Indoor air pollution has jumped since lockdown — here's how to fix it


In the UK, CO² levels during working hours have jumped by 20 per cent, while levels of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) have risen by almost a third, according to Airthings, which makes air-quality monitors for homes and businesses. Poor indoor air quality can have serious effects on health, particularly in young children and those with respiratory problems. It has been linked to premature birth, behavioural problems in pre-school children, as well as skin problems, asthma and poor sleep in people of all ages. Yet many of us are unaware of the pollutants circulating in our homes every day. Here is a quick guide to help you know your VOCs from your particulate matter.

Everything from cleaning products to clothes can emit Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). When VOCs react with ozone gas in the air around us, they can form dangerous pollutants including particulate matter and formaldehyde, which can cause cancer.

Professor Nicola Carslaw, professor indoor air chemistry at the University of York, investigates the role of chemicals in indoor air pollution. She explains that scented products, from candles and air fresheners to new furniture, cleaning fluids and shower gels, can emit VOCs. “If you can smell something, it probably means it’s emitting VOCs,” she says.

The first step in controlling VOCs is to minimise the use of scented products around the home. It is important to keep cleaning, but try choosing unscented products where possible, Professor Carslaw advises. It might be better to avoid other items entirely. “I would never use scented candles in the home,” she says. “Not because I think I am going to keel over if I do, it’s just that for me it counts as an unnecessary exposure.”

And if you really can’t live without perfume or scented candles, use them sparingly and in a well-ventilated space, Professor Carslaw suggests.

Radon

Radon is a colourless, odourless, radioactive gas. When it seeps into buildings and foundations, it can build up and, over a long period, cause cancer. But it is relatively easy to fix – usually with ventilation measures, such as the installation of an underfloor pipe and fan to blow the radon out from under the house. People worried about radon exposure can order a testing kit from UKradon.org.

Particulate matter

Imagine bringing an old diesel car into your home and leaving the engine spluttering in the kitchen. In some ways, cooking a meal on a gas hob has the same effect.

Cooking is one of the largest sources of particulate matter (PM) in the home – tiny particles that are hazardous to human health when inhaled. Even using a toaster can cause PM pollution, which is why experts stress that people should always use the extractor hood or open a window when cooking.

You can also adjust your cooking habits for cleaner air, according to Professor Ian Colbeck of the University of Essex. “The amount of particulate emissions you generate when you cook depends on what cooking method you are doing, the food being cooked, the temperature, and whether it is gas or electric,” he tells i. “Frying is the worst – anything where you are using cooking oil to any extent is one of the issues.”

For the cleanest air while cooking, use an electric or induction hob, keep the lid on pans, and extractor fans on, he says.

Cooking with gas can cause particulate matter levels to spike

Cooking with gas can cause particulate matter levels to spike


Carbon dioxide

Every time we breathe in and out, we emit carbon dioxide. And the more people at home, the more carbon dioxide. That could be causing problems during lockdown, as high concentrations of CO² can leave people sleepy, dizzy, and struggling to concentrate.

“If you’ve got lots of people in the house, you do need to watch out for build up of CO²,” says Professor Colbeck, advising people to open a window every few hours to let some fresh air in.

Of course, some households will be better-equipped to control their air quality than others. Families in poor-quality housing without proper ventilation, or next to a busy road, will have a tougher job keeping their inside air clean. But for most of us, particularly while the lockdown affords us cleaner outdoor air, the best thing to do now is crack open a window.

My experience tracking indoor air quality

My CO2 levels spiked during the night when the windows were closed
Like many people living in a big city, I have worried a lot about outdoor air pollution, yet given little thought to indoor air quality. But after chatting to air quality experts, I decided to investigate what is going on in my own home.

I kitted my kitchen out with an Airthings Wave monitor, and used a personal Flow device from Plume Labs to monitor the rest of the flat. Both – to my relief – revealed that my air quality is pretty good, helped no doubt by my flat’s leaky Victorian windows allowing fresh air to seep in 24/7.

But there are a few nasty surprises. The VOC levels in my front room spiked dramatically after I applied hand sanitiser, and again in my kitchen when I gave it a deep-clean.

I also realise that CO² is building up overnight when the windows are all closed. That might have something to do with my struggles to get up in the morning, chuckles Airthings’ CEO Oyvind Birkenes, after looking at my data. If I was watching TV in that environment, it’s “very likely you would fall asleep”, he says.

I am now much more conscious of my home’s air quality. I open windows at every opportunity, have not lit a scented candle in more than a fortnight, and have religiously been using the extractor fan when cooking. It turns out it is pretty easy to get cleaner air once you know how.
Indoor air pollution has jumped since lockdown — here's how to fix it Indoor air pollution has jumped since lockdown — here's how to fix it Reviewed by Debyendu Bhunia on May 10, 2020 Rating: 5

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