We breathe in more than 15,000 litres every day, and a large proportion of that air is contaminated. The UN describes air pollution as a “silent killer”. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that the combined effects of outside air pollution and the air quality in our homes and workplaces causes seven million premature deaths every year. Microscopic particles in the air we breathe penetrate and irritate our lung tissue, provoking or aggravating respiratory illnesses and blood circulation problems. But how can we make sure we are breathing in clean air?
How to improve air quality indoors
Before COVID, we spent 90% of our time in closed-in spaces. However, despite our concern about environmental pollution, we didn’t pay a lot of attention to the air quality inside our homes and offices. There are exceptions, of course, such as buildings that have a WELL certification, which measures the buildings’ impact on the health and wellbeing of the people who use it. Air quality is one of WELL’s main concerns because, as Bieito Silva, head of WELL certification at the Instituto Tecnolóxico de Galicia (ITG or the Technological Institute of Galicia), points out, we associate air pollution with the outdoors and traffic, but ignore closed-in spaces, which are affected between two to five times more by this issue than open spaces are. But how can we solve this problem?
Remove the sources of pollution
Start by identifying the sources of air pollution in your home and remove them. To get rid of pollutants resulting from combustion, which are generated by wood or gas heaters, chimneys, and furnaces. Take a good look at how you heat your home and choose a cleaner system, such as biogas or electrical energy. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can be released by cleaning products, paints, or construction materials. Avoid them by using gentle, environmentally friendly cleaning products and natural materials. You should also prevent the accumulation of other asthma or allergy triggers, such as dust, pet fur, and smoke, by making sure you regularly clean your home using a vacuum cleaner with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter that eliminates airborne particles. Getting into the habit of taking our shoes off upon entering the house will also help us to avoid introducing dust and contaminants from outside into the home.
One of the best ways of improving indoor air quality is having an effective ventilation system that ensures correct air circulation. If you go for the natural option, remember to open the windows in your home for at least 30 minutes a day to make sure that clean air from outside is getting in. You can also install a mechanical ventilation system, like extraction fans or air conditioning. The ideal standard has been set by passive houses, which incorporate heat recovery systems that make sure the air inside the home is constantly being replaced with fresh air without changing its temperature. Evidence of dampness is an indication that there is insufficient ventilation in that space or that there is too much humidity in the air. To control this, use a dehumidifier and always turn on extractors when cooking or using the bathroom to stop condensation from accumulating.
Aside from improving the physical appearance of our interior spaces, plants can help us to have a healthier home. Some plants, such as ivy, pothos, and peace lilies, even block pollutants. For those of you that don’t really like gardening or don’t have the space, air purifiers are the best choice. There are several different options available on the market with designs that blend in with their surroundings or act as a decorative element, and there are also portable models. The most important thing to take into account is the space it will be used in in order to choose one with the right amount of power.
A cleaner sky
The coronavirus pandemic has put ‘normal life’ on hold. Governments around the world have implemented measures to reduce the spread of infection and minimise the number of affected people. These include limiting travel, which has had the unexpected effect of improving outdoor air quality. The reduction in the number of cars on the road is allowing us to enjoy cleaner skies, and social media users have started to share photos of these ‘new’ skies.
According to a report from Ecologistas en Acción, the concentration of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) has decreased by 58% in Spain following the state of emergency measures that have been implemented to fight the coronavirus – the lowest levels in a decade. NO2 is one of the main toxic by-products produced by exhaust pipes and in Spain it causes around 9,000 premature deaths linked to respiratory diseases every year. Statistics from the European Environment Agency have confirmed significant reductions in the concentration of air pollutants, which are sitting at approximately 50% in Bergamo, while NASA has shown that the same thing is happening in the main metropolitan areas of the United States. According to a study by IQAir in New Delhi, one of the most polluted cities on the planet, there has been up to a 60% reduction in pollution there.
This has coincided with the biggest reduction in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to date, a result of the reduction in industrial activity. In China alone it has reduced by 25%. Unfortunately, certain scientists have pointed out that this decrease will not have a significant effect, as CO2 remains in the atmosphere for centuries. Then of course there is the “rebound effect”, because atmospheric pollution could reach higher levels than it did before the pandemic once countries start to resume their normal activities and industry and transport go back to functioning at maximum capacity. That’s why we must continue to insist on the necessity of low-emission areas in cities and promoting ways of getting around that do not contribute to pollution, such as using a bicycle.