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Image Credit: Shutterstock

Dubai: As the summer heat builds up and more and more people stay indoors, at home or at the workplace, experts caution against a serious health threat stemming from poorly ventilated systems.

Dr Ali Anwar Mohammad, Specialist Pulmonologist at Prime Healthcare Group, said, “Usually indoor air vents will have any kind of microbes or organisms such as moulds, mites, dust pollens, fungus, virus and bacteria in damp, dark and humid places within the system. With regular cleaning and airing, the vents are free of these organisms. However, if neglected, the lifespan of these organisms increases manifold and they multiply. This is especially significant as humidity levels are rising in summer and people are staying indoors,” he cautioned.

Dr Ali Anwar Mohammad

"There is a need to be mindful of the indoor air pollution levels, take care to observe social distancing and ensure that a room is not crowded."

Closed spaces can cause transmission of viruses

Alok Sharma, CEO of Shycocan Corporation that recently launched a virus-attenuating air filtration device for indoor public spaces, agrees. Generally speaking, he said, “There is a substantially higher risk of COVID-19 spreading faster indoors as compared to outdoors.”

We tend to think of air pollution as something outside — smog, ozone, or haze hanging in the air, especially in summer."

Alok Sharma

"The truth is, the air inside homes, offices and other buildings can be more polluted than the air outside. That is why the key to address large-scale infectivity is to address the issue for areas where large groups congregate indoors. Typically, such zones include hospitals, schools, offices, clubs, gyms, factories, recreation spots, etc."

How does indoor air pollution happen?

Kevin Luo, Senior Air Filtration Specialist at Blueair, an organisation that manufactures advance filtration technology purifiers to reduce indoor air pollution by 99.7 per cent, explained, “An air pollutant is any substance in the air that can have a negative effect on humans and the ecosystem. Air pollution particles can be solid, liquid droplets, or gases. Excess particles can build up indoors due to inadequate ventilation, high temperature, and humidity levels. Ventilation can be challenging, because indoor pollutant levels can increase if not enough clean outdoor air is brought in to dilute indoor air, but can also be increased by outdoor pollutants travelling indoors and getting trapped.”

Kevin Luo

“In addition, microplastics have been found in both indoor and outdoor air, with higher concentrations in indoor air, according to research by École Nationales des Ponts et Chaussées, a leading French academic research institute. These tiny particles come off plastic objects found in our homes, such as toys, furniture, plastic bags, cosmetics and toothpaste. Other air quality issues include pollen, dust mite allergens, pet allergens and mould spores.”

How does indoor air pollution impact health?

While the jury is still out on whether COVID-19 is airborne, we know that particles of virus in general can travel a short distance through air and that is why the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organisation has mandated the wearing of face masks in public places. Dr Mohammad explained, “We know that when a person coughs, sneezes or talks loudly, he has the ability to dislodge microscopic particles of saliva, which get trapped in the moisture in the air and have the ability to travel a small distance. This is called the aerosol effect. If an indoor space has poor ventilation with concentration of people, they are likely to be impacted in case an office colleague is asymptomatic.”

Sharma added, “SARS-COV2 or novel Coronavirus is one of the most infectious variants of the Coronavirus family and can be spread through both air and surfaces. An estimated 40 per cent of the cases are asymptomatic. In case, we are in a confined space with an asymptomatic person[s], the positively infected person could spread the disease even simply by breathing/exhaling. No talking, laughing, sneezing, sweating or any form of contact is essential. This is one of the key reasons why isolation/quarantine is recommended to prevent them from transmitting the disease to others.”

Other airborne illness threats

There is a host of infections that can be transmitted in poor ventilated rooms. Luo elaborated. “Exposure to indoor air pollution has been linked to the development of everything from infections to asthma to lung cancer. It can also cause less serious side effects such as headaches, nasal congestion, nausea, fatigue and dry eyes. The issue of air quality is especially important for children, because their lungs are more sensitive and because they breathe higher volumes of air in proportion to their size than adults.”

Sharma said that there are the other threats when there are more people at the workplace breathing air from the same duct. “In case there is inadequate ventilation, amount of fresh air, cleanliness is compromised, and/or some unhealthy/unwell people are in the same confined space, some of the physical health issues that can occur include common cold, flus, and infections, among others. Compounded with stress/work pressure, they can lead to other non-physical issues including irritation, anger, anxiety and more,” he explained.

What needs to be done?

