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The impact of COVID-19 on pollution within the home

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Work and social dynamics have changed considerably over the last month. We have gone from the bustle of our normal daily routines to a sudden slow change of pace. Typically, we were spending between 80-90% of our time in some form of a closed environment; this is said to change, at least for the immediate future!

New recommendations from the government to 'stay home' means there has been an increase in the amount of time most of us are spending indoors. Our daily routines have changed as work, school, socialising and exercising are now all being done at home. This upsurge of time spent at home will negatively impact the indoor air pollution (IAP) of homes; which is the toxicity of contaminated indoor air.

IAP is a major public health issue and environmental challenge globally but is particularly prevalent in developing nations. However, due to COVID-19 (coronavirus), virtually all countries are experiencing an increase in domestic cleaning products such as disinfectant, bleach and cleansers which exacerbate the problem of IAP and are known to contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which cause irritation, headaches and some can be carcinogenic. Common VOCs found in homes are benzene, formaldehyde and acetaldehyde (although also found in high concentrations in the ambient environment). It is also important to note that not all VOCs are bad it depends on the toxicity, concentration and exposure period.

The issue of IAP negatively affects dwellers through impacting their health, well-being, comfort and performance. Now maybe a great opportunity to discuss whether we are introducing too many pollutants into our homes; and how to improve indoor air quality (IAQ).

The Side Effects of Indoor Air Pollution

We know that outdoor concentrations of pollution are a major contributor to cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, but the indoor environment can also cause these diseases. This is because microscopic particles inhaled through the alveoli can change the clotting properties of blood (coagulation) and increase the risk of heart attacks. The severity of symptoms and illnesses will depend on the toxicology of chemicals in the environment, the duration of exposure and the inhalation rate.

Long-term effects from sources such as smoke particulate matter (PM) between sizes 10 and 2.5 micrometres can enter the lungs and bloodstream. PM are tiny liquid or solid particles produced by certain activities. Frequent exposure can cause pneumonia and chronic bronchitis, common issues in developing countries where biomass fuels are common. However, in developed countries, sources such as nitrogen dioxide from heating, carbon monoxide produced from heating and cooking activities and moulds are all commonly found within the home.
Additionally, the carcinogenic ground gas radon; is found in certain areas and is regulated in the Building Regulations.

Short-term effects to several pollutants are rhinitis, wheezing, eye irritation, nausea, headaches, coughing and other allergic skin reactions. These are just a limited number of symptoms caused by pollutants.

The effects of contaminants on indoor environments were researched by Povl Ole Fanger, the indoor environment expert, who discovered that poor indoor air quality in the work-place decreased productivity and can cause asthma in children. In one study, relatively new PC's emitted three times more pollution than the standard person rate and contributed to a 28% increase in the percentage of people dissatisfied with the air quality; and decreased the attention of workers by 9% for word processing tasks. 

High concentrations of VOCs are associated with sick building syndrome (SBS) in many journal articles, which are known as the set of symptoms associated with poor IAQ. 

According to several studies, IAP could be correlated with a reduction in concentration in children.

Inhalation exposure can cause a variety of short-term symptoms and may lead to longer health issues.

Pollutants We Bring Into Our Homes

Sources can come in forms of chemical pollutants, combustion of fuels and mould or dampness. However, as Covid-19 heightens in seriousness, it is chemical exposure that is of particular concern. For many, a scramble to organise a home office has meant purchases of desks, printers, laptops and headsets, and has subsequently increased occupant exposure to many pollutants.

There are many pollutant elements already within the home. Pollutant sources can include, but are not limited to:

  • Boilers
  • Types of wood furniture
  • Tobacco products
  • Household cleaning products
  • Damp and mould
  • Personal care products
  • Printers
  • Air fresheners
  • Aerosol sprays
  • Computers and electronic devices
  • Bicycle tyres

Advice to Reduce Your Home Indoor Air Pollution

France and Germany require internal finishes to meet both the ISO 16000 and off-gassing for 28-days to reduce impacts to occupant health. Limiting exposure to pollutants within the home can be difficult, but is necessary; some ways to do this are:

  • Before use, new products such as furniture and electronics should have airing time by a window.

  • If you are renovating, opt for low emitting materials and look for certification. Also, minimise your use of carpets.

  • Purification systems can play an important role in improving air quality in spaces such as living rooms and bedrooms.

  • When cooking, always use exhaust hoods for extraction, especially when frying.

  • Do not use candles, unless beeswax. Scented candles produce carcinogenic substances.

The Impact of Future Ventilation Design on Indoor Air Pollution

Insufficient ventilation exacerbates poor IAP. This emphasises the ventilation design of houses (or highlights the lack of). The type and route of ventilation will determine the quality of the air we breathe in our homes. Although not intended, uncontrolled ventilation is often a means for passive ventilation.

Active ventilation is being used in many new housing developments to achieve ventilation rates. Whilst mechanical ventilation can help maintain flow rates; there are drawbacks to using this method. They require maintenance and if not maintained, could produce worse levels of IAP then naturally ventilated homes. Mechanical ventilation has been the cause of many SBS complaints in office buildings.

For the present, most of us are not going to redesign our homes to improve IAP. So, we must minimise our exposure through adequate ventilation or utilising portable devices to reduce concentrations.

Disclaimer: The sole responsibility for any views expressed lies with the author(s). Any opinions shared do not necessarily represent the views of Saint-Gobain.

Bianca Bryan
Bianca Bryan Graduate of Environmental Design and Engi...
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