While most people are well aware of the adverse health effects of outdoor air pollution, the health effects of indoor air pollution are less familiar. Yet, in some cases, indoor air pollution can be up to 5 times worse than outdoor air pollution.
The problem is that it can sometimes be hard to visualize indoor air pollution. When it comes to outdoor pollution, most people can easily visualize smoke coming out of massive factory smokestacks or a dark smog settling over a major city. But what does indoor air pollution look like?
The OECD defines indoor air pollution as “chemical, biological and physical contamination of indoor air.” Some of the most common sources of this indoor air pollution include cigarette smoke, mold and mildew, and the particulate matter that results from cooking and indoor renovation projects. But there are plenty of sources of indoor air pollution that are largely invisible – such as radon gas, carbon monoxide, and toxic cleaning agents.
In some cases, these sources of indoor air pollution can be easily removed with some simple ventilation. Opening the window after smoking a cigarette or while cooking can go a long way toward limiting the adverse health effects of this pollution.
However, in some cases, the severity of indoor air pollution can be much greater. The presence of radon gas, for example, can lead to lung cancer. Materials used in buildings – such as asbestos and lead – can lead to poisoning or cancer. And the chronic buildup of mold and mildew can lead to some severe respiratory problems.
In the worst-case scenario, problems such as asbestos can go undiscovered for years. One common result is “sick building syndrome” – in which people living or working in a building all live with some form of chronic sickness, but are unable to find out why. Over a long enough period of time, this sickness can lead to cancer and death.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is among the global organizations that have studied the adverse affects of indoor air pollution. In a landmark study called “National Burden of Disease Due to Indoor Air Pollution,” the WHO found that India ranked among the worst nations in the world for indoor air pollution. In India, this problem was responsible for more than 1.5 million deaths a year. Moreover, India ranked as one of the worst nations for disability-adjusted life years, which is a metric for determining how indoor air pollution affects overall health and lifespan.
The good news, though, is that many of the most obvious sources of air pollution can be reduced. In India, for example, the use of firewood and biomass fuels for cooking is one major source of indoor air pollution. Simply changing to electric stoves, for example, would make a huge difference.
In many ways, dealing with indoor air pollution requires a mindset change. By shifting to all-natural (instead of toxic) household cleaners and focusing on keeping a well-ventilated, smoke-free environment, it’s possible to reduce some of the most negative effects. By doing so, it’s possible to eliminate the potential sources of indoor air pollution, reduce its severity and lessen the impact.