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The Impact of Indoor Air Quality

How often do you think about the air you breathe? It’s not something that most of us do every day, it may be something we consider when we’re in a different environment. If you’re walking through the countryside you might take a moment to reflect on how good it feels to be breathing fresh outdoor air. On other occasions, when you’re travelling through a busy city centre, the implications of heavy pollution from traffic, buildings and roadworks could be heavy on your mind, as you may notice the smells of fumes, for example. For allergy sufferers, particularly those with respiratory conditions such as allergic asthma, the health implications can be more severe. However, the issue can affect everyone.

What about the quality of the air inside your home? Have you thought about the air around you whilst curled up on the sofa watching television, preparing dinner or even whilst taking a relaxing bath? Your home is considered to be a safe haven, where you can shut out the outside world, but that’s not necessarily the case.

Air pollution inside the home and your indoor air quality can be affected by a mixture of different pollutants. These can be from building materials, to daily activities such as cooking and cleaning. Other factors such as smoking indoors will affect the air quality. ‘Volatile organic compounds’ (VOCs) in natural and synthetic chemicals, usually found in cleaning products, paints, and electrical goods can irritate the lungs. The impact can be even more detrimental to children’s health.[1] For allergy sufferers, poor air quality can exacerbate their symptoms.

The Rise of New Homes
Current government regulations can also impact on our indoor air quality, with the focus towards energy conservation, instead of air quality and ventilation. Indoor air quality is now becoming a bigger issue due to the rise of new housing.[2] Whilst the government is focusing on improving the energy efficiency of these new builds, for example, some may have built-in windows that do not open, this could come at a cost to our indoor air quality, not to mention that of future generations. This poses a potential health risk, particularly to more vulnerable people.

There is an increasing number of people who live in rented accommodation, so many people may not be able to control this situation, to make changes to their home environment or housing circumstances. Families with either elderly residents, or young children, especially those that also suffer with conditions such as asthma, respiratory or cardiovascular illnesses are thought to be at highest risk of health problems from indoor air pollutants.

Building regulations in the UK now force an improved air-tightness on all new houses, creating a higher risk of the presence of allergens, and subsequential health implications. For example, due to an increased risk of humidity, mould can form and cause allergy in susceptible people. Tobacco smoke and VOCs also deal a bigger impact in these homes. The residents in these homes are more likely to suffer an impact on their health, and for those with existent allergy symptoms, it can be even more problematic.

One recommended solution to the problem, however, is to introduce the standardised fitting of mechanical ventilation into new builds.[3] Mechanically ventilated rooms would improve the quality of the air inside the home, and would dramatically reduce the higher levels of heat in the home. Building regulations should also have to consider the materials used to build the home, and the internal furnishings placed inside, such as heating, decor, and furniture.

How does Indoor Air Quality Affect Allergy Sufferers?
For those that react to indoor allergens, their symptoms may be exacerbated by poor indoor air quality. Indoor allergens can be found in almost every room in the house, from house dust mite allergens in the furniture in the bedrooms, to mould spores in the dark, damp and untouched places in the garage, or cupboard in the bathroom, bedroom or kitchen.

Other causes of indoor allergy related symptoms include fungal particles, pet dander and pollen. Damp, humid places in the home elevate these levels. These allergens can be responsible for several different allergic conditions, such as perennial allergic rhinitis (all year long hay fever), and asthma.

Air Quality in Schools
Studying in a classroom that has poor indoor air quality can be detrimental to the health, and subsequently the ability to learn in a child.[4] Factors such as pets in classrooms, CO2 levels and irritating smells in science labs all add to poor air quality. Even an allergenic outdoor garden within a school can contribute to quality of air inside. A clean environment is important in providing a productive, healthy and comfortable educational atmosphere for students, as well as teachers.

Current studies show that a various amount of undetected air pollutants go unnoticed in classrooms. This can, in turn, impact children’s health, attendance and performance. The situation could be worse for children with asthma or hay fever. One in five children in the UK carries an inhaler[5] to relieve the symptoms of asthma and one in four pre-school children suffer with wheezing that is not asthma. A cleaner quality of air in the classroom is necessary in helping these children learn.

What are the Next Steps?
Air quality is regularly overlooked in place of energy and economical efficiencies. A responsibility for human health must be considered by the relevant government bodies, along with the current concerns of the impact of houses on the environment.

There is also a need for more information and awareness on indoor air quality. As yet, there is no current legislation on air quality in the home. Allergy UK is working with the European Federation of Asthma and Allergy to look at these issues, in all EU countries. The impact it has on human health needs to be recognised with greater awareness around the key issues, especially when building new homes. More research is needed, looking into the materials these properties are made out of, assessing the possibility of allergens and other factors that impact on the air quality found inside, both long and short-term. Varying levels of exposure and multiple allergens found in the home mean that most properties would require different levels of legislation. Housing type and location also need to be taken into consideration, making the issue a complex one.

Allergy UK highlighted the risks of mould allergens within the home as part of our ‘Stamp out Damp’ campaign.. If you would like further information and advice you can download our Damp Prevention pack and symptoms checker.

For more information on preventing indoor allergies within the home or if you are suffering with an allergic condition related to the issues we’ve raised here, download our factsheets, or call our helpline which is available Mon-Fri from 9 – 5pm, on 01322 619 898.  

 

 

 

 

 

[1] K. Rumchev, J. Spickett, M. Bussara, M. Phillips, S. Stick, “Association of domestic exposure to volatile organic compounds with asthma in young children.” Thorax, 2004; 59; 746-751, doi: 10.1136/thx.2003.013680.

[2] Sharpe, Richard A., et al. "Higher energy efficient homes are associated with increased risk of doctor diagnosed asthma in a UK subpopulation."Environment international 75 (2015): 234-244.

[3] Prof. Hazim B. Awbi (September 2015) The Future of Indoor Air Quality in UK Homes and its Impact on Health

[4] Annesi-Maesano, I., Baiz, N., Banerjee, S., Rudnai, P., Rive, S. and SINPHONIE Group, 2013. Indoor air quality and sources in schools and related health effects. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part B, 16(8), pp.491-550.

[5] Postnote Number 366, November 2010. http://www.parliament.uk/documents/post/postpn366_indoor_air_quality.pdf