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Indoor Air Quality - What's the issue?

Published On: 1st Apr 2020

“How attitudes to air quality and our health in general have changed,” says Darren Johnson, MD of Air Craft. “Indeed, it seems only a few years ago when tobacco advertising actually featured pictures of young children endorsing the benefits of cigarettes to their parents and doctors were happy to recommend one brand over another – as though there weren’t really any harmful effects from either.”

As time moved on cigarette brands’ persuasive tactics had to become more subtle,  sponsoring sporting events and recruiting well known public figures to front their ad campaigns. Eventually, the impact of medical research into the deadly consequences of smoking severely restricted its promotion and has meant that packaging now carries health warnings designed to shock.

“Society and governments also finally started to take the subject of airborne pollution in general much more seriously. New facts emerged, such as long term exposure to polluted air potentially exacerbating lung disease by as much as smoking a packet of cigarettes daily. We sat up and took action. Legislation was implemented across the board with the goal of protecting us when outside from the airborne dangers created by countless sources of pollution, from car exhausts to industrial chimneys and everything in between,” says Darren.

“ We have embarked upon many initiatives to improve air quality and in our country a Clean Air Strategy has been in existence since 1970. It sets out how we tackle all sources of pollution, making our air healthier to breathe. We have adopted legally binding international targets to reduce emissions of the most harmful and damaging pollutants over the next decade. The industry body CIBSE established a Clean Air Day in 2018 and has set up an Air Quality Group to support the drive for improved indoor air quality, with new guidance being released in stages. Other industry bodies and organisations are taking initiatives too.”

But are we doing enough? Recent action by pressure groups clearly reflects a large section of public opinion that believes we are still not tackling the problem sufficiently to protect future generations. In October 2019, research undertaken by Kings College in London reported that in the UK hundreds more heart attacks, strokes and acute asthma attacks are triggered in our larger cities by higher air pollution.

Then there is the thorny issue about the quality of the air inside our own homes which has largely gone unaddressed. In offices, schools and public buildings there are strict controls on air quality, including long standing bans on cigarette smoking. We have far more knowledge about the dangers of passive smoking and other indoor airborne pollutants.

“Our domestic environments, however, remain pretty much our own domain: it is up to us to make decisions about our lifestyle that can affect our health. We would be more concerned if we recognised that the air inside our homes can be as much as 5 times more polluted than the air outside, simply as a result of the impact of everyday activities. Or if we took notice of lesser known facts such as that burning a scented candle is one of the biggest culprits when it comes to its negative affect on indoor air quality, “ Darren comments.

Indeed, for many of us, getting fresh air into our homes to get rid of unwanted smells and fumes simply means leaving windows and doors open – when the weather is right – or maybe having simple trickle vents or an extract fan. These solutions, however, are energy inefficient and do not get to the crux of the problem: how do we identify and then filter out the most damaging and smallest of airborne pollutants?

Indeed, do we know enough about what contributes to poor indoor air quality? The general causes are viruses, bacteria, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).  Biological contaminants include viruses, mould spores, house dust mites, pollen, bacteria and cat allergens. Then there are particulate contaminants covering cement dust, fly-ash, oil smoke, tobacco smoke, soot and the like. Dust includes heavy, settling and general atmospheric dust. At the smallest end of the scale there can be a range of molecular gaseous contaminants.

Darren comments: “If these are not tackled at source, they will reach parts of our body which will cope with them with variable levels of success. This can depend upon a number of factors appertaining to our age, general health levels, existing respiratory conditions and the efficiency of the body’s defence mechanisms. Particles of 100 microns will get caught in nose hair; 10 micron sized particles will reach our throats; 2.5 micron size particles will reach our lungs and 1.0 microns will get into our bloodstream – not a happy picture when we are able to fully understand what constitutes the air that we breathe.”

So what is the solution? Most important is to find out out what constitutes the harmful elements within our indoor air. If we don’t know the nature or the extent of the problem, how can we expect to tackle it effectively? Fortunately there have been significant technological developments resulting in a range of products which monitor critical elements of our indoor environment including temperature, carbon dioxide and particulate levels. These air quality monitors can be used in conjunction with a smart phone app and are very accurate as well as affordable.

“Once we have an understanding of the air we are breathing, we can take steps to tackle the identified problem areas and, more widely, look to take control of the main elements which contribute to our levels of indoor air comfort – starting with the quality of the air and also addressing control of temperature and humidity. We can implement strategies for ventilation and air purification using established energy efficient technologies such as mechanical ventilation with heat recovery as well as more sophisticated bipolar ionisation and probiotics,” says Darren.

“We can create our desired indoor temperatures through different means including the use of heat pumps, solar and other renewable sources of energy for comfort cooling, underfloor and more traditional types of heating. We can control temperature, humidity and energy usage with smart thermostats and other controllers, even integrating them into home automation systems. All this technology is readily available and well understood by Air Craft. Now it is up to all of us to take the next steps to improving on our own well-being and comfort as a whole, whilst prioritising energy efficiency and environmental protection.”

Self-builders and home renovators often ignore or overlook the subject of  indoor air quality, but it should be considered just as important as any other aspect of the built environment. You can find out more at Air Craft’s permanent exhibition space (Stand 73) within the National Self Build & Renovation Centre (NSBRC), in Swindon,