direct impact on our health, thanks to the spores they produce and spread around our indoor living spaces.
Ventilation goes a long way into making indoor air pollution less impactful on our health, and the same applies to anything from cooking to lighting a fire.
Basically, to minimise a build-up of indoor air pollution, we have to simply let more of the outside in, and more often. An airtight home is far more polluted than one exposed to outside elements, resulting in recycled air and all those PMs being trapped inside the home.
How does indoor air pollution affect me?
If you spend a great deal of time indoors, as most of us do, it’s well worth being as concerned with the pollutants in your home as with those outside the door.
While the air pollution in your house might be less visible than the infamous London smog or cloud-belching factories, it’s far closer - and as such can have a real impact on your health.
In many households, the amount of VOCs and air pollution already measurable in the average property is far too high and can be up to 30 times the recommended maximum level as established by UK Building Regulation.
A collaboration and workshop between top doctors at the Royal College of Physicians and the BRE found that in the UK, the average person spends just 8% of their times outside - meaning their exposure to indoor air pollution is far more significant.
That means in an average week, the average person is breathing in polluted indoor air for 155 hours.
Not only that, but further research in their ‘Better Homes, Better Air, Better Health’ report uncovered a staggering 40,000 plus deaths linked to the breathing of ‘dirty air’, due to countless health conditions.
That figure helps scientists to underline just how severe indoor air pollution can be, and also reveals just how many different conditions can be caused by simply breathing the wrong air, with links to illnesses such as:
• Heart Disease
• Liver Damage
• Kidney Damage
With such serious consequences, it’s never been more critical to ensure all adults and children are breathing air of the right quality, in order to both extend their lives and ensure they remain illness-free.
With pollution already affecting thousands of people across the UK, reducing the level of pollution for the future is a must.
More facts about indoor pollution: Some rooms are worse then others
The AAFA found that in the US, the air quality in bedrooms can be worse than anywhere else in the house.
In fact, bedrooms are often the least cleaned and most allergen and pollutant-filled rooms of the house, with pet dander, mould and even pollen from hair and clothing playing a large part in affecting people's health.
The kitchen is also a room in which air pollution can be a serious issue, as it's a likely contender for the use of wood or charcoal-burning stoves, as well as steam and mould from water vapour and cooking.
Additionally, many kitchen cleaning products often involve harsh chemicals and aerosols, resulting in a more pollution-filled environment. Even cooking a Full English can be detrimental to our health!
Mould is also a large cause of air pollution within the home and is most common in damp, poorly ventilated areas such as bathrooms, which make them the ideal breeding ground for all those nasty allergens and pollutants on discarded clothing, damp towels and wet walls.
Of course, the level of a pollutant in a room can be heavily influenced by how often and in what way we use it. If someone tends to smoke in the living room, for example, or has a wood fire in the study, this room may be the most polluted in the house.
A tool that can measure the PM of a room can provide you with a way to see what level of pollutants you're unleashing in your home.
How can I reduce indoor air pollution?
If you’re wondering what steps to take to prevent air pollution in your home you can start with making a checklist based on the common pollutants and see what you use in your property. From there you can replace or reduce the usage of that item. Increasing ventilation is always a good place to start.
Of course, in many cases, it can be difficult, or even impossible, to rid your home of every form of pollutant. This is especially the case in properties where there is damp, or in homes with less ventilation, or even in shared properties.
But just small changes, like replacing a log burning fire with a bioethanol fireplace, woodburner style or free-standing, can make all the difference. Biofires use bioethanol fuel, which doesn’t emit any smoke and therefore a more environmentally friendly option. Check out how they work here.
In countries like China, where air pollution both inside and outside has reached far riskier levels, the use of air purifiers is commonplace. If you’re concerned about the level of air pollution in your property, an air purifier can provide a reduced level of PM count.
With China now advertising clean air as a luxury product for sale, it's clear to see what pollution can do to the health and well-being of a country's citizens.
In addition to indoor air pollution in the home, building regulations in cities like London are pushing for the requirement of air filters in commercial properties and workplaces, allowing employees access to cleaner and better workplace air quality.
According to Clean Air London, the cost of using filters both at home and in the workplace are far reduced compared to the cost of people’s health and productivity, which can be hampered by ‘polluted air’.
And finally, in order to reduce pollutants as a whole, especially in larger cities, it’s important to look at the bigger picture. Air is capable of going just about anywhere, so simply reducing pollutants in your home won’t prevent exposure to dirty air on your commute, in your office or out on the weekend.
Being aware and vigilant of the impact air pollution has on health is key to creating a healthier, cleaner way of living.