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Indoor Air Quality: Addressing a Public Health Issue On the Rise

1 month ago

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Posted on Apr 23, 2024, 4 p.m.

Only seven countries in the world (less than four percent) had air quality levels at or below the healthy annual average recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2023, according to one report from the Swiss air quality organization IQAir. In many cases, poor outdoor air quality is fueled by environmental factors, though the improvement of indoor air quality is equally as imperative to minimize the health effects associated with pollution. From the state of air quality in 2024 to the impact on human health, there are several simple ways in which indoor air quality can be improved for the sake of a healthier at-home environment.

The state of air quality in 2024

The World Health Organization (WHO) calls indoor air pollution “the world’s largest single environmental health risk.” Caused by burning solid fuel sources for cooking and heating, other factors can contribute to poor air quality as well. “Some sources, such as building materials, furnishings, and products like air fresheners, can release pollutants more or less continuously,” highlights the EPA. “Other sources, related to activities like smoking, cleaning, redecorating or doing hobbies release pollutants intermittently.” 

Indoor air quality can also be influenced by the air quality outdoors, a concern that is more prevalent than ever before due to environmental factors like climate change. According to IQAir, ventilation can bring in fresh outdoor air to dilute indoor pollutants, though it can introduce even more pollutants indoors when the outdoor air quality is polluted — especially during environmental events that result in extreme air pollution. Wildfires serve as one example and have plagued California in recent years. In 2024, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that it was tightening national standards for fine particulate matter (PM2.5), which has been linked to serious health concerns. The new standard, according to the LA Times, lowers the acceptable limit to nine micrograms per cubic meter, a 25% decrease from the current standard of 12 micrograms per cubic meter.

Environmental concerns relating to outdoor air pollution are not limited to the United States. In late 2023, The City Fix pointed out that Southeast Asian cities have “some of the most polluted air in the world.” 2023 examples, according to the article, include Singapore calling for citizens to use face masks due to smoke from wildfires and agricultural burning in Indonesia and Malaysia. Furthermore, it’s noted that air pollution was expected to disrupt air travel (and other forms of transportation) in Thailand during the dry season (which began in November) through April of 2024. While it’s noted that air pollution spikes are considered normal in cities across Southeast Asia during the dry season, the El Niño weather pattern was a factor in “prolonging and intensifying high-pollution events in the region.” 

Understanding the lasting health impacts

CNN World highlights the words of IQAir Global CEO Frank Hammes. “We see that in every part of our lives that air pollution has an impact,” Hammes said. “And it typically, in some of the most polluted countries, is likely shaving off anywhere between three to six years of people’s lives. And then before that will lead to many years of suffering that are entirely preventable if there’s better air quality.” The CNN World post goes on to note that when inhaled, PM2.5 travels deep into the lung tissue, where it can enter the bloodstream. This can have a variety of health effects, particularly in the long term. “It comes from sources like the combustion of fossil fuels, dust storms, and wildfires, and has been linked to asthma, heart and lung disease, cancer, and other respiratory illnesses, as well as cognitive impairment in children.” 

Regarding indoor air quality, the EPA notes that immediate health effects may occur shortly after a single exposure or repeated exposure to a pollutant. “These include irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, headaches, dizziness, and fatigue.” Long-term health effects, on the other hand, may show up either years after exposure occurs or after long or repeated periods of exposure. “These effects, which include some respiratory diseases, heart disease and cancer, can be severely debilitating or fatal.” 

While outdoor air quality can have a major impact on the environment and human health, IQAir points out that indoor air quality can be more deadly vs. outdoor air pollution “because it affects you in places where you spend 80% or more of your time each day,” further noting that outdoor air pollution that gets indoors “can build up to extremely high concentrations.” IQAir goes on to cite a two-year study conducted by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The study involved nearly 10,000 participants and found that people spend around 87% of their day in homes or buildings (and another six percent in enclosed vehicles).

Simple adjustments for healthier indoor air

Improving indoor air quality is essential — according to the EPA, it’s imperative to try and improve the indoor air quality in your home even if symptoms are not noticeable. Maintaining a clean house is just one simple way to do this; one Harvard Health article points out that good indoor hygiene can cut down on both dust and animal dander, according to Dr. Nicholas BuSaba. This can be achieved by focusing on tasks such as vacuuming, minimizing clutter, and regularly cleaning bedding, drapes, and other items that attract allergens. Other simple efforts — such as avoiding the use of harsh cleaning products indoors can help minimize indoor pollution as well, while appliances such as an air purifier (and a dehumidifier for damp areas like the basement) serve as additional ways in which indoor air quality can be easily improved. Ventilation is another great point (when outdoor air quality is optimal), as letting in the fresh air will allow for circulation.

Regular maintenance of your heating and cooling system is another cornerstone to healthy indoor air quality. For example, Dr. BuSaba notes that if you have a forced-air heating system, it’s imperative to change the filters out regularly to help improve the air quality in your home. Addressing any issues within your HVAC system is another must, as issues such as a persistently clogged AC drain line can lead to water overflow (and mold growth as a result). Unclogging your AC’s drain line is imperative for a properly working AC unit, and can be achieved in a few simple steps. After powering off the unit, it’s important to locate the drain line and remove the drain line cap, as well as check the drain pan to help prevent clogs and water overflow issues. From there, using specialized tools or a combination of water and vinegar will help dislodge and remove accumulated moisture and debris within the drain pipe and line. Aiming to inspect and clean the AC drain line at least once a month is a great rule of thumb, and can provide peace of mind that everything is working as it should — especially during peak usage periods.

With poor outdoor air quality becoming more prevalent, addressing indoor air quality has become a must for many around the world. While minimizing known pollutants (such as the use of harsh cleaning products) can help, simple solutions range from keeping the house clean to maintaining appliances that contribute to indoor airflow.

This article was written for WHN by Bri Burton, who is a talented wordsmith, an avid blogger, and a health advocate. 

As with anything you read on the internet, this article should not be construed as medical advice; please talk to your doctor or primary care provider before changing your wellness routine. This article is not intended to provide a medical diagnosis, recommendation, treatment, or endorsement. These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. 

Opinion Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of WHN/A4M. Any content provided by guest authors is of their own opinion and is not intended to malign any religion, ethic group, club, organization, company, individual, or anyone or anything.

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