Your best defence against indoor air pollution is to try to avoid having pollutants enter your home or office, said Luo. According to the American Lung Association, this is known as source control. Creating a well-ventilated space that allows fresh, clean air to flow in is a great start for keeping your indoor air free of outdoor pollutants. The right air purifier can help, but it’s best to avoid indoor air from becoming polluted in the first place.

While opening a window and vacuuming can help to remove/capture larger particles, some particles can stay airborne for hours. In particular, people who suffer from hay fever or pet allergies will want to remove these particles from the air as quickly as possible to relieve allergy symptoms. An air purifier can prevent sickness, especially during the sneeze-filled cold and flu season, by limiting the number of airborne germs.

Did you know?

• Your indoor air is on average five times more polluted than the outside air.

• Throw out all scented candles and incense — toxins from paraffin candles are the same as those in diesel fumes.

• Only deep cleaning can rid surfaces of a fine film of dust. Vacuum and use a wet cloth/mop to clean surfaces and floors

• Usual household cleaning products can be cause more allergy and respiratory irritation. Avoid unnecessary chemicals — use natural cleaning products instead

• Carpets and rugs are infiltrated with dirt and fungi and require frequent and regular cleaning. Regularly clean and air carpets which trap unhealthy particles such as dirt, fungi and dust mites

• Mattresses need protectors and all other bed linen needs regular and through wash as beddings, curtains and other textiles fabric around the home or workplace attract dust and mites

• Micro-plastics in toiletry and beauty products can affect your health. Rid your home of products that contain microplastics as cosmetics, face wash and scrubs that contain tiny microbeads can result in people inhaling these fine microplastics exacerbating asthma and other respiratory allergies.

• Indoor green plants are great air purifiers. According to an experiment conducted by Nasa in 1989, indoor air plants can scrub the air clean of cancer-causing volatile chemical compounds such as formaldehyde and benzene, which are emitted through paints and polishes and furniture veneers. Invest in green leafy plants to eliminate household pollutants

• Effective air-filtration systems can neutralise infection causing microorganisms and clear nano particles causing indoor pollution. Use modern air purifiers in your home to neutralise toxins and infection causing microbes

Source: Kevin Luo

Dos and Don’ts

There are a mix of things that one can consider doing to ensure that indoor air quality is cleaner. Some of the simpler actions include …

a) Keep it clean: A clean house/office/ space is a healthier place. Regular vacuuming carpets, rugs, cleaning beddings, drapes, rugs, pillows, clearing clutter because it traps and holds dust that can trigger a reaction.

b) Keep the greenery outdoors: Plants are pretty indoors but then can also collect and foster mold. While some plants are touted as helping to improve indoor air quality because they release oxygen, they are still act as allergy triggers for many people.

c) Invest in an air-purifier/ dehumidifier: To be placed in the most commonly used areas of the house, these devices can help capture some of the irritants that may trigger your symptoms.

d) Let the fresh air in: Even in cold months, open windows, use exhaust fans to remove fumes from kitchen and ensure a higher ventilation rate. Larger amounts of fresh air should be regularly circulated along with air-conditioned air for healthy and safe environment.

e) Invest in a virus attenuator: Not just for dust, but for viruses in the air that can be infectious, it costs less than most smartphones and can protect lives and livelihoods. It also reduces VOC (volatile organic compounds) dramatically taking care of allergens and irritants making the environment healthier.

Source: Alok Sharma

Simple steps to improve the air quality indoors include:

a. Keep your floors fresh — Chemicals and allergens can accumulate in the household dust for decades. By using a vacuum regularly, you can also get rid of toxins, like brominated fire-retardant chemicals (PBDEs) as well as allergens like pollen, pet dander, and dust mites. Don’t forget to vacuum walls, carpet edges, and upholstered furniture, where dust accumulates.

b. Keep a healthy level of humidity — Dust mites and mold love moisture. Keeping humidity around 30%-50% helps keep them and other allergens under control. Additionally, use an exhaust fan or open a window when cooking, or bathing.

c. Make your home a no-smoking zone — Cigarette smoke contains more than 4,000 chemicals. Research shows that second-hand smoke increases a child’s risk of developing ear and respiratory infections, asthma, cancer, and sudden infant death syndrome. If you cannot quit, smoke in open air spaces and not indoors.

d. Let in fresh air — Open windows so toxic chemicals don’t build up in your home.

e. Use natural products — Use sliced lemons and baking soda to get a clean scent in the house rather than air fresheners that emit dozens of different chemicals into the air.

Source: Dr Ali Anwar Mohammad