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Indoor air pollution more harmful than outdoor

Pollutant levels indoors in the US are typically two to five times higher than outdoors, the Environmental Protection Agency has found

Posted by Hannah Vickers | April 17, 2017 | HVAC & lighting

By David Fitzgerald, air pollution expert & Senior Relationship Manager at Commercial Air Filtration, which advises businesses on creating healthier indoor air environments

Many people are unfamiliar with the term ‘indoor air pollution’, and most don’t realise it can be considerably worse than outdoor pollution. 

Yet three quarters of the 4,000 deaths caused by diseases and infections linked to air pollution among European children under five, can be attributed to indoor air, as reported in Unicef’s Clear The Air For Children report.

In the US, Environmental Protection Agency studies have found pollutant levels indoors are typically two to five times higher than outdoors, but during, and for several hours immediately after, certain activities, such as routine building work levels may be 1,000 times higher.

New builds, whilst more energy efficient and better sound-proofed, are also more air tight and less well ventilated, trapping air pollution inside the building 

New builds, whilst more energy efficient and better sound-proofed, are also more air tight and less well ventilated. They trap air pollution inside the building, including particles from synthetic building materials, toxic paints, and carpets and furnishings that off-gas chemicals. In older buildings, indoor pollution could be caused by lead, asbestos, mould spores, carpet fibres and dust from crumbling walls. 

In addition, buildings trap in allergens like mould and pollen, which can exacerbate existing respiratory illnesses. All buildings are constantly under invisible attack from traffic and industrial fumes, and radon gas, known to cause lung cancer from rocks and soil below.

Every year, children will spend 1,300 hours at school. To safeguard children and staff against the potentially harmful effects of indoor air pollution, the building trade should do two things:

1. Put ventilation on a pedestal with energy efficiency

Currently, UK building regulations focus more heavily on energy efficiency than on ventilation, which is understandable when you consider the British weather and climate.

While this has obvious environmental benefits, airtight design that traps in pollution is not always good for the health of those using the building when you consider that outdoor air is almost always cleaner than indoors. 

Positive ventilation, and active sumps with fans, can also be used to reduce radon levels beneath solid and suspended floors, before it penetrates the building. 

Standard HVAC systems can simply bring in polluted air, such as micro-particles from traffic and industry pollution, while top quality air filtration systems can filter out most harmful indoor air pollution in schools, including ultra-fine particles. Air filtration systems vary hugely in quality and cost but should be low maintenance, with a filter life of no less then 12 months, incorporate leakage-free HEPA filtration for the highest filtration efficiency, and should not produce any harmful by-products such as ozone, which can be a lung irritant.

2. Use safer materials and considered interior design

Every material, fabric or interior feature has the potential to contribute to indoor air pollution, from adhesives and paints to carpets and wood, and is therefore potentially harmful to children. They are more susceptible to pollution due to their breathing rates being higher in relation to their body weight than adults.

Opting for paints that do not release harmful Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), and sourcing materials and furniture that do not release formaldehyde, are easy changes that would make a positive difference.

With a cross-committee Government inquiry currently looking into air pollution, and publishing its findings on 24th April, indoor air pollution, and all its irritating and harmful side effects, will have the spotlight. The trade should expect schools to demand more in terms of thoughtful design as a consequence.

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