How Air Pollution Has Made its Way Into Homes—And How to Combat it

How Air Pollution Has Made its Way Into Homes—And How to Combat it | Sustainability | Emeritus

In recent years, Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) has emerged as a crucial aspect of our health and environmental awareness, especially in densely populated urban areas. Ever since COVID-19 and the ensuing lockdowns, the focus on IAQ has become even more pronounced, shedding light on the invisible dangers lurking within the air we breathe indoors. This article aims to delve into the intricacies of IAQ, the rising importance of particulate matter such as PM2.5 and PM10, and the innovative solutions being implemented in major cities such as Delhi and Mumbai to improve urban air quality.

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Urban Air Quality and the Rising Significance of PM2.5 and PM10 

When it comes to urban air quality, Particulate Matter (PM), specifically PM2.5 and PM10, has become a buzzword in environmental health discussions. PM2.5 refers to fine particles with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or smaller, while PM10 includes particles with a diameter of 10 micrometers or smaller. To put this into perspective, one human hair is about 70 micrometers in diameter, making these particles alarmingly minuscule yet potent in their impact on human health. Prolonged exposure can lead to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, making it a silent yet formidable adversary.

COVID-19 and Indoor Air Quality 

The COVID-19 pandemic has undeniably altered our perception of urban air quality. As people spent more time indoors, the quality of the air in our homes and workplaces came under scrutiny. Studies have indicated that poor IAQ can exacerbate the transmission and severity of respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19, making it a significant public health concern.

Indian cities like Delhi, Bengaluru, and Mumbai face particularly unique challenges in maintaining healthy urban air quality, especially in homes. A high population density, rampant vehicle emissions, construction activities, and practices such as stubble burning contribute significantly to poor IAQ. These factors further lead to elevated levels of PM2.5 and PM10, posing a continual threat to urban residents.

Components Impacting Air Quality 

Before we focus on solutions to tackle indoor air quality, we first need to understand exactly what it means. Apart from particulate matter such as PM2.5 and PM10, several other components also impact the quality of the air we breathe in our homes. Some of them include:

1. Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

Common in paints, cleaning supplies, and building materials, VOCs can cause health issues like eye irritation and headaches.

2. Carbon Monoxide (CO)

Produced by incomplete combustion in gas stoves and heaters, CO is a colorless, odorless gas that can be lethal at high levels.

3. Biological Contaminants

These include molds, pollen, and pet dander, often originating from damp areas, pets, and outdoor flora.

4. Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2)

Found in combustion processes and tobacco smoke, NO2 can irritate the lungs and exacerbate respiratory conditions.

5. Radon

Linked to lung cancer, this naturally occurring gas can enter buildings through foundational cracks.

6. Asbestos

Used in older building materials, disturbed asbestos fibers are hazardous and linked to respiratory diseases.

7. Lead Particles

Common in older homes with lead-based paint, lead dust poses serious health risks, especially to children.

8. Formaldehyde

Finally, formaldehyde, which is used in building materials and household products, can cause irritation and is also linked to certain cancers.

Innovative Solutions for Particulate Emissions 

Combatting issues of air quality in cities requires innovative and sustainable solutions. For instance, construction waste recycling initiatives, the promotion of electric vehicles, and cutting-edge research, such as initiatives to create building blocks from stubble, are steps in the right direction. These measures not only address the sources of pollution but also pave the way for cleaner, healthier urban air quality. 

Managing Air Quality in Urban Homes 

This requires a multifaceted approach, including:

  • Regularly ventilating indoor spaces to reduce pollutant concentration
  • Using air purifiers with HEPA filters to capture particulate matter and allergens
  • Maintaining humidity levels to prevent mold growth
  • Opting for low-VOC products when selecting paints, building materials, and household products
  • Ensuring proper installation and maintenance of fuel-burning appliances to prevent CO and NO2 exposure
  • Conducting regular home inspections for radon, especially in areas known for high radon levels

The Role of Indoor Plants in Home Air Purification

Indoor plants not only add aesthetic value to our spaces but also play a role in purifying the air. Plants such as spider plants, peace lilies, and snake plants absorb toxins like formaldehyde and benzene. However, while plants contribute to improving indoor air quality, their capacity is limited in comparison to mechanical air purifiers. They work best as a complementary solution, enhancing the overall air quality and bringing a touch of nature indoors.

The Importance of Fresh, Oxygenated Air in Homes

The cornerstone of healthy air quality lies in the circulation of fresh, oxygenated air. Our homes and workplaces should be designed to ensure regular air exchange. This is achievable through: 

  • Proper ventilation systems that ensure a constant flow of fresh air
  • Regularly opening windows to allow outdoor air to replace indoor air
  • Using air-conditioning systems with good-quality filters to circulate and clean the air

Above all, ventilation is crucial. This is especially true in modern buildings designed to be airtight for energy efficiency. The lack of natural air exchange in such structures can lead to a buildup of stale air and pollutants. 

According to a study by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), proper ventilation can reduce indoor pollutant levels by bringing in enough outdoor air to dilute emissions from indoor sources and carrying indoor air pollutants out of the home. Moreover, ventilation can significantly improve oxygen levels, which is essential considering that typical indoor air contains only about 18% to 20% oxygen, similar to outdoor air. By continuously cycling fresh air into a space, ventilation complements the benefits of air purification and oxygenation, ensuring optimal air quality that supports both respiratory health and overall well-being.

Improving urban air quality is not just a matter of individual action but a collective responsibility. As city dwellers, understanding the nuances of indoor air quality and actively participating in solutions can lead to significant improvements in our living environments. Whether it is adopting green practices at home, supporting urban green initiatives, or advocating for policy changes, every step counts toward a healthier, more breathable world.

NOTE: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Emeritus.

About the Author

Head R&D at BtrLyf
Girish R Visvanathan, is a sustainability expert with over 15 years of experience and proudly holds the distinction of being the youngest recipient of the prestigious IGBC fellowship. His expertise spans energy analytics, 3D digital twin tech, and climate-smart city mapping. Girish excels in crafting sustainability solutions that harmonize economic prosperity and environmental well-being. With a zest for collaboration, Girish partners with research foundations to make real-world changes while inspiring the next wave of students and young professionals globally.
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