Indoor Air Quality: Why it's important for your health and how you can improve it.
Photo by Yeo Khee on Unsplash
Take a moment to think about how much of your time you spend indoors.
If you are like most Europeans this could be up to 90% of your time. This was shocking for me to hear at first but on second thought it shouldn't have come as a huge surprise. Between a full day of work, a full night of sleep, eating, relaxing, watching tv, going to the gym and everything else we do inside, the time adds up.
Now consider the health of these indoor environments you spend so much time in. How healthy are they for you, your family, friends and colleagues? How much do you really know about the air you are breathing while indoors?
Over the years we have seen a sharp rise in allergies, asthma, irritations and health symptoms with scientific studies linking these issues to our indoor environments and poor air quality. The health impacts are broad in nature with symptoms including fatigue, headaches, sore throats, drowsiness, itchy eyes to name a few.
The problem has significant consequences, for example The World Health Organisation suggests about 15% of new childhood asthma cases in Europe can be attributed to indoor dampness.
“About 15% of new childhood asthma cases in Europe can be attributed to indoor dampness”
But while air quality can significantly affect our health, many of us are in the dark about the quality of air in our homes, offices, schools and other buildings we spend so much of our time in.
What’s contaminating our indoor environments?
While there are many contaminants in the air we breathe the more common culprits include carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and microbes. Let's explore each one in more detail:
Carbon Dioxide - Carbon dioxide is mainly the result of human or animal breathing. When we exhale we release CO2 into the air which begins to accumulate indoors. High levels lead to drowsiness, headaches or impaired ability to function normally.
Carbon Monoxide - Carbon monoxide is produced by incomplete combustion from sources such as indoor fires, gas cookers and heaters, and cigarettes. Carbon monoxide is absorbed by our blood cells better than oxygen and ultimately blocks the uptake of oxygen into our bodies. By reducing oxygen absorption carbon monoxide can cause fatigue, nausea, angina, impaired vision, and reduced brain function. For example according to The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) even a well tuned and efficient gas stove can increase carbon monoxide concentrations significantly, from under 5ppm (considered normal in a home without a gas stove) anywhere up to 15ppm, a 300% increase!
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) - VOCs come from sources including people, cooking, paints, building materials, cleaning products and furniture. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), concentrations of VOCs are consistently higher indoors (2 - 5 times higher) than outdoors. VOCs can cause nose and throat discomfort, headaches, nausea, fatigue and allergic skin reactions, eye and respiratory irritation to name a few.
Microbes and Mould - Microbes are all around us, on objects, on our skin, inside our gut and in the air we breathe. While many are harmless, the presence of mould from damp conditions indoors increases concentrations of harmful spores and microbes in the air. These spores and microbes can cause allergic reactions and in the worst cases contribute to asthma.
All these contaminants are present in your indoor environment in varying levels and are difficult to remove completely.
How at risk am I?
The contaminants are always going to be present and at low levels the risk is generally low. The issue begins when contaminants build up in the air and become more concentrated.
The concentration of contaminants indoors is typically much higher (2 - 5 times higher) than the concentration outdoors. This is because indoor air flow is low meaning contaminants tend to accumulate in the air inside rather than dissipate. As their concentrations increase, the potential harm to our health also increases.
Prolonged over exposure to high concentrations of these contaminants will start to harm your health and if your air quality at home or in the office is bad maybe they already are.
At low levels you may experience mild symptoms, but at higher levels and prolonged exposure you are putting yourself at risk of more serious health issues such as asthma, prolonged allergies, damage to organs and the list goes on.
What can we do to improve our air quality?
There are four key things you can do:
1.) Monitor your indoor air quality
Monitoring your air quality levels is the best way to know whats contaminating your air and what you need to do to improve it.
There are numerous sensors on the market which measure air quality, however many are expensive. Rysta is an affordable solution for measuring indoor air quality. Rysta uses multi-sensors to collect climate data and data analytics to provide actionable insights in near real time to help you maintain a healthy indoor environment.
With air quality monitoring, occupants know how to improve their air quality and gain peace of mind their indoor climate is comfortable and healthy at all times.
2.) Regular ventilation
Regular ventilation is critical for removing contaminants in the air. Ventilation replaces bad air with clean fresh air, reducing the concentration of indoor contaminants to more normal levels.
The best way to ventilate is to create a cross breeze by opening windows or doors at opposite ends of the room. Creating a cross breeze quickly and effectively replaces the indoor air with fresh air from outside.
Opening just one window or door helps but is not very effective or efficient. The air exchange is too slow as the air is effectively still. Again air quality monitoring helps actively monitor the effects of ventilating in near real time, helping occupants create a perfect, healthy room climate.
While contaminants derived from humans such as CO2 and VOCs and other contaminants from microbes are impossible to prevent they can be controlled with ventilation.
3.) Reducing sources of contaminants
Several steps can be taken to reduce contaminants at the source. Consciously choosing products that limit contaminants or avoiding them altogether is an effective way to influence levels of contaminants in your air.
For example choosing higher quality heaters/cookers and regularly tuning them reduces contaminants through more efficient burning. Minimising or consciously choosing less toxic chemicals, paints and cleaning products in the home will also have a significant impact as less harmful contaminants are released. If you do have chemicals ensure they are properly sealed and stored away from living areas and avoid smoking inside and use of indoor fireplaces.
4.) Filtering Your Air
While air filtration is common and does a good job of reducing contaminants, its expensive and best suited to large indoor and communal environments. Arguably it also feels less natural than introducing fresh outside air.
If you can achieve good levels of ventilation, filtering your air is often not necessary.
Indoor air quality is something we often don't think about but it can significantly affect our health and wellbeing. While we spend a majority of our time indoors we are facing increased exposure to contaminants that cause a wide array of health symptoms, and the more time we spend indoors the more widespread the symptoms become.
Understanding your air quality and taking steps to reduce contaminants is an important part of maintaining a safe, healthy indoor climate. As we continue to insulate ourselves from the outdoor environment let’s be mindful of our air quality and let fresh air back into our lives.
If you are interested in learning more about indoor air quality you can read more about it in the research sources below.
Footnotes and Research
WHO Housing And Health Guidelines - World Health Organisation
The Inner Value of a building - Buildings Performance Institute Europe
Carbon Monoxides’ Impact On Indoor Air Quality - US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA.gov)
Volatile Compounds’ Impact On Indoor Air Quality - US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA.gov)
Wikipedia Indoor Air Quality - For general information on indoor air quality (IAQ)