Stay home, stay safe has become a sign of our times. Staying indoors today is the number one way of protecting ourselves from infection by the coronavirus and preventing it from spreading to others. Most of us are, thus, in some degree of lockdown and are spending more time than ever staying home.
While sheltering in place may protect us from the virus, our homes are far from safe as far as indoor air quality goes. But when we think of indoor air, pollution doesn’t come to mind. We think of outdoor air as being polluted from exhaust fumes, industrial smokestacks and burning piles of garbage.
The truth, however, is that indoor air pollution can be up to 10 times worse than outdoor air pollution, and globally, people spend about 90 per cent of their lives indoors – at home, work, or school. With the pandemic, time spent indoors has only increased. This means that we can be at risk in our own homes.
Major Causes of Indoor Air Pollution
Indoor air pollution has a variety of causes. In rural India, the burning of biomass fuels such as wood and coal for cooking and the use of kerosene lighting are major pollutants of indoor air. In urban India, overcrowding, poor ventilation and badly maintained air conditioning systems are implicated factors. Besides this, a number of common household products are also causes of indoor air pollution.
Incense sticks, air fresheners and insect-repellents are known to release Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). Equally guilty are commonly used household products including cleaning agents, paint and varnish and personal care products. Even LPG-based cooking contributes to indoor air pollution.
Impacts of Poor Indoor Air Quality
In India, 2.6 million deaths annually, most of them premature, are attributed to poor indoor air quality. Globally, it kills 3.5 million and 4.3 million every year. That makes it a bigger public health concern than HIV/ AIDS and malaria combined. Respiratory conditions associated with chronic exposure to poor indoor air include pneumonia, bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) and lung cancer.
It can exacerbate asthma, wheezing and allergies. Even minor exposure to indoor air pollution can cause cough, irritation of the nose and throat, dry or burning eyes, headaches, nausea and fatigue. The worst affected groups are children who have narrow air pathways and women who spend the most time indoors engaged in household labour which puts them in close contact with pollutants such as household cleaners, air fresheners, kitchen fumes and sweeping dust. Other vulnerable groups include pregnant women, the elderly and the ill.
How to Improve Air Quality at Home
- Keep bathrooms well-ventilated: Install an exhaust fan to prevent moisture build-up. When moisture and steam collect, so do mildew, mites and mold which can cause or worsen allergies and asthma. Too much moisture also causes off-gassing which is the release of chemicals from cleaning products and plastics into the air.
- Avoid smoking when indoors: Smoking is unrivalled in its detrimental health consequences both from the perspective of health and indoor air pollution. While the smoker is at risk, passive smokers are most vulnerable as two-thirds of tobacco smoke is dissipated into the air.
- Steer clear of cleaning products with toxic chemicals: The biggest culprits are bleach and formaldehyde. Not only is bleach toxic on its own, but it also reacts with cooking fumes to produce noxious gases that can wreak havoc with indoor air quality.
- Make changes in the kitchen: When cooking, keep windows open or exhaust fans on to get rid of cooking fumes. If you have a cooktop with a chimney or hood, cook on the back burners as much as possible because the chimney exhausts this area more effectively.
- Keep dust away: Household textile such as carpets, upholstery and bed linen can attract dust and allergens. Be regular with dusting and vacuuming. Regularly wash and change bedsheets, blankets and curtains, especially if you have pets. Keep your pet’s fur healthy and well-groomed. Declutter your home often for clutter works as a dust trap.
- Improve indoor ventilation: Whether you’re cleaning, cooking or painting your walls, keeping the windows open improves ventilation, allows fresh air indoors and prevents pollutants from building up. However, this advice becomes irrelevant if you live on a busy road or in a heavily-polluted city. In this case, simply turning on the fan or investing in an air purifier can minimise the level of pollutants in your home.
- Check filters and ducts regularly: Electrostatic filters trap dust and other airborne irritants which are recirculated throughout your home. regular cleaning of the air ducts and replacement of filters of ACs and heaters keeps them in optimum condition.
- Avoid strong fragrances: Air fresheners, insect repellents such as mosquito coils, perfumes, incense sticks and aroma oils and candles release organic compounds such as nitrogen dioxide and aerosols that can irritate the respiratory system and worsen allergies and breathing conditions. Many cleaning products such as laundry detergents, fabric softeners and floor cleaners contain artificial fragrances which are common air pollutants.
- Use indoor plants: An oft-quoted study by NASA in 1989 on the role of indoor plants in purifying air found that some houseplants are effective air-purifiers, removing benzene, formaldehyde, trichloroethylene, xylene, and ammonia from our surroundings. A few species identified by the study include bamboo palms, weeping fig, Boston ferns and snake plants.
- Dust correctly: Wipe away dust particles with a cloth rather than beating out dust. This keeps the dust particles on the cloth rather than dislodging them into the air.
Keeping indoor quality clean is an important, much-ignored solution to improve our health, more so in the face of a virus that preys on weak respiratory systems.