Every Breath We Take: Indoor Air Pollution and Health
By Clive Shrubsole, on 24 February 2016
For the first time in ages, the issue of Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) got a full public airing with the arrival of a report published jointly by the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Heath. Titled ‘Every breath we take: the lifelong impact of air pollution’, it presented a stark message that each year in the UK, around 40,000 deaths are attributable to exposure to outdoor air pollution, with more linked also to exposure to indoor pollutants. https://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/projects/outputs/every-breath-we-take-lifelong-impact-air-pollution (downloads available at the bottom of the webpage).Whilst the main focus of the report was on outdoor air issues, (previously blogged on; ‘Innovative solutions to the problems of airborne pollution in cities’ and ‘Vehicle emissions: its time to put emphasis back on human health’), the issues of indoor air were also finally acknowledged. With the UK population spending over 80% of our time indoors, and around half (48–53%) of our time in our own homes, buildings and occupant behaviour have the potential to act as significant modifiers on population exposure to pollution from both outdoor and indoor sources.
For those of us at UCL IEDE involved in research on health, wellbeing, and the impacts of indoor environments it was a familiar message and one that we have spoken and published on extensively over a long period. As a committee member of the UK Indoor Environments Group (UKIEG), headed by UCL IEDE’s Marcella Ucci, it was good to see that one of the authors of the report was a committee member. It also encouraged me that the timing of the proposed UCL IEDE MSc “Health, Wellbeing and Sustainable Buildings” (also fronted by Marcella) is perfect, when combined with the substantial and growing industry involvement with the issues of human wellbeing in buildings of which IAQ forms an important part.
Among the many headlines of the report, the main ones that struck me were:
- The impacts of air pollution are wide ranging and have been linked to cancer, asthma, stroke and heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and changes linked to dementia.
- This damage occurs across a lifetime, from a baby’s first weeks in the womb through to old age. Consequently, any air quality improvements made now have long-lasting benefits.
- Older people and adults with long term conditions are vulnerable to the effects of air pollution. Improving air quality will help them to stay independent and well, easing the pressure on the NHS and social services.
Additionally, research at UCL IEDE has found that low-income households are more likely to suffer from poor IAQ than high-income households, showing that social inequalities may exist in exposure to indoor air pollution from outdoor and indoor sources.
The report points to additional research needing to be done, specifically in further quantifying the relationship between indoor air pollution and health. We must improve our understanding of the key risk factors and effects of poor air quality in our homes, schools and workplaces. Following this, a coordinated effort is required to develop and apply any necessary policy changes (a touchy subject itself currently). Such changes may also impact on behaviour and life choices. As an ex-smoker, even though I have packed up for 18 years, I now find myself susceptible to the very pollution the report refers to. A brief walk to a lecture for an MSc module I run on monitoring indoor pollution yesterday, left me short of breath and coughing. The irony is not lost on me and neither is the need for action for us all.