The problem: indoor air pollution

When you are outside in a polluted city you are aware you are breathing harmful substances. You think you’ll go back to the clean air of your home. You are probably wrong. According the US Environmental Protection Agency EPA the levels of indoor air pollutants are 2 to 5 times higher than outdoors. The air you breathe at home can be worse than the air outside. We spend about 90% of our time indoors nowadays. Home, workplace, transport, schools, shops, restaurants, very rarely we enjoy fresh air. Some people have become so disconnected from Nature that instead of opening the windows, they buy a spray that artificially recreates “fresh air”. It’s a problem we underestimate, probably because we don’t actually SEE it. It’s called IAQ, Indoor Air Quality, on which the World Health Organization has given information and guidelines:,fromindoorcombustionoffuels.

Poor indoor air quality has been linked to lung diseases like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer. Children are particularly vulnerable to poor indoor air quality as their lungs are still developing. Their airways are smaller, therefore inflammation caused by pollution can make them to narrow more easily than in older people. Pollution can also interact with allergens to provoke asthma attacks. 

Indoor air pollution

Indoor air pollution is caused by:

  • bacteria, viruses, fungi, spores, mites, allergens;
  • VOC Volatile Organic Compounds, some of them cancerogenic and mutagenic such as formaldehyde, which off-gasses from new/remodeled homes over time, and xylenes, toluene, styrene, tetrachloroethylene and others used in varnishes, paints, solvents, adhesives, rubber, glues, cleaning products for the home and personal hygiene;
  • outdoor air pollutants that get indoors from vehicle exhaust, factory emissions, smoke, PM 10, PM 2.5, NO2, Equivalent Black Carbon (EBC), Ultrafine Particles (UFP), secondary inorganic aerosols (SO42−, NO3−, NH4+), CO2.

Air-conditioning systems usually recirculate the air mixing it with a percentage of outdoor air, generally 30%. Filters used to purify the air can trap only those particles whose size is bigger than 0,3 micron. Unfortunately, the smaller ones are those that can penetrate into human tissues and organs, endangering our health. Therefore:

  • Viruses (from 0,06 to 0,14 micron) sneak through the filter mesh (only HEPA filters can trap them, but don’t kill them);
  • VOCs too are smaller, so they are not removed
  • Bacteria (extremely small, e.g. legionella is no more than 0,005 micron) pass through or get trapped, colonizing the filter. If and when they die, their endotoxins are released in the air, causing respiratory irritation and asthma;
  • Fungi and molds thrive on dirty filters, causing irritation associated with asthma, allergic rhinoconjunctivitis and atopic eczema. For instance, aspergillosis – infection by inhalation of this fungus spores – can become very severe in patients with decreased immunity;
  • PM 2.5 and superfine particles recirculate penetrating into the respiratory airways

Our lungs are the filters, they can get clogged and ill.


Increased use of disinfectants during Covid-19:
impact on human health and environment

During the pandemic, reports of widespread use of disinfectant tunnels and disinfectant spraying of the population are raising concern. Fighting the virus with too many chemicals could create another problem for vulnerable groups of people and the environment, whilst it’s not sure to have contributed to actually controlling infections.

(Exaggerated risk of transmission of COVID-19 by fomites. -Goldman E.Lancet Infect Dis. 2020 Aug) As a matter of fact, nobody insisted for people to wear gloves any longer. But TV obsessive adverts of chemical disinfectants keep carry on.

In the early months of 2020 fear of coronavirus drove poison center calls up 20% as Americans went overboard on cleaning products.

These new cleaning routines and habits may continue past the time when SARS-CoV-2 is an urgent threat. Pneumologists, immunologists and dermatologists express their worries about intensive COVID-19 disinfection regimens, because most chemicals employed have adverse effects and others are largely untested for human health. Some chemicals have passed tests to show they’re effective against the pathogen, but “this doesn’t mean that they have been approved because they’re considered safe with regard to human health,” said exposure scientist Lesliam Quirós-Alcalá, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Chlorine, formaldehyde, peracetic acid, phenolics, quaternary ammonium and others* – do destroy pathogens on the surfaces of households and community settings, but fill the air with very hazardous substances. Chemical residues left on the surfaces can become airborne and inhaled, in the long-term causing cancer, reproductive disorders, respiratory ailments, eye and skin irritation, central nervous system impairment, oxidative damage. In a pandemic more than ever, we are conscious about the need to cleanse ourselves from any possible source of infection. But we should remember that many good microbes live in our bodies and play an essential role in its functioning, thus using too many biocides we kill them too. How do we strike the right balance in avoiding the bad infections, yet preserving what we call the good microbiome, the life-sustaining bacteria that covers our skin and stimulate our immune system? Cases of dermatitis have increased. The microbiome has been linked to immunity, autism, allergy, autoimmunity, mood, and impairment of central nervous system. By using too many disinfectants, sanitisers, and antimicrobials for containment of covid-19, we are causing immeasurable collateral damage to microbiomes, killing good  and possibly creating “mines” for newer threats. We increase antibiotic resistance and increase toxicity to aquatic and soil organisms, disrupting the ecosystem.


The sick building syndrome

In order to save energy, since 1970 building designers made buildings more airtight, with less outdoor air ventilation. Thus ventilation rate was reduced to 5 cfm/person, causing humidity and condensation issues. Over years this rate was found to be inadequate to maintain the health and comfort of the occupants, leading also to the deterioration of the building structure. At first, complainers were dismissed as hypochondriacs and neurotics, but now companies and regulators are acknowledging that in the modern office environment and in our homes the air can be toxic.

It is called Sick Building Syndrome and its symptoms are: watering eyes, hoarseness, headaches, dry itchy skin, dizziness, nausea, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, nosebleeds, chronic fatigue, mental fogginess, tremors, swelling of legs or ankles, and, unfortunately, cancer. Malfunctioning heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems (HVAC systems) also increase the indoor air pollution. In order to have an acceptable IAQ with a minimum energy consumption, ventilation standards have been revised to a minimum outdoor air flow rate of 15 cfm/person. The standards are 20 cfm/person in office spaces.

*Lists of some harmful disinfecting chemicals:

Phthalates found in household products, such as air fresheners and dish liquids, are known endocrine disruptors.

Triclosan, found in most liquid dishwashing detergents and hand soaps labeled “antibacterial”, is an aggressive antibacterial agent that can promote the growth of drug-resistant bacteria.

Quarternary Ammonium Compounds, or “QUATS”, found in fabric softener liquids and sheets, most household cleaners labeled “antibacterial.” are another type of antimicrobial, and thus pose the same problem as triclosan by helping breed antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Ammonia, found in cleaning agents for bathroom fixtures, windows and glass, sinks and jewelry, is  a strong irritant almost always inhaled. People who get a lot of ammonia exposure, like housekeepers, will often develop chronic bronchitis and asthma. Ammonia can also create a poisonous gas if it’s mixed with bleach.

Sodium Hydroxide, also known as lye, extremely corrosive, found in oven cleaners and drain openers, can cause severe burns. Inhaled can cause a sore throat for days.

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