Not Safe Inside: Here’s Help For Your Indoor Air Pollution Woes
The outside air is terrible, but are our homes better? What are the main sources of indoor air pollution?
(It's National Pollution Prevention Day today. FIT is republishing this story to create awareness around the issue.)
What’s one of the first things you do in the morning?
Open our windows and take a deep breath, right? ‘Ah, the fresh air to start my mornings.’
But hold on - this may be doing more harm than good for us, health-wise.
Dr Priyanka Kulshreshtha, the Joint Secretary of the Society for Indoor Environment tells FIT,
“In the mornings, the vertical mixing height of pollution is at its worst. This is when the cold air of the winters brings the air and its pollutants down so it’s the most concentrated. So we are immediately exposing ourselves to one of the worst air pollution levels in the day.”
While the indoors are more controllable, they're only very marginally better than the outdoor air pollution - which is pretty horrible as is.
It’s hard to demarcate the air as outside and inside as we are constantly exposed to both. Even if we stay in, close all the doors and windows, the outside air seeps in.
Outside of locking ourselves in a nuclear bunker, how do we best protect ourselves, especially when inside?
The Wild Indoors
It’s a myth that staying in can protect you from the toxic conditions outside as our homes are often sources for air pollution in itself.
“It’s important first to know where the sources are in your homes,” Dr Priyanka explains.
Dyson engineers along with SGS China, an independent advanced testing establishment, conducted a study on indoor air quality for Delhi NCR homes using Dyson technology to shine a light on the dirty truth behind our so-called safer indoor havens. So what are the main sources of toxins indoors?
- Cleaning materials that have an odour
- The building materials, paint
- The wood in your furniture
- Cigarettes, cosmetics, paints and varnishes
Paints, carpets, cleaning agents and building materials all have formaldehyde, a common gas that causes plenty of irritation in our throats, eyes, nose and throat.
Dust mites in carpets, mold in the corner of our homes and airborne bacteria can all contribute to making our homes as toxic as the outside!
In an earlier interview with FIT, Dr Arvind Kumar, lung surgeon and founder of Lung Care Foundation, said that lighting agarbattis and kapoors increase the level of PM 2.5 by at least 20%.
Dr Priyanka says that a lot of changes to ensuring cleaner homes will have to involve behavioural changes.
But how do we straddle the sentiments of deeply religious people while making sure indoor pollution levels stay low?
Dr Priyanka suggests we tailor the advice to our lifestyle, and since a lot of Indian families do perform poojas at home, “Simply open the windows or make sure a fan is on and there is some ventilation while lighting the incense.”
Another thing we can be more mindful of? The way we clean our homes.
“A lot of the pollutants are already inside and the problem lies when they are being re-suspended. In India, this happens a lot when we do the daily sweeping of our houses. I would advise mopping to make sure the particles do not get suspended and cause irritation.”
She suggests going back to how our grandparents used to live and clean via ionization.
Why are paints, cleaning agents with a strong smell and deodorants all bad? They all contribute to pollution levels indoors. “Anything with an odour has volatile particles that can irritate us,” says Dr Priyanka and it’s true, a freshly painted house is beautiful but we need to stay away till the smell dies down. Surely this can't be good for us.
“These volatile organic compounds can also be carcinogenic,” she warns us. “We cannot avoid painting the house, but we can avoid exposure and creating a source of ventilation can help.”
Another danger point, especially for the health of young kids? Carpets or plush furniture. “My own daughter developed asthma, she was wheezing cause of this!’ says Dr Priyanka.
What About Schools or Offices? Is Anywhere Safe?
Schools have chalks, which are a huge source of dust, Even markers with their scent are not a safe option.
Offices have printers and photocopiers which also emits ozone and formaldehyde.
But how can we avoid this? “The issue is not avoiding but reorienting our set-up to make sure the photocopier in the office is kept in a separate room to reduce exposure,” says Dr Priyanka.
So have the things, but in a smart way, away from most people.
With all this, where are kids to go? If the outside air is toxic and the inside is just as bad, are we all stuck between a rock and a hard place?
“No! We can’t change our lives completely, but by being aware we know what to avoid.”Dr Priyanka Kulshreshtha
So if you know you get triggered by a certain dust mite, it is useful to know the source - say your carpet - and get it cleaned often and live (and breathe) peacefully.
Are air purifiers the answer? They’re inaccessible and costly to most people, and Dr Priaynka agrees they’re not the complete solution. “If you have vulnerable populations, children or the elderly or people with respiratory problems, it’s useful to invest in an air purifier and use it during the time that your allergies are triggered. So, find the cause, and put it on during that time (say during sweeping or more so when the weather changes).”
She says that going back to the basics, switching to eco-friendly alternatives in our paints, chalks and agarbattis (like those made from flower-waste) is the way forward. We’re moving towards organic substitutes anyway, might as well be making smart choices for our health too.
“We’re more aware now, my daughter who is five knows about PM 2.5 but we need more targeted awareness campaigns in schools and beyond to deal with air pollution strategically.”
She tells me that socioculturally, women need to be most educated and aware as they are “among the most vulnerable and if they are aware, their kids will be safer.”
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