The toxins you breathe indoors
Escaping summer in the cool, air-conditioned comfort of your home, the office or shopping malls is almost indescribably blissful some days.
But just what are you breathing in? Up to five times the amount of pollution you would be taking in outside, according to air-quality professionals.
And poor indoor air quality comes with a considerable cost, one expert says.
“You know how much you spend on utilities, or as a building owner you know if you save 10 per cent then that is ‘X’ dollars,” says Henning Bloech, the general manager for building programmes at UL Environment, a developer of green products and sustainability standards.
“With indoor air quality it’s productivity, it’s healthcare costs – there are a lot of different players and it’s more complex.
“Worldwide, indoor air quality is on the rise as an issue. But here in particular, the local governments are very committed to doing something about it.”
Poor indoor air quality can be attributed to many things, not just obvious hazards such as asbestos and radon gas, but dirty air conditioning, excessive carbon monoxide, household pets and even the burning of incense.
Research by the World Health Organisation (WHO) shows pollutants can be between two and five times more damaging when breathed indoors.
In the past month, two major initiatives have been launched to tackle the problem.
The Environment Agency Abu Dhabi submitted a comprehensive strategy to encourage better ways of managing indoor air quality. It hopes to establish higher standards for air-conditioning maintenance and certain materials and pollutants.
At the same time, Dubai Municipality unveiled an initiative to bring seven out of every 10 buildings in line with international air quality standards by 2016.
Abu Dhabi’s Estidama Pearl Rating System already has stringent criteria that new buildings should meet to be considered liveable.
The guidelines emphasise that better indoor air quality can reduce a person’s sick leave from work by three days a year, while increasing their productivity by 5 per cent.
Estidama applies to new buildings during construction and after occupation, with indoor air quality standards covering ventilation, material restrictions and temperature levels.
Carbon dioxide levels need to be monitored and maintained below 1,000 parts per million, with alert systems in place to screen fresh air intake.
Paints, ceilings and even floors must be low-emission, and smoking must be banned not just in buildings, but within 25 metres of all entrances, air intakes and windows.
Further north, the Dubai Green Building Regulations require new buildings to have their air quality tested by an accredited company to ensure volatile organic compounds (VOCs) – toxic vapours emitted by, for example, varnish, computers and polymers – are kept to a minimum.
High-profile renewable energy projects, such as the capital’s Masdar City project and Dubai’s new green mosque in Deira, have made headlines worldwide.
But Mr Bloech says that while the gains from energy efficiency are obvious, the benefits of indoor air quality management are more subtle.
Landlords, he says, should look at indoor air quality as more of an insurance or risk-management policy.
“You don’t want the really bad stuff to happen, so invest a little now and you will spot these things before they even become issues,” Mr Bloech says.
Fixing the damage caused by poor air quality can be extremely expensive and a little effective prevention goes a long way.
“What has always stuck with me, because I have small kids, are the school studies,” he says.
A recent study of 16 public and private primary schools in Dubai and Fujairah found that only two of them had carbon dioxide levels below the recommended 1,000 parts per million, while one had 3,000 parts per million.
All of the classrooms’ dust levels exceeded the WHO’s particle mass concentrations of 230 micrograms per cubic metre. Mathematics and reading skills are thought to increase with lower carbon dioxide levels and more fresh air.
“Fourteen to 15 per cent of healthcare is spent on indoor air quality too,” Mr Bloech says. “That costs economies a lot.
“If you think about the UAE, that’s easily US$1 billion [Dh3.67bn] every year they could save by just fixing indoor air quality in the majority of buildings. It has a lot of gains for very little investment.”
A study published in the Journal of Environmental Protection in June found that every year more than 290 deaths and 89,000 healthcare visits in the UAE could be related to indoor air quality.
Leo Radford, the managing director at Envida, an air-system cleaning company, calls indoor air quality a “massive human health issue”.
“At the very beginning, from construction, air conditioning systems aren’t clean,” Mr Radford says. “So, when a building is handed over to a client or the end user, unless [it is] specified in the contract specifications, it’s not usually clean.”
This, he says, causes many problems for the occupier because anything can be left inside ventilation shafts, including construction material, gypsum, bits of steel, even bits of the duct.
“From that, the residents and occupiers are using a dirty air-conditioning system and this obviously has a negative effect on the indoor air quality, in terms of particulates,” Mr Radford says.
The UAE’s humid climate lowers the ability to dehumidify air, leading to excessive mould. This can lead to leaks in chilled-water piping insulation and, in extreme cases, can make buildings uninhabitable.
Last year, the Dennis Building in the Canadian city of Halifax – once called Canada’s finest office building – was deemed beyond repair and closed because of excessive mould.
Even more damaging is the potential harm to the human body, with mould capable of causing lung damage, Mr Radford says.
Indoor air quality is measured on two parameters: gaseous matter such as carbon dioxide and VOCs; and particulates, which can be hair, dust or dirt.
“In terms of a dirty air-conditioning system, if you’re already predisposed to any respiratory illness or if you have a newborn baby or an old person, anyone that falls under the vulnerable category, they are the ones who will suffer,” Mr Radford says.
In terms of particulates, anyone, fit or unfit, is going to suffer if you have a high reading of VOCs because you get headaches, you get dry throats and there are so many aspects because you’re breathing in chemicals.”
Dr Shuker Fares, a specialist cardiothoracic surgeon at Al Noor Hospital, warns that if oxygen drops to low levels in closed spaces it can be “very dangerous”.
“The level of oxygen should be 21 per cent of the total air in your space, and this should never come below 19 per cent or over 23 per cent,” Dr Fares says. “Either of these can be very dangerous.”
One way of boosting these levels is spreading plants around the house, he says.
Dr Fares offers an extreme example of the threat posed by the colourless and odourless carbon monoxide.
“If you are working in a small, closed facility and there is a car inside, carbon monoxide is released from the exhaust, which will create fatigue and drowsiness, then lead to unconsciousness and finally death.”
Dr Saicharan Bodi, a respiratory specialist at Burjeel Hospital, says excessive dust leads to dust mites, small insects that can “be a major source of many problems, such as asthma and bronchitis”.
Even pets can affect indoor air quality, he says.
“I was surprised to know that some of my patients here have more than 10 to 15 cats,” Dr Bodi says. “They can be a major source of allergies and asthma.”
Burning bakhoor, or incense, should be limited to between five and 10 minutes a day, a few times a week.
“Many people here use it every day for long stretches of time without opening the windows,” Dr Bodi says.
“I’m told that in some families, the older generation and younger generation sometimes clash because the older family members want to do this every day, but the children want to stop it.” Aerosols and cleaning agents can exacerbate nasal allergies, conjunctivitis and asthma.
Finally, Dr Bodi says, “enter smoking. A lot of people smoke at home with their children around, which can be very, very bad for the
But few materials pose as much a risk to indoor air quality as radon or asbestos, he says. Older homes, he says, are more prone to higher levels of radon gas, which can cause lung cancer and accumulates naturally through cracks.
“Prolonged exposure to asbestos leads to asbestosis, a disease causing slow and painful death,” Dr Bodi says.
Any structures containing the material “should be removed safely as soon as possible”.
Updated: August 4, 2014 04:00 AM