Is Your Building Making You Sick? It’s Time to Fight Indoor Air Pollution by Peeyush Gupta, Director, Sales and Marketing, UL South Asia.
India was in the news yet again for dangerous levels of air pollution. A recent report by the World Health Organization (WHO) World Global Ambient Database shows that 14 out of 20 most polluted cities across the globe are in urban India, putting millions of people at risk of distressing illnesses like asthma and even lung cancer. The intense focus on outdoor air pollution has also brought to the fore another urgent problem – the quality of the air we breathe indoors. Caused by a host of toxic pollutants, indoor air is estimated to be anywhere between two to 10 times more polluted than outdoor air. The US Environment Protection Agency cites IAQ as one of the top environmental health risks and indoor air pollution as one of the greatest overall risks to human health.
What are indoor air pollutants and where do they come from?
A pollutant/chemical/toxic substance present inside our homes or offices or any confined space, even a car, is considered as an indoor air pollutant. Various gases like carbon dioxide, oxides of sulphur, particulate matter or chemical emissions are some examples. The most prevalent pollutants in urban settings are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). Common sources of VOCs are products for indoor use and building materials like various flooring types, cleaning chemicals, furniture, printers, ceiling systems, wall coverings, paints, adhesives and sealants, and art supplies. Some of the other harmful airborne chemicals and their sources include:
- Formaldehyde, found in plywood.
- Acetaldehyde, present in laminates.
- BTEX Compounds, released by aromatic hydrocarbons in coatings and adhesives.
- Glycol Ethers, used in the production of paints and household cleaning products.
- Phenol, prevalent in vinyl flooring and wall coverings.
Why are indoor air pollutants deadly?
Based on research spanning over two decades, UL scientists estimate that there are more than 80,000 chemicals prevalent in commercial use today, and yet only 3% of these have been fully evaluated for adverse human health effects. A crucial factor to consider with regard to VOCs is that the harmful effects of emissions from non-certified building products can linger and affect the occupants for days or even months together.
Global studies and even the US Environmental Protection Agency have also found that exposure to very small traces of VOCs and some industrial chemicals in homes and schools can disrupt the endocrine system (hormones), gene activation, and brain development. Children are especially vulnerable as they breathe at a faster rate than adults; this coupled with their smaller body mass results in a higher dose of available pollutants for a child than an adult. Asthma, which is increasingly linked to poor IAQ remains the leading cause of school absenteeism and hospitalizations in children under the age of 15. It is important to note that IAQ is not limited to products alone – poor maintenance of HVAC systems within the building make the problem worse by circulating polluted outdoor air in the indoor environment and recirculating the indoor pollutant. Experts agree that source control is the only completely effective way to remove pollutants from indoor environments. They also agree that total eradication of indoor air pollutants is often not feasible or practical. A more realistic goal is to use building materials, furnishings, finishes, office equipment, cleaning products and processes that emit low levels of VOCs.
IAQ in India
Awareness about IAQ is slowly on the rise. While there are occasional warnings about the risks of indoor air pollution on health, comfort, learning, and productivity, especially to children and some manufacturers are engaged in efforts to make their products less polluting, the entire ecosystem is challenged by a lack of universal indoor air quality (IAQ) regulations and standards.
Significant differences in criteria among various eco-labels and product certification programs around the convolute an already complex landscape of IAQ concerns. In addition, building designers and knowledgeable consumers are also bogged down by the overwhelming amount of information, some of which is contradictory and/or filled with unsubstantiated marketing claims, in what is known as ‘greenwashing’.
The situation in India is further complicated by the fact that the manufacturing community supplying building materials and products are part of a highly fragmented unorganized and price-sensitive market, where establishing any form of regulatory control, or even building consensus with players is a hugely challenging task. Even as the growing movement toward green buildings is a welcome change in the country, the awareness and implementation of compliance with IAQ norms, specified by the Indian Green Building Council, is low.
However, IAQ can no longer be ignored in India – the country is home to 10% of the world’s asthma patients. The implications on health and productivity of citizens are far too serious and warrant immediate action on multiple fronts – be it raising consumer awareness, establishing bare minimum standards for products causing harmful indoor emissions and implementing strict mechanisms to ban the entry of toxic chemicals in the market, either through local manufacturing or imports.
For more information, write to UL.indiamarketing@UL.com