‘Is the air in your home affecting your health?,’ asks Róise McGagh
‘Go out and get a bit of fresh air’, we were told, by parents, teachers and friends. Whether we are feeling under the weather mentally or physically. But what is so bad about the indoors? It is a recent enough biome in terms of ecology but one we have relied on heavily for the last couple of thousand years.
You might recognise the term ‘Building Sickness’, often associated with symptoms like irritation of the ears, nose and throat, itching, mental fatigue, drowsiness and headaches.”
Irish people spend approximately 90% of their time indoors, this adds up to almost 22 hours a day, either at home, in school or at work.
You might recognise the term ‘Building Sickness’, often associated with symptoms like irritation of the ears, nose and throat, itching, mental fatigue, drowsiness and headaches. ‘Sick building syndrome (SBS) is actually a legitimate illness. It’s a combination of ailments associated with a person’s place of work or living space. The causes tend to be related to poor indoor air quality.
It might be heard as a complaint associated with some recently constructed lecture halls and offices. Certain chemical air pollutants, such as formaldehyde and phthalates, have been associated with an increased risk of asthma, allergies and pulmonary infections. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are a major type of indoor pollutant (of which formaldehydes fall under) with a lower limit boiling point range of 50-100°C and an upper limit of 240-260°C according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
These VOCs can be emitted from building materials: flooring, composite wood products and adhesives into indoor air. Semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs) with an even higher boiling point range, can be emitted from several sources in the average home, in particular from flooring adhesives. Indoors, SVOCs can be present as gas, airborne particles and house dust. So even in your home you could be exposed to these types of compounds by both inhaling air and house dust.
Luckily a lot of manufacturers have developed low-solvent, low-VOC-emitting alternatives to be used instead. However, this does explain why some buildings from the 1980s might leave you with a lasting headache.
Furniture can also release VOCs and SVOCs which is why some new couches might have a chemical smell and require some ‘airing out’. Doing this for a few days can let these chemicals dissipate instead of bringing them into your home as well as get rid of the smell.
Unfortunately, building products are not the only thing that can impact the quality of air inside a person’s home or office. According to Leona Donaghy, PHD Researcher in Belfast’s Ulster University, mould can majorly affect a person’s health if it is present in the home. “Mould can trigger chronic illnesses like asthma in children or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).” Leona says she has recently lost someone close to herself to COPD.
Things like drying your clothes indoors can increase the level of moisture in the house by up to 30%, and cooking or showering without a working extractor fan can continue to raise these levels.
It can be difficult to keep a home mould free. In a cold house it can be even more difficult to keep things dry as the air can hold so little moisture. Especially when living on a budget that means the whole house can not be heated efficiently, which is the case for many people who rent in a pricey market.
A lot of heavy cleaning materials, solvents or paints are also either harmful to the environment or packaged in a way that is”
The mistake that a lot of people make is to use strong chemical mould removers or bleach to clear any developing patches.
Bleach especially – Sodium Hypochlorite, is a well-known trigger for respiratory diseases that is toxic for aquatic life, it can cause severe skin burns, eye damage and can contain things like chloroform and chlorine.
These kinds of solutions often become airborne, because of it evaporating itself, a spray bottle or mixing it with hot water. And unless your home is very well ventilated and you wear a mask while cleaning, it is likely that you are breathing in some very harmful chemicals.
Leona says there is no need to go to these extremes at all. Indeed, for any kind of cleaning it is possible to create your own solutions that have less volatile ingredients and are likely to be easier on your pocket. Vinegar or tea tree oil can naturally kill mould – if you spray it straight on, leave for a few hours and then scrub it away (you do not even have to rinse the tea tree).
“Temperatures over 60°C also kill a lot of bacteria” she says. So it can be as easy as a boiling kettle and soap for most clean ups, and a 60°C wash will kill mould on towels too. Baking soda is another one and citrus extract. Both are great for removing tough stain and effectively kill mould; it will come back of course, but if you try to keep your home dry and stay on top of it with a spray and scrub, it can become very manageable. Not to mention how much better it is for your health.
Women seem to be slightly worse affected by indoor air quality due to the use of things like spray deodorant, perfumes, hairspray and nail varnish.”
A lot of heavy cleaning materials, solvents or paints are also either harmful to the environment or packaged in a way that is. “These are volatile organic chemicals”, says Leona highlighting that just because a product contains a natural element, does not mean it is safe, as concentrations of some organic chemicals mixed with others can become toxic. Any product that can damage a person or the environment should be appropriately labelled, and it is up to us to keep an eye out.
Women seem to be slightly worse affected by indoor air quality due to the use of things like spray deodorant, perfumes, hairspray and nail varnish. These things might not be initially bad for our health but Leona tells us that “there are different things like limonene that is in a lot of cosmetics and ethanol. They are called terpenes and when they get into the air they create formaldehyde as a secondary product.”
The European Environment Agency (EEA) estimated in 2013 that that in the region of 1,600 premature deaths could be attributed to fine particulate matter (very fine airborne pollutants) and other air pollutants in Ireland.
Leona said she would not want to make anyone too anxious about the quality of air in their homes as she is quite hyperconscious herself due to her in-depth studies. Taking a few steps to keep your home clear and aired out of the most common pollutants can help improve the risk.
It is a slightly more difficult task at work. Leona says air conditioners sometimes filter out pollutants and keep the air clean “but if the filter isn’t changed regularly it could be recycling pollutants into the air”, some cheaper air conditioning systems do not even have a filter. Checking in to see what kind of system your building has for air filtration as well as cracking a window during the day might help relieve some building sickness if you feel it.
The worst possible pollutant in an office is smoke, so as long as the smoking area is not close to doors or windows it should be okay.
Going out for a bit of fresh air every once in a while, also is not a bad option, and we know now that it definitely benefits us more than staying inside.