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An Introduction to Indoor Air Quality

It’s all too easy to take the air we breathe for granted - yet air is absolutely central to our wellbeing

By Tammy James, Senior Marketing Communications Executive, July 2021

As human beings, we need a regular supply of food, water and a continuous supply of air to survive and thrive. A grown adult actually requires more than 10,000 litres of air to breathe approximately 20,000 times every single day.

In the UK, we spend up to 90% of our time indoors on average, whether in our homes, workplaces or learning environments, shops, restaurants and enjoying other recreational pursuits. Yet, few people know that indoor air can become up to 50 times more polluted than outdoor air. Polluted air can often be a hidden yet serious issue. It’s one that we only become aware of once the damage has been done to our health.

As many of us continue to live and work primarily from our homes these days, achieving good indoor air quality is now more important than ever before.

What is poor indoor air quality?

Indoor air quality (also referred to as IAQ) is the universal term used to describe the quality of air found within and around the buildings and structures we inhabit. Poor indoor air quality occurs when there is a build-up of harmful pollutants inside or outside the home, harming our health and wellness.

The quality of the air we are exposed to when in indoor environments - whether that’s inside our home, office, or when we visit leisure spots, all makes a difference to how we feel. Prolonged exposure to indoor air pollution can have long-term health implications.

All of us are at risk of indoor air pollution, yet it’s much more significant to anyone with asthma, COPD, bronchiectasis, or another type of lung condition. Children - whose lungs are still developing - and the elderly are especially vulnerable to poor indoor air quality.

Common causes of indoor air pollution

Many pollutants are commonly present in our home environments. These are typically generated from simple, everyday activities such as cooking with gas, spray cleaning and beauty products, and even air fresheners.

These pollutants, without adequate ventilation, can remain trapped inside our homes for long periods. Over time, this can have a serious impact on our health, without us necessarily even realising that we are being harmed. Long-term exposure to polluted air or a damp environment is linked to severe health conditions, including asthma, respiratory infections, lung disease and heart disease.

There are many common sources of indoor air pollution, including:

Moisture: Excess humidity caused by a lack of adequate ventilation can cause condensation, encouraging mould spores to germinate and dust mites to breed. This can exacerbate allergic and asthmatic symptoms and increase respiratory infections if not addressed.

Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2): Fuel-burning appliances such as gas cookers, boilers, and open fires generate NO2 internally, while externally, traffic fumes emit NO2 into the air that we breathe. Significant exposure to NO2 can lead to increased respiratory infections, inflamed lungs, increased asthma symptoms and reduced life expectancy.

Particulate Matter (PM): Much like Nitrogen Dioxide, Particulate Matter is sourced from fuel-burning appliances and reactions with other chemicals internally and externally from traffic fumes and industrial processes. Smaller particles (PM2.5) entering the lungs can cause tissue damage and increase the risk of lung cancer.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs): Air fresheners, cleaning, beauty and DIY products, as well as new furniture, all release VOCs into our homes and workplaces, while externally, these are produced by traffic fumes. Upon entering human tissue, these synthetic compounds cause carcinogenic activities to take place inside our bodies, increasing the risk of cancer. High levels can also affect the central nervous system, leading to depression.

Radon Gas: This colourless, odourless radioactive gas is formed when naturally occurring uranium in rocks and soil decays and rises up through the ground into the air and into our homes. Prolonged exposure to medium and high levels of Radon Gas causes lung cancer; smokers are 31% more likely to develop the illness if exposed to Radon.

Who is at risk of poor indoor air quality?

Poor indoor air quality is a big issue that affects us all. With many of the common causes being difficult to spot or avoid in our homes and external environments, we must be mindful of the air we breathe.

The NHS spends at least £2.5 billion annually treating people with illnesses directly related to living in cold, damp, and dangerous conditions: a fact exacerbated by Great Britain having the oldest housing stock in the developed world with 8.5 million properties being over 60 years old. These ageing dwellings provide the perfect breeding ground for condensation, black mould and mildew, which can cause chest infections and aggravate asthma symptoms.

Yet, it’s not just older dwellings that are at risk of poor indoor air quality. New homes also present their own challenges. Many new properties are built with better construction methods than their older counterparts and are becoming more airtight. This is great from a home comfort point of view. But the downside of living in a new home is that warm, moist air can become trapped indoors, leading to condensation dampness. Extractor fans are a tried-and-tested method of countering this issue when used in conjunction with “rapid ventilation” options, providing extract ventilation by removing moisture from the air.

Homeowners, tenants and landlords, housing developers, housing associations, architects and property consultants should all be aware of the dangers of poor indoor air quality - and look to take steps to mitigate these risks.

Indoor air quality guidelines and standards

The installation of single room extract fans helps meet the minimum ventilation requirements that current Building Regulations in the UK require. This is a simple and cost-effective method to improving indoor air quality.

Yet this is just a starting point. The issue of indoor air quality runs much deeper than dampness and mould. Indoor air quality is a major health hazard, so much so that the World Health Organisation has published comprehensive guidelines and standards that address three groups of issues:

  • Biological indoor air pollutants (dampness and mould)
  • Pollutant-specific guidelines (chemical pollution)
  • Pollutants from indoor combustion of fuels

WHO recognises that poor indoor air quality poses a sizeable risk to human health. When it comes to protecting our homes and ourselves, its guidelines and standards, intended to support public health, clearly states that:

  • Building owners are responsible for providing a healthy living environment or workplace free of excess moisture and mould by ensuring proper building construction and maintenance
  • Occupants are responsible for managing the use of water, heating, ventilation and appliances in a manner that does not lead to dampness and mould growth
  • Dampness and microbial growth on interior surfaces and in building structures should be avoided or minimised wherever possible
  • Indicators of dampness and microbial growth, such as condensation or visible mould, should be identified through a thorough inspection and, if necessary, appropriate measures put in place to address indoor moisture and microbial growth
  • Ventilation should be distributed effectively throughout spaces, and stagnant air zones should be avoided, to manage moisture within buildings

How to combat indoor air pollution

The most energy-efficient and effective method of preventing condensation and cleaning up your indoor air in existing homes is Positive Input Ventilation. This enduring ventilation strategy has become an industry staple since it was first invented by Nuaire 50 years ago.

New build developers, social housing providers and private landlords alike all trust Nuaire’s Drimaster-Eco Positive Input Ventilation (PIV). This market-leading and respected system prevents condensation and black mould from damaging homes and negatively impacting the health and wellbeing of occupants. As it works across the whole house, it’s highly cost-effective too. PIV is the most popular method of low-energy whole home ventilation in the UK.

How does it work? It’s simple: the Drimaster-Eco range ensures that a continuous supply of fresh, filtered air is provided into the building through a mounted fan. This gently warmed air enters the home through a circular ceiling diffuser which creates a positive pressure effect. This reduces humidity levels and forces out harmful air pollutants, improving indoor air quality and also helping to minimise the entry of harmful Radon gas in the process. The DRI-ECO-NOX incorporated two ePM10 filters and two carbon filters to reduce hazardous Nox pollution within a home by up to 80%.

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