The air quality in our homes is something we frequently take for granted, but it's something we all need to think about. Studies show that the air indoors can be up to fifty times worse than the air outdoors, and yet we spend 90% of our lives inside, breathing in stale trapped air that could be contaminated with many different kinds of health hazards. The most common reaction to these hazards is an allergy, which in turn can lead to painful and debilitating attacks. But airborne hazards can also to other serious illnesses, including asthma and heart and lung disease.
Over 44% of Britons suffer from allergies of one kind or another, and the number is increasing every year, by roughly 5%. This is a sizeable steady growth of a range of chronic conditions that can frequently lead to hospitalisation. In 2015-2016 there were 29,544 hospital admissions for allergies, compared to 22,206 four years earlier, in 2011-2012. Many of these allergies are caused by airborne particles in our homes that we may not even be aware are there.
The most obvious form of indoor air pollution is that caused by mould. Mould spores are released by damp patches on walls and window frames, which in turn are caused by a build-up of moisture within the property. This is most common in older houses where windows, walls and floors may not be properly sealed. Mould can be recognised by dark patches spreading across the affected area. When mould particles are breathed in they can cause respiratory problems, illness and infection, as damp can also harbour bacteria spores.
Minute particles brought in from outside, either by you and your family or by pets, or even just blowing in through an open door or window, can also cause allergies and other problems. Pollen can cause serious problems for many people, especially at this time of year, with common hay fever symptoms such as coughing, sneezing and watery eyes, while more serious reactions are also possible. Dander refers to tiny particles of skin, hair or feathers that generally come off our pets and can set off allergic responses.
Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are ingredients found in many everyday cleaning and DIY products. These include air fresheners, carpet cleaners, oven cleaners, paints, solvents and most aerosol products. VOCs are compounds, often naturally liquid, that can easily become vapour or gas. The effects on the human body can vary according to the compound but may include irritation of the eyes, skin and lungs, headaches, dizziness and nausea, with kidney and liver damage possible from long-term exposure to certain VOCs.
Radon is a natural radioactive gas that comes up from the ground. Exposure to it in high levels can cause tissue damage and can increase the risk of cancer. It can leak into your home via cracks, gaps, cavities and joints, and even via the water supply. Some areas of the country are more affected by radon than others: homes in the far south-west (Wales and Cornwall) are most likely to experience high levels of radon.
We will be looking at ways to protect your home from these and other airborne dangers in more detail in future articles. Initially, however, the most important advice is to ensure your home is properly ventilated, ideally by using a mechanical ventilation system. It's important to go to a reputable ventilation company that can recommend and correctly install the right product for you, such as an Envirovent PIV system.
Other steps you can take include using eco-friendly cleaning products where possible and opening windows to provide better natural ventilation. Avoid drying laundry indoors, brush pets outside and remove shoes before entering your home. It can also help to turn off and unplug electrical devices when they are not in use, and to regularly vacuum rugs and carpets. Even better, get rid of them altogether and go for stripped wood floors if possible. You can have your home tested for radon if you are concerned, and if radon is detected then there are steps you can take to minimise its impact, which we will look at in another article.
There's no need to be at the mercy of your home environment. Allergies and air-quality-related illnesses are on the rise, but there are easy steps you can take to reduce the chances of you and your family suffering.