Indoor air quality: a “creeping blight”

Startling – and disquieting – revelations about the condition of the air that we breathe were made by Julie Riggs at the 2019 Saiosh Health and Safety Conference. DEBORAH RUDMAN reports

Riggs, a United Kingdom (UK)-based academic practitioner and speaker, who’s highly experienced in a range of occupational health and safety (OHS)-related disciplines, highlighted what she called “the creeping blight” of poor air quality.

She noted that recognised risks in the work and domestic environment include fire, noise and vibration, but that a greater danger is that of the “toxic soup” prevalent in the air indoors.

What makes it especially insidious is that people’s perceptions can be skewed by the apparently benign nature of what they breathe. She pointed out, for example, that most people love the scent of perfume, a car freshly professionally cleaned at the valet service, or that of the print of a just-opened magazine. These smells are frequently associated with positive feelings; however, the constituent chemicals are often synthetic, which can cause physical and psychological harm.

Scientists at the World Health Organisation (WHO) agree that the degradation of indoor air quality – the physical, chemical and biological characteristics of air within a building – is one of the top five health hazards globally (it’s more toxic than an industrial-waste site).

The roll-call of chronic and harmful effects of indoor air quality is troubling: chemicals have a negative impact on respiratory and heart functioning, and contribute towards many pollution-related cancers, migraines and asthma.

The WHO has estimated that one-million people in Africa are victims of air pollution each year, with more deaths from pollution-related cancer than malaria, HIV/Aids and tuberculosis combined. It has established as one of its principles that everyone has a right to breathe healthy indoor air.

Humans spend up to 90 percent of their time indoors, said Riggs. Breathing is largely an unconscious action, and people breathe in the “air equivalent” of 600 five-litre water bottles every day (approximately 20 000 breaths).

The air indoors is well travelled, dusty, laden with chemicals and contaminated by colleagues’ exhalation and other pollutants. These pollutants enter our bloodstream through our nose, which is the gateway to the brain, and have physical and psychological effects.

A growing body of scientific evidence has indicated that the air within buildings can be up to ten times more seriously polluted than the outdoor air – even in the largest and most industrialised cities.

Its sources, according to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health in the UK, include inadequate ventilation, building products, bio-aerosols, as well as outside and inside contamination. Riggs said that the challenges for OHS practitioners are to acknowledge, articulate, assess and act.

She also noted that we breathe out CO2 – and at certain levels, from 1 000 parts per million, the human body will warm up and productivity will drop by an estimated 30 percent, meaning that poor-quality indoor air has an economic impact, too.

One of the unexpected hazards is the practice of “sealing up” buildings to make them more energy-efficient; however, the unwanted outcome is that poor air is also sealed within the buildings.

Riggs added that some people are more susceptible than others to the effects of pollution. Women have more body fat than men, which accumulates chemicals more readily. The older people get, the less their bodies are able to process the “body burden” or the mass of chemicals (about 700) that remain unprocessed within the body.

Asthma is one of the top three killers worldwide (cancer and stroke are the other two), with children being particularly vulnerable. She noted that parents creating a nursery at home to welcome a new baby unwittingly introduce a host of hazards, such as chemicals in the fresh paint and vapours from plastic furniture.

Riggs concluded that the “sleeping giant” of the future, in both the home and the workplace, can no longer be ignored.

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