indoor pollution, and some general points about solutions

possible sources of formaldehyde in the home. But remember - be aware, not alarmed

possible sources of formaldehyde in the home. But remember – be aware, not alarmed

In a book review published, or linked to, on 3 quarks daily, Philip Hoare cited a number of gloomy facts about our impact on the biosphere. I won’t contest them, but I was struck by this one:

Only 1 per cent of the world’s urban population are breathing air clean enough to meet EU standards according to a 2007 report by the World Bank (the Chinese government, fearing social unrest, redacted it on publication).

This struck me because I’ve read elsewhere that our city air has always been polluted, but has improved in recent times, due to our greater awareness of pollution and our ability to clean up our act, to adapt. It’s difficult to get to the truth here, of course. I’d love to be able to walk down a London street in 2007, then repeat the act in 1907, 1807 and 1607, but the fact is that EU standards have only been around for the life of the EU, and standardised monitoring of cities is a comparatively recent phenomenon. The Romans used lead piping rather more often than was good for them in their cities (as many of them well knew), and investigation of the lungs of paleolithic cave dwellers have revealed smoke from home fires as the first known deadly anthropogenic pollutant.

I’ve never been to China but I do teach a lot of Chinese students, who mention often, without prompting, the pollution of their cities, so of course there are problems, though I wonder whether EU standards might be a bit tough. Be that as it may, what solutions are being implemented for cleaning up our cities?

The WHO has described air pollution as the world’s biggest environmental health risk, with 7 million deaths being sheeted home to air pollution in 2012, but get this, more than 50% of these deaths were due to indoor pollution (4.3m), due mostly to cooking on inefficient systems. Apart from cooking, which I’ll return to later, there are a whole range of more or less fixable problems arising within homes and other buildings. They include formaldehyde, environmental tobacco smoke, biological contaminants (bacteria, mould and mites), household products and pesticides. And when you think about it’s not surprising that indoor pollution is such a problem, due to lack of dispersal of the contaminants. If you’ve ever travelled in a heavy smoker’s car you’ll know what I mean.

So two solutions come immediately to mind – ventilation and reduction (or elimination). Open the windows, use extraction fans, stop smoking, find substitutes for formaldehyde – whatever it’s used for – and other toxic substances, and we’ll all live longer and healthier, contributing all the more to the food production, greenhouse gas emission and habitat destruction problems of the world.

Another solution is to get out more (which is also good for romance, and experience generally). People spend on average about 90% of their time indoors, most of it in their own homes. If you’re really concerned that your sanctuary is slowly murdering you, you can get yourself an indoor pollution meter which will measure carbon monoxide and particulate emissions from your stove. Different kits can also measure formaldehyde, mould, CO2, PCB, asbestos and other nasties in your indoor environment.

Of course we like to look at ultimate solutions here, not just proximal ones, and so, rather than simply flushing pollutants out of our homes, we need to consider the whole environment. We also need to consider what we bring into our home that has an impact on the environment – petroleum based products and furnishings for example.

Take formaldehyde, an established carcinogen which can also exacerbate asthma and affect the central nervous system. It’s commonly used in the building trade as an adhesive (urea-formaldehyde, UF) for pressed wood products such as cabinets, furniture and flooring. It can also be found in household adhesives, paint and fabrics. Quite apart from UF’s immediate danger to people (at above standard atmospheric levels), it’s a fossil fuel-based chemical resin with environmental problems associated with its manufacture. The same goes for phenyl-formaldehyde resin (PF), which at least emits formaldehyde at much lower levels than UF. Other formaldehyde-free resins such as MDI (methylene diphenyl isocyanate) and PVA (polyvinyl acetate) are also derived from fossil fuels. The most promising alternative binder is a soy-based product, described here (where I obtained much of this info) as ‘non-toxic, renewable and cost-neutral’. I don’t yet know what cost-neutral means. Maybe I’ll look at such soy products, and their inevitable downsides, in another post.

