Airtight homes could be trapping toxic air pollutants indoors

Present building regulations place more emphasis on energy efficiency than on air quality and house builders are failing to comply with minimum standards on ventilation, the report says. Only three out of 80 new homes studied in seven developments in England met ventilation guidelines.  Ben Webster explains in an article on the New York Times website.


Energy efficient homes ‘trap polluted air inside’

Modern homes built to be airtight to save energy could be trapping toxic air pollutants indoors and risking the health of children, two royal medical colleges have warned.

All homes should be given a “clean air” rating when put up for sale, similar to compulsory energy performance certificates, to help buyers assess the air quality inside a building, the colleges say in a report published today.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and the Royal College of Physicians say they have found growing evidence that respiratory problems among children may be exacerbated by indoor air pollution in homes, schools and nurseries.

Sources of pollution indoors include damp, the burning of fossil fuels and wood, dust, chemicals from building materials and furnishings, smoking, aerosol sprays and cleaning products.

The authors, who examined 221 studies, found evidence linking indoor air pollution to a range of health problems in children, including asthma, conjunctivitis, dermatitis and eczema.

Present building regulations place more emphasis on energy efficiency than on air quality and house builders are failing to comply with minimum standards on ventilation, the report says. Only three out of 80 new homes studied in seven developments in England met ventilation guidelines, according to a Ministry of Housing study published last year.

The royal colleges’ report, The Inside Story: Health effects of indoor air quality on children and young people, says: “Energy efficiency measures such as airtightness and insulation could support house dust mites and mould growth, unless adequate ventilation is provided to extract moisture.

“Energy efficiency is important to reduce our use of fossil fuels and to prevent climate change, but without adequate ventilation it could inadvertently worsen indoor air quality and impact health.”

The report says buildings should be designed to protect the health of people as well as reducing carbon emissions.

It recommends that local authorities should provide free indoor air quality testing for residents in social housing. It says that a new cross-government committee should be created to focus on the issue. It should set emissions standards and create a labelling system for building materials, furniture, and home decorating products. It should also restrict the use of hazardous volatile organic compounds in personal care and cleaning products.

The authors call for a national fund to help low-income households to address air quality problems.

One of the authors, Jonathan Grigg, a paediatric respiratory consultant, said: “Children in the UK spend most of their time indoors. Too many of our homes and schools are damp and poorly ventilated — this is adversely affecting the health of children.”

Professor Stephen Holgate, special adviser for the Royal College of Physicians and the lead author, added: “If we ask our children to spend their childhood days in unhealthy spaces, then we’re storing up problems for future health.”

A government spokesman said: “We are working across government on actions including improving ventilation standards in buildings.”

Breathe more easily

  • Vacuum regularly to reduce dust.
  • Ventilate home during and after cooking and cleaning.
  • Use the back rings of the hob as they work best with a cooker hood and use the highest fan setting.
  • Clean up condensation or mould.
  • Keep trickle vents on doors and windows open.
  • Reduce the number of cleaning or cosmetic products used.
  • Reduce items that collect dust, such as soft toys.
  • Replace carpets with hard floors.

Fine particles are a danger to the heart

The legal limits for polluted air should be lowered because of the risk of cardiac arrest, researchers have said (Kaya Burgess writes).

Even short-term exposure to low concentrations can raise the chances of heart problems, a study suggested.

Fine particles less than 2.5 micrometres across, about a 30th of the width of a hair, are known as PM2.5 pollutants. They can penetrate deep into the body, accumulating in the lungs or brain.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) sets a maximum acceptable limit of 10 micrograms per cubic metre of air as an annual average, with a limit of 25mcg per cubic metre as a maximum limit for any single day. The UK adheres to EU limits which are less stringent: 25mcg per cubic metre as an annual average.

University of Sydney researchers found an elevated risk of cardiac arrest even when pollution was below the WHO limit. The study, published in Lancet Planetary Health, examined 249,372 cardiac arrests in Japan, not including those in hospitals, and tallied them with local air pollution levels. It found that 90 per cent of the cardiac arrests occurred at PM2.5 levels lower than the WHO guideline.

Kazuaki Negishi, of the Nepean Clinical School at the University of Sydney, said: “Our study supports recent evidence that there is no safe level of air pollution, finding an increased risk of cardiac arrest despite air quality generally meeting the standards.”

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