Even before the pandemic, it was estimated we spent 85-90 per cent of our time inside — where air pollution is caused by factors including heating, cooking, ventilation, damp, building materials, vehicle exhaust fumes from the road, and biological factors such as dust mites and fungi.
A 2019 study by environmental charity Global Action Plan found levels of ultra-fine particles indoors on average three and a half times higher inside than those outside. According to the Royal College of Physicians, nearly 100,000 deaths in Europe each year can be attributed to indoor air pollution.
“Given how much time is spent indoors, when we’re looking at the health effects of the air we breathe, the indoor space has got to be an important part of the conversation,” says Steven Holgate, Medical Research Council clinical professor of immunopharmacology at the University of Southampton.
But if that’s enough to make you want to scrub your place from top to bottom, you might want to reconsider reaching for the kitchen spray.
“There are a lot of the chemicals in cleaning products and we keep introducing more and more chemicals into our homes,” notes Holgate. “There are studies into how the mix of these chemicals can impact male fertility and female cancers. A lot of this starts when a baby is born and they are crawling around on the floor breathing in all these chemicals used for cleaning.”
Sally Giblin, who lives in Notting Hill with her family, tries to use natural cleaning products such as eucalyptus oil, vinegar and castile soap. She’s particularly sensitive to poor air quality due to permanent lung damage she developed in her teens.
Giblin had serious asthma as a child. When she was 14, she developed bronchiectasis, a chronic lung condition which makes her more vulnerable to infection.
“I used to have a huge amount of symptoms, especially when I started going out because people could still smoke inside then. I used to come out of lectures at uni and just have coughing fits,” she says.
“I started managing it with exercise and my symptoms eased but doctors warned me that they can flare up again because it’s life-long. This means I am always thinking about what I am around and trying to do anything I can not to trigger it again.”
Giblin, founder of Pure Bundle, a sustainable children’s clothing initiative, initially changed her home cleaning products because she was trying to become more environmentally friendly.
But it also prompted her to consider the impact of the chemicals she had been using on her health — and she now hasn’t had a serious flare-up for a number of years.
“We know so little about the chemicals in the indoor air that we are breathing all the time and we need to really start concentrating on that,” says Prof Holgate, who chaired a groundbreaking report into the effects of indoor air pollution by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and the Royal College of Physicians.
“It’s been neglected and the regulation concerning indoor environments is very weak. And yet, in the long term, it’s going to have bad effects on us.”
Catherine Sutton, a mother of two from Lewisham, knows the effect poor indoor air quality can have. Her son Edward was five when his chronic cough was linked to airborne allergens, particularly dust mites.
At home, Sutton bought anti-dust mite covers and a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter for her vacuum. “I kept Edward away from the dusty loft and the bunkbed, which seemed to aggravate his symptoms, got rid of all the cushions in the house and removed dust regularly (particularly in his bedroom) with a wet cloth,” she explains.
The more precautions she took, the better Edward was — until he went to environments outside her control such as to hotels or school.
Edward, now 17, also developed asthma and Sutton has since launched Airborne Allergy Action with other affected mums to raise awareness of airborne allergens and their effects. Dust mites and other biological pollutants can cause eczema and asthma in children, notes Holgate.
There are growing concerns for the impact indoor air pollution can have on our health — even those who don’t have an immediate and obvious reaction.
We need to consider the long-term implications, argues Jonathan Grigg, professor of paediatric respiratory and environmental medicine at Queen Mary University of London, and co-author of the royal colleges’ report.
“It’s somewhat different from outdoor air pollution because you’re getting long-term exposures to a wide range of different chemicals over long periods of time, as opposed to the short-term exposure of walking for five minutes on a very busy road.” That long-term exposure makes it difficult to do studies, Grigg notes, but the lack of “joined up thinking” in government also makes it difficult to address the issue. “Everyone is working in different silos but the real focus needs to be on the healthy home, which includes looking at building regulations.”
On an individual level, getting outside more often could help. Research by Oxford University shows that from 1975 to 2015 children began “leading less physically active, more home-based lives”.
According to a 2017 survey for Ribbles Cycles, the average person in the UK spends fewer than two hours a day outside during the week.
And during lockdown not everyone headed outdoors for an hour’s exercise each day.
“One reason could be that there isn’t really an obvious place for people to walk if they don’t live in a nice area with a park or that they don’t feel safe,” says Grigg. “We have got to try to change this because the outdoor environment is crucial to helping solve the indoor problem.”
Back in Notting Hill, Giblin is talking about the difference fresh air can have. During a skiing trip as a teenager, her symptoms disappeared. “When you’re away from so much of the pollution that triggers you and are breathing fresh air, it’s amazing how much better you feel,” she says.