“Even within environmental circles, indoor air pollution is considered complex and niche, without one-size fits all policy solutions to protect people from harm. But with so many causes and triggers for lung disease – the third biggest killer of people in the UK – stemming from inside people’s homes, urgent action must be taken to tackle this hidden health crisis and protect future generations.” 

The current situation …tackling inequalities and the path to a healthier future. The pandemic has forced people, particularly the most vulnerable, to spend more time than ever within their own homes. This trend is set to continue as we learn to live with the threat of COVID-19 and many of us continue to work from home.  In total, we spend almost 90% of our time indoors.

Despite this, we have been blind to a silent killer, harming our lungs and wider health in homes across the country: indoor air pollution. Research into the full impact of air pollution in our homes is still very much needed , with many considering it a complex and niche issue, impacting people differently dependent on their individual circumstances and behaviours. It is therefore difficult to solve with one-size-fits-all policies, such as those that will help reduce outdoor air pollution. After all, we cannot have a clean air zone inside the home.

The one thing we do know, however, is that it is causing significant damage to our health.

Globally, indoor air pollution is responsible for 3.8 million deaths each year and is linked to lung diseases like asthma, COPD, lung cancer, heart disease and stroke. In the UK, we must do more to protect people’s right to breathe clean air, wherever they live, work or play.

What is indoor air pollution?

In simplest terms, indoor air pollution is microscopic dust, dirt, or gasses in the air inside buildings. Although it cannot be seen, when breathed in, this pollution is incredibly harmful to people’s health. It comes from many sources including boilers, gas stoves, wood burners, smoking, cleaning products, burning candles or incense, damp and mould.

Who’s at greatest risk?

Air pollution is a problem for all of us, but it does not impact everyone equally. Across the UK, those living in poorer, urban environments are much more likely to live in places with high air pollution, both indoor and outdoor, than those that are more affluent, or in rural communities.

People living in the poorest neighborhoods are seven times more likely to die of a respiratory condition than those in the richest.. The links to indoor air pollution are plain to see. Poor quality housing and rental properties are more likely to have damp or mould which can cause or trigger lung conditions. People in poorer communities are more likely to smoke and less likely to be able to afford to upgrade appliances like hobs or boilers. For many, green and pollution-free heating through things like heat pumps, are simply out of reach.

In addition, deprived communities are also often located in areas with greater levels of outdoor air pollution from road traffic, meaning they cannot properly ventilate their homes without allowing more pollution in from outside. It is not right that people should face a double jeopardy from toxic air purely because of where they live.

Children are particularly vulnerable to poor air quality as their lungs are still developing. Children’s airways are smaller, so inflammation caused by indoor and outdoor irritants can cause them to narrow more easily than in older people.  A report by The Royal College of Physicians found 3.6 million children are living in poor quality housing in the UK, putting them at greater risk of developing respiratory conditions and reducing their healthy years of life. The World Health Organization states that exposure to household air pollution almost doubles the risk for childhood pneumonia and is responsible for 45% of all pneumonia deaths in children less than 5 years old worldwide.

No child should be at risk in their own home, but the reality is that poor quality indoor air is leaving  many fighting for breath.

The change we need

Much can be done to improve air quality within our own homes. Not using a wood burning stove or open fire and not smoking inside the home are the big hitters. There are also many small changes that can make a difference, including:

  • Increasing ventilation, particularly within new houses that are well sealed. Opening windows for 5-10 minutes several times a day lets indoor air pollution escape.
  • Keeping homes warm during the winter months, between 19 and 21 degrees Celsius, to prevent damp, mould and condensation.
  • Remembering to use an extraction fan or opening windows when cooking.
  • Using allergy friendly products as these will have lower levels of VOCs and tend to be fragrance-free
  • Opting for solid or liquid cleaning products rather than sprays that get into the air we breathe.
  • Vacuuming regularly to remove dust and other allergens that can irritate our airways.

Not everyone can change their behaviours so easily though. For example, as energy prices continue to rise, we may see a wider shift towards people using their wood burning stoves more frequently to heat their homes.

We need to see more action from central and local government to help protect people’s lungs inside the home, including:

  • A public health awareness campaign that informs people about the dangers of all air pollution. In recent months public health campaigns telling people how to stop COVID ‘hanging around indoors’ have laid the foundations for talking more about the importance of good indoor air quality.
  • We need to continue to roll out Clean Air Zones, which remove the most polluting vehicles from our roads. This is essential to ensure that people living in areas with high outdoor pollution are able to properly ventilate their homes, without simply swapping indoor pollutants for outdoor ones.  
  • Finally, the government needs to ramp up investment in lung research. Currently, less than 2% of all medical research in the UK goes towards improving lung health, just £50m per year, despite it being the third biggest killer. We will never be able to tackle air pollution without properly understanding its effects. We need to see lung research increase to at least £150m per year.

As we begin to learn how we can live with COVID, we will only Build Back Better if we make our homes safe. That begins by combatting indoor air pollution.

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