Danger lurking behind closed doors

IT’S a startling thought – people are at far greater risk from air pollution in their homes than they are from air pollution outdoors.

That’s one of the ironies of “improvements” in the building industry, not least insulation that’s virtually air-tight.

Advances in house design and construction mean that air movement in today’s buildings is estimated to be 10 times lower than it was 30 years ago. Activities in the home such as cooking, heating and smoking, along with reduced air exchange, can create more indoor pollutants.

University College Galway, in partnership with the Institute of Occupational Medicine in Edinburgh and the University of Aberdeen, is looking to recruit 50 homes in Galway and 50 in Scotland to participate in a study to measure levels of indoor air pollution in homes.

The Indoor Air Pollution and Health (IAPAH) project, which will run until December 2010, is funded by the Environmental Protection Agency and will focus on homes which use solid fuels for heating or cooking, or homes which have a resident smoker. Information collected in this project will be used to estimate how air pollution in homes affects our health. This is one of the first studies in Ireland and Scotland to look at air pollutants in domestic dwellings.

Dr Marie Coggins, of the UCG School of Physics and co-ordinator of the project, said the average European spends 90% of their time indoors, so the quality of the air we breathe plays a significant role in our health and well-being.

“Indoor air pollution has been identified as one of the key factors related to the development of respiratory illnesses, such as asthma and allergies. This project will allow us gather information which will help us improve our understanding of this important area,” she said.

Not nearly enough studies have been carried out, internationally. But, there’s continuing research in the US where experts have found that cooking, spraying ants with insecticide, taking a hot shower, plugging in a room freshener, or washing a rug with detergent, release invisible chemicals that swirl around rooms. Household products, furnishings and cosmetics emit vapours and particles that people can inhale, or absorb, through the skin.

Dr Richard Corsi, associate professor in the Texas Institute for the Indoor Environment, University of Texas, and author of numerous studies on air-borne contaminants, maintains we don’t spend enough time thinking about the quality of indoor air.

There could be higher levels of pollution inside houses than, say, on the streets of cities where car traffic and industries are sending harmful emissions into the atmosphere, he points out. Indeed, some people are suffering pollution levels inside their homes that they would not tolerate in the workplace, but don’t realise that.

People spend 65% of their time in their houses and 25% in some other indoor environment. Yet, scientists are stymied in predicting health effects. They lack studies on the amount of exposure that people actually get and what the exposure may do to people’s health. Scientists have documented tobacco smoke, radon gas, lead particles, asbestos and some pesticides as potential contributors to cancer, respiratory disease and other ailments. But other chemicals are now emerging as potential hazards, including those in flame retardants, detergents and cosmetics.

According to Harvard professor of environmental health John Spengler, people have almost no ability to know the chemical composition of very common products used almost daily.

He said: “Nobody has asked the question, ‘do these products have inherent risks and hazards for the population that we should address before we disseminate them widely?” The European Commission is currently looking at a tough, new regulatory system to register some 30,000 chemicals in the marketplace, while representatives of the building and cosmetics industries in the US are involved in worldwide discussions over the safety of their chemicals.

More than half the world’s population rely on dung, wood, crop waste, or coal, to meet their most basic energy needs, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Cooking and heating with such solid fuels on open fires, or stoves, without chimneys leads to indoor pollution.

This indoor smoke contains a range of health-damaging pollutants including small soot, or dust particles, that can penetrate deep into the lungs.

In poorly ventilated dwellings, indoor smoke can exceed acceptable levels for small particles in outdoor air 100-fold. Exposure is particularly high among women and children, who spend most time near the domestic hearth. Every year, indoor air pollution is responsible for the death of 1.6 million people – that’s one death every 20 seconds.


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