Indoor Air-Pollution: growing awareness of a growing threat
By: Daniela Barrera
Air quality is a high-profile topic. Awareness of pollution, particularly in cities, has grown hugely in recent decades, particularly driven by research that it affects the lung capacity of young children and increases mortality among the elderly. There have been protests worldwide and the market for products to deal with the threat has boomed: it is estimated that Asian factories produce between 10 to 20 million facemasks every month designed for outdoor use. What is less well-known is that air inside most urban homes is dirtier than outside.
Modern homes are full of sources of pollution that have a negative effect on air quality. Manufactured items like carpets, wall paints, and furniture can release noxious gases long after they are delivered. Cooking in the home — a seemingly virtuous activity — also releases large quantities of volatile organic compounds into the air if food is charred. In addition, studies have shown that carpets drive significantly higher levels of dust and other allergens than hard floors. Combined with improved seals around windows and doors, which improve energy efficiency but reduce air circulation, the home can become filled with allergy-causing irritants. This is thought to partially explain rising levels of asthma among children, for example in Sweden where rates increased by nearly 2% in just eight years over the mid-noughties. The broader result of all these pollutants is even more serious. It is reported by Our World In Data that globally in 2017, an estimated 1.6 million people died prematurely as a result of indoor air pollution.
Around the world, people are gradually waking up to this hidden threat. There is a growing awareness of sources of toxicity in the home — some new mattresses, such as those made from 100% latex, are now marketed as producing lower levels of chemicals. Similarly, the presence of reactive hydrocarbons in low-cost candlewax, and lead in some candle wicks, is coming under scrutiny. Many have been inspired by studies carried out by NASA in the 1980s which looked into the feasibility of taking plants into space in order to clean the air for astronauts.
A number of the plants that ranked highest in that study, including the Boston Fern, Peace Lily, and Snake Palm, are now best-sellers. The popularity of air-cleaning plants has birthed more than one start-up: in the UK, a firm called Patch Plants offers a range of plants online, organised by functional benefits. As well as these more natural solutions, air purification equipment is now a growing market. Previously dominated by smaller operators, its maturation was signalled by the entry of Dyson, whose latest range of products claims to filter out 99.97% of pollutants and allergens.
Why is this interesting to Kitchen8? Given the fickle nature of news, it’s understandable that the headlines are taken by air pollution stories which focus on big stories in the outside world: smog cancelling sporting events, or obscuring the Taj Mahal. But the real impact on consumers is more subtle and takes longer to filter through into the realm of products. With the COVID crisis continuing to unfold, there is now an increased awareness of the frailty of the human body and the need for good hygiene. It’s evident that the air is going to be a new frontier of awareness.