Does staying indoors during extreme pollution really help?

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The festive season is ushering. Optimism for a better environment and healthy quality of life is high on our minds. As Ganesha rings bell and promises to remove obstacles, and as we await Maa Durga to kill the evil forces and remove our woes and miseries, we brace for the time of the year, when one of the most killing phenomenon of the year assumes severity: Air pollution. Over the years, the invisible yet most visible, pollution levels in Delhi and many cities in India have gone from worse to worst. Though recent studies show marginal improvements, it’s far from being healthy. Delhi faces a daunting challenge of cutting pollution level by 65 per cent to meet the air standards, as per a leading think tank. Air pollution and its associated impacts continue to hit headlines as we move from one year to other. 

There is a common phenomenon that I am intrigued by each year :  government and administrations issuing advisories for staying indoors and shutting down schools. Little do we realise that indoor pollution may be worse than outdoor pollution.

Outdoor air comes into indoor spaces by way of ventilation, through open windows and doors. In regions with poor outdoor air quality, maintaining healthy indoor air quality is an even bigger challenge as the outdoor air itself can become the main contributor to the indoor air pollution, and the concentration of pollutants may be higher indoors than outdoors. It can bring particulate matter and vehicular emissions indoors. In addition to pollutants from outdoor air, there are several sources of pollution from indoor as well,  like volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted from building and furnishing materials, chemicals from cleaning products and room fresheners ,tobacco smoke, indoor combustion sources, printers and copiers; kitchen fumes, biological contaminants like molds, mildews, bacteria and house dust mites. 

Human beings breathe about 15000 liters of air per day consuming approximately four times more air than food and liquid together. Since people spend most of their time inside buildings (home, school, college or office), indoor air quality has a huge impact on their health- short term as well as long term. Poor air quality can be especially harmful to vulnerable groups -children, elderly, and those with cardiovascular and chronic respiratory diseases.  

There are several design and operation strategies such as proper ventilation, air filtration, that can be adopted to remove contaminants from outdoor air that is being delivered inside the buildings . in addition, controlling sources of indoor pollution is equally important. All potentials sources of volatile organic compounds should be controlled. Use of hazardous VOC and SVOC compounds, halogenated flame retardants (HFRs), urea-formaldehyde and select phthalates commonly used in building materials and products should be below acceptable limits. For example, halogenated flame retardants in building products should be less than 100 ppm or the extent allowable by local code. Its commonly found in furniture, flooring, ceiling tiles and wall coverings, piping and electrical cables, conduits and junction boxes. etc. Similar restriction should be made for urea-formaldehyde found in composite wood products, laminating adhesives and resins and in thermal insulation. Phthalates are equally harmful and should have limited application. Declarations of harmful compounds in materials is a commonly adopted norm in several counties and its high time that we pay equal attention to all these contributing factors of indoor air pollution, as, we spend almost 90% of our time indoors. 

Use of plants indoors for better air quality
Certain common indoor plants (Areca Palm, Rubber plant etc) provides a natural way of removing toxic agents such as benzene, formaldehyde and trichloroethylene from the air, helping neutralize the effects of indoor air pollution. However, it may be noted that indoor plants can hardly be beneficial for controlling particulate matter (PM 2.5 and 10) and need for filtration media is essential for removing particulates, and it’s a myth that use of certain varieties of indoor plants can completely make the air clean and breathable.

source- The Economic Times

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