In the first half of the 20th century, most air pollution was caused by industry. But the decline in heavy industry in the UK from the late 20th century onwards, combined with environmental regulation, has significantly reduced this particular danger to our health. Now, however, we face dangers from air pollution of a different sort, and most of this comes from within our homes.
The reality is that even though industrial pollution is being successfully combated, cases of asthma and air pollution-related allergies continue to rise. The reasons for this are complex and not fully understood, but it seems that a major cause is not the air quality outside, but the quality of air indoors — in offices, schools, universities, and especially in our own homes.
We spend over 90% of our time indoors, where the air quality is often worse than it is outside. If fresh air is not able to properly circulate, existing pollutants will continue to build up, and the problem will get worse. Major air pollutants include dust mites, pollen, pet dander, mould spores, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) found in many everyday household products, and particulate matter in smoke, dust and dirt.
VOCs are commonly found in cleaning products, but you may also be exposed to them via deodorant sprays and even paint. The tiny solids or even liquids described as particulate matter can come from primary or secondary sources — that is, some substances generate them directly, while others may give off a gas that can form or contain particulate matter. The smaller these particles are, the more dangerous they are likely to be, as they can enter the lungs or the bloodstream. As with many such health hazards, the very young or the very old are, particularly at risk.
Many people assume that older buildings are more likely to suffer from air pollution because of the natural deterioration of the property leading to issues such as damp and dry rot. In fact, the September 2015 report, The Future Of Indoor Air Quality In UK Homes And Its Impact On Health by Professor Hazim B. Awbi of the School of Built Environment at the University of Reading suggests that this is not necessarily the case.
The report states that modern building regulations have led to improved air tightness in new-built homes without taking into consideration the possible adverse side effects. With nowhere to go, existing pollutants can build up inside the home with a detrimental impact on the health of the occupants. Elevated humidity levels may also occur during the drying out process of new or refurbished homes, leading to problems with damp.
The arguments in favour of airtight homes are laudable: to meet internationally-agreed targets for reducing carbon emissions and to encourage us all to lead greener lifestyles. Air tightness means less heat loss, so less energy is used in heating our homes. Of course, this also saves householders money on energy bills. But as we can see, these savings (for our pocket and the environment) can also have a dangerous hidden cost.
The report explicitly states that the expected increase in air tightness will lead to generally poorer air quality within homes, resulting in a corresponding increase in the number of related illnesses and conditions. Key projections include a predicted 80% increase in people living with asthma from current levels. Those most at risk include individuals with existing health conditions or at-risk lifestyles (i.e. smokers) and those who spend a lot of time inside the home: new mothers, children and the elderly.
While accepting that increased air tightness in homes is a necessity, the report recommends that effective continuous mechanical ventilation is fitted as standard, preferably with heat recovery (MVHR). While at present there are no signs of government or building contractors enforcing these recommendations, homeowners can take action to protect their health by having an MVHR system professionally installed themselves.
By using the services of a reputable professional ventilation company like EnviroVent, you can determine what the most appropriate ventilation product for your home would be, and have it correctly installed with minimum fuss by a qualified technician.
The move towards a greener planet and the control of destructive industrial pollution should be applauded. But we need to remain vigilant when it comes to the less obvious threats to air quality and health in our homes. Rising allergy and asthma levels demonstrate that everyday air quality is of vital importance and should not be taken for granted.