The predicted “air pollution pandemic” includes an indoor threat

The European Society of Cardiology announced this month that "the world faces an air pollution "pandemic'", based on new research. Researchers have found that people's lives are shortened by an average of nearly three years from different sources of air pollution. They say that air pollution is responsible for shortening people's lives worldwide on a scale far greater than wars and other forms of violence, parasitic and vector-born diseases such as malaria, HIV/AIDS and smoking, according to a study published in Cardiovascular Research.

Professors Jos Lelieveld and Thomas Münzel, of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry and the Department of Cardiology of the University Medical Centre in Mainz, Germany, who led the research, say the findings suggest the world is facing an air pollution "pandemic".

Understanding of what constitutes air pollution is broadening. Air pollution is not limited to what we commonly perceive it as, for example traffic fumes. People are exposed to air pollution not only outside, on the streets but also in their homes and at their workplaces, to indoor air pollution. Prof Nicola Carslaw, from the Department of Environment and Geography at the University of York, said: "Although people are generally very aware of air pollutants outdoors and exposure to them – such as walking along a heavily trafficked street – they are much less aware that they can be exposed to pollutants in their homes."

In the UK, especially with children spending more and more time inside, researchers have suggested that to tackle indoor air pollution a cross-government committee should be created for health, environment and education. The average person in the UK spends less than two hours a day outside and in the average household, concentrations of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are up to seven times higher than the air outside. Exposure to these VOCs is linked to a decline in lung function and the development of asthma in children.

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In a report published by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), the Royal College of Physicians and academics from the University of York, the researchers have highlighted that improving indoor air quality is not the responsibility of the individual but that the government must work together with industry to make sure indoor air is safe for children.

The report’s findings were that that alongside the cross-government committee, the government and local authorities should provide the public with advice and information about the risks of indoor air quality while also suggesting ways that they can prevent it. The report also proposed that local authorities should have the power to require improvements when air quality fails to meet the minimum standards in schools and other buildings where children live.

Prof Jonathan Grigg, a paediatric respiratory consultant from the RCPCH said: "We’re finally paying attention to the quality of our indoor air and this is long overdue. Children in the UK spend most of their time indoors, with just 68 minutes spent outside on an average day.”

Sources of indoor air pollution include smoking, damp, the burning of fossil fuels and wood, dust, chemicals from building materials (such as insulation) and furnishings, aerosol sprays, and cleaning products.

With regard to insulation, mineral wool, also known as Manmade Vitreous Fibres (MMVF), has come under scrutiny recently, due to the possible health risks for those installing, removing or disposing of this insulation material. Leading pulmonologist Marjolein Drent has voiced concerns about the material, explaining that the effects of the fibres of mineral wool “can be compared to those of asbestos. In the past we did not know asbestos was very dangerous. The results of the effects of fibres in glass wool and mineral wool are only being seen right now, so we must deal with it carefully. The point is that these substances are harmful. But people do not realise it sufficiently. And that is something we have to worry about. It is too easily accepted that ‘we have a replacement for asbestos’. But the replacement may not be as good as we thought it was at the beginning and there is insufficient attention to this fact.” EU Today published a report on the health risks of mineral wool in 2018.

Air pollution, both outdoor and indoor, is likely to become a priority across Europe as the health costs to both adults and children become clearer.

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Gary Cartwright

Gary Cartwright

Gary Cartwright is publishing editor of EU Today.

An experienced journalist and published author, he specialises in environment, energy, and defence.

He also has more than 10 years experience of working as a staff member in the EU institutions, working with political groups and MEPs in various policy areas.

Gary's latest book WANTED MAN: THE STORY OF MUKHTAR ABLYAZOV: A Manual for Criminals on How to Avoid Punishment in the EU is currently available from Amazon

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