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Air Pollution and Our Health – Part 1

What is in the air we breathe? As well as that all-important oxygen, our air is becoming increasingly polluted by harmful gases. Many are not conducive to our health and are contributing towards a rise in respiratory illnesses worldwide.

Amidst the worry and uncertainty being created by the Coronavirus pandemic, a rather interesting side-effect has been observed. Since China went into lockdown due to the COVID-19 public emergency, manufacturing has come to a halt. As a result, emissions have been cut by 25% in China, according to Lauri Mulyvirta, from the University of Helsinki's Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air.

In images taken by NASA and the European Space Agency pollution monitoring satellites since the Chinese lockdown began, the atmosphere above China (and Wuhan province more specifically) seems almost clean of dangerous nitrous oxide emissions.

This raises the question of what exactly is being pumped out into the air we breathe. Air pollution causes approximately 7 million related deaths each year, according to WHO. Improved air quality not only creates a more pleasant atmosphere in which to live, but it also has the power to lead to a reduction in health-related problems, especially respiratory problems.

What is air pollution?

There are two main types of air pollution - ambient air pollution (outdoor pollution) and household (or indoor) air pollution. They are interlinked, as the air from outdoors moves inside buildings and vice versa.

Household air pollution is mainly generated by household combustion of fuels. This can include burning coal, wood or kerosene when using open fires or basic stoves, particularly in small, often poorly ventilated spaces. Household air pollution particularly affects countries such as Asia and Africa, where polluting fuels and technologies are regularly used for everyday purposes, such as cooking, heating and lighting. As women and children tend to spend more time indoors, it is they who tend to be most affected by this type of pollution.

Ambient air pollution is caused by a wide range of factors, from pollutants in vehicle emissions and high levels of road traffic, to emissions as a result of burning fossil fuels and others created during manufacturing processes.

Combating Household (Indoor) Air Pollution

When thinking about indoor air pollution, important aspects to consider include tackling damp, mould and dust within your home, which can significantly harm your health over a period of time.

Some simple steps we can all take to combat our own household air pollution include:

  • Restrict the amount of time you use wood-burning fireplaces or candles inside your home.

  • Avoid smoking indoors - this is especially true if you have children as the smoke can greatly affect them.

  • Avoid using household cleaners and perfumes - as well as reducing the use of aerosols, hairspray and cleaning products, some perfumes can also irritate the airways. The fumes given off from cleaning products can be particularly harmful, so make sure that you have plenty of ventilation if you are using them.

  • Dispose properly of waste - burning waste is especially damaging. Where possible, try to recycle your waste and if you can, compost your waste.

  • Turn off the lights and electronics in your home when you are not using them.

  • Make sure there is plenty of ventilation - if you have a ventilator, make sure you use it, especially when cooking. Humidifiers can also be useful, especially to help combat damp and mould. Best of all however, is to open your windows regularly.

  • Get a house plant - research has shown that having a green house plant can actually help to improve the air quality of your home.

  • Make sure that you have a functioning carbon monoxide detector - these are essential for helping to detect and alert you to the odourless, invisible poisonous gas.

For those who are able to, considering adapting your home to make it more sustainable is also an option. For example, opting for hard flooring over carpets can greatly reduce dust and help children with allergies and asthma. You can also try to find renewable energy sources to power your home and aim to use clean technologies, especially for cooking, heating and lighting your home.

An Invitation...

Next week we will be looking more closely at the wider health implications of air pollution and what we can do as a society to help to combat outdoor air pollution and increase the quality of the air we all share and breathe.

As COVID-19 spreads and greater numbers of people spend time indoors, we invite you this week to consider your own household air pollution. Are there steps you can take in the coming week to improve your household air quality?

As always, we invite you to share your ideas and experiences in the comments below.

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