Nearly seven million people die prematurely each year because of ambient and household air pollution, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Moreover, studies have shown a direct correlation between classroom air quality and children’s performance in school. Finally, according to WHO, household air pollution exposure leads to non-communicable diseases, including stroke, ischaemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer.
With these challenges in mind, the Geneva Health Forum and WHO are partnering on a first-ever Indoor Air Conference on September 20 in Bern, Switzerland. The day-long event will bring together diverse experts to discuss indoor air pollution, why it needs monitoring, and how to improve indoor air in older buildings.
“We spend around 80% or 90% of our time indoors, so what we are exposed to there has an impact,” Catherine Noakes OBE, a professor of Environmental Engineering for Buildings at the University of Leeds, who will moderate the event.
The COVID-19 pandemic underscored the significance of proper ventilation in reducing the spread of respiratory illnesses, which can stem from various factors. For example, cleaning, cooking and personal care products can all generate pollution. In addition, pollution could come from building materials or other biological pollutants, such as mold. Finally, outdoor pollution can seep into buildings and cause harm – from allergies to respiratory conditions or, as WHO documented, even death.
‘No magic bullet’
Unfortunately, there “is no single magic bullet” that can solve the indoor air pollution crisis, Noakes said. However, there are several recommendations – many of them inexpensive and applicable in the Global North and South.
“There are lots of different strategies,” Noakes said. “You don’t need an expensive ventilation system in every building.”
First, the best way to remove pollutants is to provide fresh air. Ideally, ventilation was part of the original design of a building – such as windows or vents. Today, air filtration systems can remove harmful particulates from the air, break down volatile organic compounds and neutralize bad smells inside homes or public environments and commercial facilities.
According to Noakes, part of the solution is also building awareness so that people can catch pollution before it causes lasting harm.
A study by the Royal Academy of Engineering showed that improving ventilation could reduce long-range aerosol transmission of diseases by about 50%. Improving ventilation and ensuring good air quality could also enhance productivity by around 1-4%.
Climate change vs. indoor air pollution
There is, however, a tension today between trying to save energy and reduce the impact on climate change and the environment by improving insulation and air tightness of a home and ensuring its proper ventilation, explained Noakes. While insulated homes reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it also means the houses cannot breathe, that the indoor air is isolated from the outdoor air, and that can harm the air inside.
“On the one hand, the more we move to reduce fossil fuels, take gas, oil and solid fuels for heating and cooking out of the home, that is a good thing,” Noakes said. “On the other hand, some actions around net zero are potentially making indoor environments worse by sealing pollutants in buildings.”
‘We should be breathing good quality air’
Noakes said she hoped this event would spark discussion around the topic and bring about new solutions.
“If you go back 100 or 150 years, we had the same discussions around clean water, and now it is just accepted that everyone should have clean water. It should be the same thing with air,” Noakes said.
She noted that there are costs associated with improving air quality, and those need to be balanced, but there is no downside to having clean air.
“We all breathe continuously,” she concluded. “We should be breathing good quality air.”
For more information or to register for the First WHO/Europe Indoor Air Conference, click here.
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