In our fast-paced lifestyles, we have become used to working long hours behind four walls – whether our work is in a corporate sector, the food industry, the public health domain, or practically anywhere. Most of us are more indoors now than we are out, so it has become imperative that not only do we keep our indoor environment just as healthy as we want it to be outside, but should also focus on creating an atmosphere within our buildings that does not threaten the well-being of our planet in turn; however, to manage and minimise indoor pollution, we must first understand what it essentially entails and the factors that give way to it.

What is indoor air pollution?

Indoor air pollution is a decline in the quality of air indoors as a consequence of harmful physical, chemical or biological materials. What is alarming about this form of pollution is that it is not given due importance, and its negative impact on human health and condition can be up to and over ten times as worse as that of outdoor air pollution. This is because these pollutants tend to accumulate and concentrate in the air within closed environments more easily than they are able to in open spaces, thereby increasing our exposure to them. 

Types of indoor air pollution

There are two types of effects that indoor air pollution has the potential to elicit: short term and long term. The short term effects are easily identifiable and, therefore, treatable because they are accompanied by symptoms, like: irritation of the eyes, nose, congestion, an allergic reaction or cough. Although one may notice that these reactions are similar to ones provoked by an infection or seasonal allergy, one can determine the cause to be indoor pollution by being aware of where these symptoms occur and whether changing the immediate environment results in any improvement.

The long term effects of indoor pollution are more alarming as they result due to prolonged exposure to the pollutants and are not realised before they have rendered considerable damage to one’s health. Some of the health consequences that have been observed include: heart conditions, respiratory illnesses, liver damage and even cancer, all of which develop over a period of time – making them difficult and more expensive to treat. 

Causes of indoor air pollution

What is ironic about indoor air pollution is that the very products we use to enhance our surroundings and ambience are often the ones that impair our quality of life. Chemicals from synthetic materials, such as: household paint, air fresheners, insect repellants, furniture polish, etc. all inevitably and eventually deteriorate our air quality and have negative consequences on human health. What is more is that the carpets and rugs that adorn the floor become a source of dust and a harmful gas, formaldehyde, that is known to cause allergies and irritates the eyes and nose. 

While there are various elements and household products that undermine the indoor air quality, readily available synthetic paints and finishes are largely found to have a detrimental consequence on human health. Synthetic paints and sheens contain various chemicals that can result in respiratory distress, a decline in cognitive function, headaches and more. One of these chemicals is lead, and high exposures of this element can trigger mental health disorders, particularly in children, give rise to hearing disabilities and high blood pressure, to list a few. Even though lead-based paints have been banned in the united states and other regions, it is still manufactured and sold in low and middle income countries, so it is always advisable to check the paint for lead. 

Another hazard associated with synthetic paints is the presence of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) that constitute them. These are organic compounds that are  emitted in gaseous form from the surfaces of certain solids and liquids. What allows them to be released in this manner is their low boiling points which in turn permits them to evaporate and sublimate into the surrounding environment at room temperature. What makes volatile organic compounds a point of this discussion here is that these compounds are severely detrimental to human health depending on their concentration in the atmosphere and the period of exposure. Some of the commonly found volatile organic compounds in paint are benzene and methylene chloride which are compounds known to be associated with cancer; moreover, methylene chloride is converted into carbon monoxide inside our bodies, rendering health consequences that are similar to that of carbon monoxide exposure. Other compounds that fall into this category are known to cause eyesight problems, headaches, a general feeling of illness, failing memory and more – and these are some of the short term effects of volatile organic compounds on human health.

Recent studies have found that the levels of VOCs indoors is usually two to five times higher than their level outdoors, and can be up to a thousand times higher in places where paint sanding has recently been done, or where paint has been freshly done. In addition to this, volatile organic compounds are found to be gradually released into the atmosphere even years after the initial paint has been done, making way for harmful long term effects, like cancer, liver diseases and heart problems.

How to manage indoor air pollution

Being acquainted with the products that pose a threat to human health does not mean that one should abandon and remove all traces of them from one’s indoors, but that one must be mindful of the nature of the products one utilises to build and maintain one’s environment. It is obvious that there are numerous every day objects and items that undermine the air quality both in our indoors and outdoors, so what needs to be done on our part is to choose products that have minimal adverse effects, are safer, healthier and contribute to sustainable environment. 

Luckily for us, this is more possible today than it was a couple of years ago because the world is becoming increasingly aware of the need to introduce practices and products in our lifestyles that allow us to shift from synthetic materials like chemically construed paints, varnishes, perfumes, moth sprays, etc. to safer alternatives that are almost similar or better in their purpose. There are more alternatives, more variety and more stories that allow the consumer to pick from a range of products – all of which are non-toxic and environment friendly because it is no longer a secret or surprise that substances containing heavy metals and chemical agents are not only a threat to our own health, but also detrimental to the global biosphere as well, so now we see a lot of companies emerging in the market that offer organic and safe substitutes to choose from. To add to this, even pre-existing companies are now taking up initiatives that revolve around generating and adopting eco-friendly products that elevate our health standards. By making smart and environment friendly changes in our lifestyle, we can render long term benefits to our health and the earth. 

In terms of reducing indoor air pollution, one of the choices we can make is to use organically manufactured building materials in construction, such as: organic paints, plaster and fillers. These organic products are made from naturally occurring compounds that pose no threat to our well being and immediate environment. By making use of organic building materials, we not only reduce the energy and cost expended in generating synthetic materials, we greatly reduce the pollution generated in the manufacturing process. High quantities of toxic emissions are generated in the production of man-made construction materials, which can be reduced by focusing on the manufacture of organic construction materials as these are made of substances like cellulose, wood, bamboo, clay, natural oils and waxes – all of which have the potential to absorb and radiate moisture to allow for a cleaner and healthier indoor setting.

One of the added benefits of using such materials in buildings is that during the construction and remodeling process, these substances do not give off harmful vapours and particles, like their man-made substitutes, that have the potential to remain in the air for long periods of times in harmful concentrations.  In addition to removing and reducing the source of indoor air pollution, another strategy to ensure good indoor quality air is to install proper mechanical ventilation systems to prevent the build up of pollutants in closed spaces. 

Conclusion

Our climate has suffered decades of damage as a result of the chemicals and compounds we have allowed in our products, and so has our health, which makes this long overdue transition from synthetic products to more natural alternatives essential for our survival. We can no longer afford to be negligent of our indoor and outdoor atmosphere and, therefore, must take steps to alleviate them, however small they may be, because even our smallest of choices can snowball into creating a huge impact on the future. It is the effect of decisions made decades ago that are becoming evident now, so it is going to be your choices made in this moment that are inevitably going to define the earth and environment, decades from now. 

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