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Breathe Clean

Winter means a rise in respiratory illness. Here’s a primer on indoor air quality

Published: Nov 8, 2010 06:03:28 AM IST
Updated: Nov 8, 2010 03:50:50 PM IST
Breathe Clean
Image: Vidyanand Kamat

Let’s face it. We don’t get out much anymore. Estimates are that we spend over 80 percent of our time indoors. That may be in a vehicle, in the office or at home. For some people all three of those may mean the same thing. Isn’t indoor air all the same, and the real menace the fires that burn outside? Nope. Welcome to this primer on indoor air quality where you can learn how to breathe healthier air.

Indoor air has three types of pollutants: Gases, particulates, and microbes. Gases include carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Carbon monoxide nudges oxygen off red blood cells and leads to symptoms like headaches and nausea that are associated with less oxygen reaching the brain.

The main source of indoor carbon monoxide is smoking. Kick the habit, or someone who has it and you’ll immediately sense better indoor air.

Chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, are VOCs that were made famous by Mario Molina who won a Nobel Prize for demonstrating their impact on the environment. Turns out they’re not so good for the body either: They can cause headaches, dizziness, and irritation of the respiratory tract. Wall paints are large sources of VOCs. Next time you decide to repaint your home, do yourself a favour and pick a paint that is low in VOCs. It will not just be good for the environment, but for your microenvironment at home as well.

Particulates, also called soot, are the fine particles that form the black cloud emitted by polluting vehicles. These cause an array of health problems including asthma and heart disease but are the easiest to control indoors. If the air outside is highly polluted, keep your windows closed and use an air exchanger or air conditioner with filters you regularly change.

The least obvious but most insidious of the three types of pollutants are microbes. Important to consider when tackling indoor microbes is that you should keep your indoor humidity low. Recommendations are that the humidity (measured by a hygrometer) should be less than 50 percent in summer and less than 30 percent in winter. Fungus grows as mould in high moisture. Fungal spores can trigger asthma attacks and cause respiratory infections in the elderly.

Dust mites are tiny insects that live in dust and love humidity. Pat the bed of your sea-facing holiday home and chances are that if you have allergies, you’ll feel them flare. Dust mites and mould feed on humidity; you do not want to use a humidifier if you have asthma or allergies.

There are a couple of quick ways to keep indoor air less humid. Use an exhaust in the kitchen and bathroom to suck moist air out. Fabrics can retain moisture, so if you have an old heavy curtain or carpet that has been around (and musty) for years, now is the time to send it for cleaning, or throw it out. To prevent the formation of mould, clean any wet surface within 24 to 48 hours of water accumulation. This is especially relevant during the rainy reason. Many paints also have biocides that can help prevent the build up of mould.

Can’t we just clean the air in our homes through lots of potted plants? Plants do reduce gaseous pollutants such as carbon dioxide. However, they also increase humidity so they should be kept in moderation around patients with allergies. Buy a hygrometer and start to take charge of your indoor air today.

Dr. Kumar, and our health team, can be contacted at health.forbesindia@network18online.com

(This story appears in the 19 November, 2010 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)