When we think of pollution, it is so easy to conjure up an image of exhaust fumes and factories. When we move house and think of air quality it is often statistics outside the home that interest us. It may then come as a surprise that increasingly the air pollution risk is actually indoors, not out.
The World Health Organisation estimates that approximately 3.8 million people die prematurely every year as a result of household air pollution. Many of these deaths are in low to middle income countries, but a study from Clean Air Day showed that pollutants indoors in the UK are on average 3.5 times higher than those found outside.
Studies show that in the modern day we can spend up to 90% of our time indoors – at home, school, in an office, restaurant, cinema or bar – and indoor pollution is an often overlooked risk.
What is indoor air pollution?
Pollution is defined as the presence or introduction of a harmful substance. Indoors, this might be dust, dirt or gases in the air that cause harm when we breathe them in.
Some of this comes from more obvious sources, such as cigarette smoke or open wood fires, but Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) can contribute to poor indoor air quality too.
Volatile Organic Compounds – what are they?
VOCs are most often found in cleaning products. They are, however, also present in varnishes, paints, glues, pesticides, soft furnishings including carpets, and some building materials such as MDF and cement.
Why do they present a risk?
We know that we need to keep our houses well ventilated when we are cleaning, especially if we are mixing products as we clean different areas. This helps to disperse any lingering air pollutants. Did you know, though, that VOCs can be released even when products are being stored? They can change when released too and form new chemicals which we then breathe in.
How can I avoid them?
Look for alternatives. Can you use a damp cloth instead of polish? Will elbow grease and hot water work for surface stains? Avoid sprays where possible, and if you feel that your health is more at risk (if you have a pre-existing condition such as asthma for example) consider using non fragranced products.
What else can I do?
Take a look at natural paints and do your research on products that you use.
Consider in particular anything that might create a scent. Candles for example can be a source of VOCs, although they emit far less than burning incense sticks.
VOCs are not the only risk factor inside, so do consider other pollutants too, and look for ways to keep your home full of fresh and clean air.
Always ventilate your space well. Every time you clean or paint inside your windows should be open, and because their lungs are developing try to do this when children are not around too. It is recommended that you open your windows for 5 – 10 minutes every day regardless of what cleaning or work is happening inside. Take care with high or upstairs windows though – we have window restrictors on ours to keep them from opening too wide.
Service your heating and cooking appliances regularly. Another source of indoor pollution is from carbon monoxide, which is known for being dangerous because it is poisonous but has no taste or smell. An annual service can check that appliances are working properly. We have carbon monoxide testers at home as well, which may not help with reducing indoor air pollution but will alert us if there are raised levels of carbon monoxide.
Invest in decent extractor fans for your bathroom and above your cooker.
If you can, dry washing in a separate room or outside to reduce moisture in the air inside. Condensation can easily build up, especially on windows, which can in turn lead to mould and cause problems.
Indoor air pollution is not something to panic about, but it is something to be mindful of. Common suggestions for quickly improving your home environment and restoring clean air inside include vacuuming regularly, always using extractor fans (however annoyingly noisy they may be), keeping your home well ventilated and adding a house plant or two. The 1980s NASA Clean Air Study found that some plants, such as aloe vera and bamboo palms, removed VOCs from the air. Studies on the benefits of house plants have been repeated, one in 2004 found that their soil was helpful to air purity too.
Do you have any top tips for keeping the air in your home clean? Do let me know in the comments below.
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