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How to make low-cost operational changes to improve your Indoor Air Quality

According to the World Health Organisation, air pollution is the greatest environmental threat to global health. Nine out of ten people breathe polluted air every day, and poor air quality causes 7 million premature deaths annually. Over the past few years, outdoor air quality has started to garner the attention it deserves, but indoor air quality (IAQ) has remained overlooked. This is alarming considering that levels of indoor air pollutants are often two to five times higher than outdoor levels, and the fact that we tend to spend over 90% of our time indoors.

Air quality in buildings has long been a cause for concern, but the COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted the need for healthier indoor air. Not only have many of us spent considerably more time indoors than ever before, but a range of studies have also confirmed that air quality has a direct correlation with the virus.

Just like outdoor air pollution, indoor air pollution can pose a risk to health, and it is important that steps are taken to ensure that the air is as clean as possible. People often experience the immediate effects of indoor air pollution which can include irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, sneezing, headaches and fatigue. Indoor pollutants can also trigger or worsen asthma, and exacerbate other respiratory conditions and cardiovascular diseases. Strategies to optimise your IAQ include controlling indoor pollution sources, ensuring good ventilation and achieving effective property maintenance.

Controlling indoor pollution sources in your home

When it comes to cleaning the air in your home, the first step is to limit any sources of indoor pollutants. PM2.5 is defined as fine particulate matter with a diameter of less than 2.5 µm. Fine particles such as these are harmful as they can penetrate into the lungs and bloodstream. The main sources of indoor PM2.5 are combustion, mechanical processes and biological particles such as bacteria and viruses. An easy way to prevent high levels of PM2.5 is to avoid using open solid-fuel fires, unvented space heaters or paraffin heaters. It is also a good idea to limit your use of candles and to ensure you always turn on your extractor fan whilst cooking. Unpleasant smells in the home are often generated by poor indoor air quality so if the problem is solved at the source it mitigates the need for candles or air freshers. 

Another simple method to optimise your IAQ is to clean your indoor environment more regularly to ensure that any pollutants which become attached to surfaces are removed. It is important to note that many regular household cleaning products can release harmful VOCs into the air so it is important to opt for natural and non-toxic products. Cleaning wet areas like kitchens and bathrooms, and using extractor fans while cooking and showering, can also help to limit the amount of mould that can grow in damp places, another common cause of VOCs. Whilst it is not feasible to avoid these completely, it is also advisable to limit your use of products such as paints, glues, solvents, air freshers and aerosols, and to ensure adequate ventilation when they are used.

Indoor plants have long been thought to purify the air, but a recent study revealed that in order to make a substantial difference, you would need to fit between 10 and 1000 plants per metre squared in a room. However, they are a great addition to any home, and there are a wide range of studies showing the general health and wellbeing benefits they can bring.

Controlling indoor pollution sources in your workplace

The methods to control sources of indoor pollutants are similar when it comes to your workplace. Regular cleaning is once again an extremely effective measure to remove surface pollutants, and this will be more important than ever as employees begin to return to work following COVID-19. A study from The New England Journal of Medicine found that the virus was still detectable on copper for up to 4 hours, on cardboard for up to 24 hours, and on plastic and steel for up to 72 hours. Ensuring that surfaces throughout the workplace are disinfected effectively will therefore be paramount to limit the risk of transmission.

The furniture you have in your office also has a significant influence on your IAQ. Whilst it may not be possible to change existing materials, it is advisable to choose products that emit fewer VOCS if your furniture or flooring needs replacing. It also makes sense to keep printers in a separate, well ventilated room as they can produce dangerous levels of ultrafine particles (UFPs).

Whilst limiting sources of indoor pollution can have a significant impact on your air quality, using air purifiers can also be extremely effective in removing unavoidable pollutants. With constant advances in air purification technology, there are now a range of devices that can help to clean the air in both offices and homes. Unfortunately, many air purifiers are not particularly efficient so it is important to ensure that you find one that is right for your space.

Ensuring effective ventilation and optimal humidity 

In recent years, buildings have become increasingly airtight, leading to issues regarding humidity and indoor air quality. Ventilation is vital in order to keep relative humidity levels between the optimal range of 40-60%, and to ensure that occupants have access to fresh, clean air.

Within your home, it is advisable to use background ventilation such as trickle vents, mechanical ventilation systems like extractor fans, and to open windows where possible and safe to do so. You should also try to avoid moisture-producing activities such as air-drying clothes indoors if possible, or increase ventilation if these cannot be avoided. It is also important to repair any sources of water damage promptly and to ensure that any residual moisture is removed. If your house is particularly humid, it could be a good idea to invest in a dehumidifier. Conversely, if you want to increase your humidity levels, you can boil water on your stove or use a humidifier.

Within offices, a continuous supply of fresh air is necessary to optimise employee health and productivity. It is essential for HVAC systems to be reviewed regularly to ascertain whether they need to be serviced or adjusted. Clogged vents or dirty filters on HVAC systems can compromise the quality of air, particularly in buildings occupied by large numbers of people. Ventilation is particularly important to prevent CO2 levels from becoming too high, as this can cause up to 11% reduction in productivity and 23% impairment in decision making.

Effective ventilation systems will also be vital in order to make offices safer when employees return to work following COVID-19, as diluting internal air is a vital step to reduce the risk of airborne transmission. HVAC systems will need to be adjusted to ensure that temperature and humidity remain at optimal levels, as both factors play an important role in achieving optimal IAQ and reducing the risk of virus transmission.

It is evident that improving indoor air quality needs to become a priority, in both our homes and offices. Fortunately, there are a number of easy and cost effective steps that can be taken to create a healthier indoor environment. If you are interested in gaining a greater understanding of your IAQ, contact us today.

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