Of course I don’t want to be alarmist here, no need to start tearing up your floorboards or ripping out your in-builts because of a suspicion of UF emissions. Builders are well aware of the rules, nor would they want to expose themselves to toxic chemicals in their workaday life. The damage done in producing these resins can’t be undone by replacing them. It just pays to be aware of the dangers, to yourself and others.

The point is that I want to look at solutions in as complex a way as my limited abilities can stand. Waltner-Toews presents a 9-point plan for looking at complex issues which I’ll set down in simplified form here:

1. What is the problem situation or issue? How did it come to be a problem?

2. Who are the stakeholders? What do they care about? Where are they coming from (motives, investments)? What are the agreements, discords among them?

3. What are the stories being told by these different stakeholders re their roles and concerns in the problem?

4. What’s our best systematic, scientific understanding of the situation/problem?

5. What’s our best understanding of the social & cultural issues to be addressed?

6. How are 4 & 5 related? How do they constrain or support each other?

7. What are the scenarios and narratives here that people most connect with? On what things can we agree on? What are the power relations between people who agree or disagree? Given these constraints and acknowledgements what do we realistically expect that we can do?

8. What course of action, governance structure and monitoring system will best enable us to implement our plans and move towards our goals?

9. Implement. Monitor. Adjust. Learn. Re-Start.

I think these are good guidelines to keep in mind, even if they don’t have to be followed to the letter in every situation. It’s worth remembering that solutions are always partial and generally involve battles and compromises. Yet they can still be solutions. To take the issue of indoor pollution using these guidelines, the first point is   defining the problem and how it has arisen. However, indoor pollution is an umbrella term for a host of problems, such as: cooking and stoves and fuel; ventilation; the use of formaldehyde and/or other toxic chemicals in buildings; mites and bugs and cleanliness; humidity and mould, etc. My instinct would be to treat each of these as separate problems, though some are clearly related, and to prioritise the problems -and the priority would depend on location. In some regions, cooking is the major problem, while in others it might be cigarette smoking, formaldehyde, or mould.

The question of how problems have arisen is always pertinent. Who are responsible? Sometimes it’s the negligent householder, sometimes a dodgy company, sometimes a practice or habit of the wider community.

The second point is about the stakeholders. They include those directly affected, the victims, and their nearest and dearest; those being held responsible; regulators; independent experts; legal experts; government reps; potential victims, and other interested parties.

And so on. For me, the fourth point, the scientific understandings, will be a major focus, along with the social and cultural issues, point 5, and of course points 7 and 8, the possible and viable solutions.

So, to return to indoor pollution – aside from ventilation, you can minimize the biological contaminants in your home by maintaining a humidity level of 30 to 50 percent, and that’s pretty standard humidity. Dehumidifiers are available at prices between $300 and $400 in Australia, but are unlikely to be readily available in developing countries. Higher levels encourage dust mites and mold growth. Keeping carpets clean and dry, and simply maintaining a clean house also discourage biological contaminants.

On cooking, fuel and fires, it so happens that this morning I was looking up ‘Weird Al Jankovic’ on Wikipedia, due to a number of his new videos being aired on the box, and learned that sadly both his parents died in their home some years ago due to carbon monoxide poisoning from a newly installed fireplace. The flue was closed. CO poisoning from improperly maintained or operated fuel-burning systems causes some 2000 deaths annually in the USA alone. These deaths, of course, are entirely preventible and largely due to carelessness or ignorance. CO is colourless and odourless, so people can be overcome without being aware of it, and especially in their sleep. This useful information site from the Minnesota Department of Health describes the many household sources of CO:

In general, CO is produced when any material burns. More is produced when there isn’t enough oxygen for efficient burning. Common sources of CO in homes include fuel-burning devices such as: furnaces, gas or kerosene space heaters, boilers, gas cooking stoves, water heaters, clothes dryers, fireplaces, charcoal grills, wood stoves, lawn mowers, power generators, camp stoves, motor vehicles and some power tools with internal combustion engines. Smoking is another common source of CO that can negatively impact indoor air quality.

CO detectors and alarms are available at reasonable prices. To check out how they work, here’s the low-down.



1 thought on “indoor pollution, and some general points about solutions

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