Poor indoor air quality can seriously affect your family’s health. Find out the steps you can take to protect your children from poor indoor pollutants.
The latest figures show that, on average, people now spend around 90% of their time indoors1. Scientific studies are starting to give us a deeper understanding of the way indoor air quality, affects our health and determines how effectively we work, learn, sleep, and play.
The US government’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines indoor air quality as “the quality of air in a home, school, office, or other building environment.” According to the EPA’s research, concentrations of damaging pollutants are between two to five times higher indoors than outdoors2. Over recent decades, many of these chemicals have become more prevalent in our homes due to increased use of synthetic building materials, air-tight properties, pesticides, and household cleaners.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) says indoor air pollution is now responsible for 2.7% of the global burden of disease with respiratory illnesses causing 1.4 million deaths annually3. Ambient air pollutants cut a combined total of 2 years and 6 months from the average person’s life expectancy, according to the State of Global Air Survey4.
Researchers have also discovered more about the effects of air quality on cognitive scores, with studies showing that people perform better in good air quality environments. In other words, we’re better at reasoning, understanding, and making decisions when we breathe better air.
Against this alarming backdrop, the obvious question is: “Why aren’t more people monitoring air quality and measuring levels of key pollutants? And which pollutants, in particular, are most dangerous to our health and well-being?” The answer is that there is still insufficient awareness of the seriousness of the problem, never mind how we make changes and reach solutions when we have the necessary information.
By building that awareness, it’s possible to create a movement to protect the next generation from preventable diseases like lung cancer.
What should we monitor and why?
Indoor air quality monitoring involves measuring levels of various potential contaminants as well as conditions that determine the quality of the air we breathe so that we can take action to make our indoor environment healthier.
Radon, for instance, is a radioactive gas that is emitted naturally from soil and rock when uranium breaks down. It can seep into buildings through cracks in the foundations of houses in areas where the concentrations of these rocks, such as granite, are present5. The gas is responsible for an estimated 15,000 – 22,000 lung cancer deaths in the US each year, where 7.1 million homes are affected by potentially unsafe concentrations of radon6.
VOCs, or Volatile Organic Compounds, are chemicals that exist in many modern cleaning products, paints, solvents, carpets, and furniture. They can cause short-term problems like headaches, inflammation of the eyes, nose and throat, and flare-ups of pneumonia or bronchitis, as well as contributing to more long-term conditions like cardiovascular diseases and asthma. Sometimes, they are the reason we are just feeling tired, or why you don’t feel as good in certain rooms, or even entire apartments. We all have that place that we have lived in, where you were just sick all the time, and felt bad, but didn’t know why – it was likely VOCs.
Long-term exposure to carbon dioxide can result in reduced productivity, poor decision making, and increased drowsiness and lethargy7. Concentrations of CO2 as low as 700ppm-800ppm are associated with complaints of low air quality.
Air quality monitors are also capable of measuring important metrics like humidity, temperature, and air pressure. These conditions affect how we feel and how we perform. But they are also linked to complaints like headaches and migraines, variations in blood pressure, and joint pain9. For example, dry air can make infectious disease transmission easier, while more humid conditions can cause mold growth and worsen asthma symptoms.
Taking action in the home
After you’ve measured indoor air and have uncovered the facts about the air you’re breathing, how can you take action to make your family’s environment healthier and increase well-being in your home?
These steps could be as simple as opening a window if you live in a low pollution area, but they may also involve changing the products you use in your home, limiting the use of especially harmful products, or thinking about investing in ventilation or air purification system.
If your home has high levels of radon, lowering their concentration may involve some work on the building, but this isn’t necessarily as expensive as it sounds. The simplest changes involve opening the windows or sealing up holes and cracks. At higher concentrations, it may be advisable to install radon mitigation systems or have professionals advise and install treatment systems such as sumps and ventilation to remove radon.
To cut VOCs in your home, you can make changes by ensuring the products you use are as healthy as possible. 60% of the people we surveyed regularly choose organic and toxin-free cleaning products for their households. That’s a quick way to minimize the harmful chemicals you’re inhaling.
Solvents in paint contain VOCs and can contribute to pollution as well as reducing indoor air quality. You can limit exposure by choosing paints labeled ‘low VOC’ or ‘no VOC’, as certification bodies become increasingly aware of health risks. New furniture is another source of these gases, so using upcycled or second-hand furniture will improve the air your family breathes, as well as benefiting the environment.
VOCs can also spike when doing some of your favorite things like lighting a relaxing, scented candle or cooking a special meal – knowing this is good, as it allows you to increase ventilation while enjoying the things you love.
Beyond the home
You can take action to improve air quality in the home, but good air quality is also vital in schools or daycare, where your children are likely to spend a significant part of their time.
And, when it comes to education, air quality isn’t just about the long-term health implications. Your children will learn and function better if they’re breathing better air. A Harvard study found that improved indoor environmental quality could boost cognitive scores by 101%10.
You can make a difference by talking to teachers, governors, and other parents about the importance of air monitoring.
By taking responsibility for the quality of the air we breathe, we can make sure that our children, and we ourselves, are happier, healthier, and more productive.
- Indoor air quality has long-term health implications and affects how effectively we work, learn, and play.
- Monitoring provides information about potentially health-damaging contaminants, like radon, total VOCs, CO₂, and conditions like humidity, temperature, and pressure that determine the quality of the air we breathe.
- We can use this information to take action to improve the air for our families, by ventilating our homes better, changing the household products we use, or implementing building improvements.
- Indoor air is equally important in schools and daycare, where it affects children’s ability to learn.
- By building awareness of the importance of air quality it’s possible to create a movement to protect the next generation from preventable diseases like lung cancer.