Indoor Air Pollution: The Invisible Peril in Our Homes
There is a proverb that says-
“Home is where the heart is”
Of all the beautiful places in the world, you find the most comfort at your home, no matter where it is.
But what happens when our homes start killing our hearts?
You might be thinking ‘what are you saying’
Today our homes are in danger of being hijacked by some invisible devils that could kill our hearts and brain.
The devils are none other than greenhouse gases and particulate matters.
Climate change is one of the biggest threats human civilization is facing right now.
No wonder, all of us today are aware of air pollution and its toxic effects.
How Air pollution has become a big deal
A decade ago, when I first read about air pollution at school, it just seemed like another topic that I had to study solely because it was a part of my academic syllabus.
Little did I know that it could gradually pose a grave threat to humankind.
Today when I hear about how people there are getting affected by air pollution in various Indian cities, it makes me realize the enormity of air pollution and the havoc it could bring.
If you look at the list of most polluted cities in the world, you will find 22 of the 30 most polluted cities in the world are from India.
That’s how severe air pollution has become in India.
With the rapid development of various industries and booming population growth, an enormous amount of resources like energy, water, and food are required to sustain our activities.
As a result, several kinds of pollution are increasing day by day.
Especially in developing countries, air pollution has become a major concern.
Exhaust fumes from vehicles on roads, hazardous industrial emissions, and the burning of stubble in nearby agricultural areas have all been contributing to the alarming level of air pollution in India.
But air pollution does not affect you only when you are outside your home, even the air inside your home is polluted and perhaps more polluted than the air outside.
Demystifying indoor air pollution
A lot of people think indoor air pollution is overrated.
However, this is what data from various surveys suggests-
· Each year, close to 4 million people die prematurely from illness attributed to Indoor air pollution.1
· Close to half of deaths due to pneumonia among children under 5 years of age are caused by particulate matter inhaled from household air pollution.
· Indoor air pollution causes diseases like stroke, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer, etc.
When hearing about air pollution, people usually think about gas emissions from industrial plants, roadside vehicles, etc.
Even today, people rarely think about air pollution inside their home because it’s not visible with naked eyes.
Indoor air pollution, though not widely recognized, is in fact, a greater source of apprehension than outdoor air pollution since we spend most of our time indoors. Think of the irreparable damage you may be causing to your body by inhaling the polluted air at home.
Even studies suggest that there is a high chance of indoor air pollutant concentration being higher than outdoor.2
Even to solve the problem of air pollution outside your home, you need to seriously consider first the air pollution inside your home.
Just like charity begins at home, purifying air should start from your own home.
What causes indoor air pollution
The indoor air pollutants are mainly following-
§ Toxic gases like Nitrogen dioxide (NOx), Sulphur dioxide (SO2), Carbon monoxide (CO), Ozone (O3), etc.
§ Various sizes of Particulate Matter (microscopic particles of dust and dirt in the air).
§ Volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds (VOC)
Believe it or not but the biggest reason for indoor air pollution is the lack of clean cooking fuels.
According to a recent survey, only 60% of people in the world have access to clean cooking fuels. Numbers are even lower in developing countries. 3
A large number of people in India even today use biomass like wood, cow dung cake, coal, etc. for cooking.
The incomplete combustion of biomass fuels generates suspended particulate matter, carbon monoxide, polyaromatic hydrocarbons, poly organic matter, formaldehyde, etc., which have adverse effects on health.
Even resins, waxes, polishing materials, and binders used at home produce harmful pollutants like volatile, and semi-volatile organic compounds.
A scientific study conducted showed levels of carbon monoxide inside the home while using cow dung, wood, coal, kerosene, and LPG for cooking.4 See the table below-
(Fuel used) (Carbon monoxide level in indoor air (mg/m3))
Cow dung = 144
Wood = 156
Coal = 94
Kerosene = 108
LPG = 14
Not having proper ventilation at home is another major reason for indoor air pollution. Without proper ventilation, pollutants present in air could assemble in the indoor environment, which could seriously affect the health of the inhabitants.
Radon, a colorless carcinogenic radioactive gas and the second most important cause of lung cancer in many countries5, causes problems in many houses built with stony construction materials or basements with poor ventilation.
Here is a chart of various air pollutants, their sources, and hazards associated with them.
State of indoor air pollution in India
With a large number of people depending on biomass for cooking their food in rural areas, it’s not hard to understand that indoor air pollution is a concern in India.
Nonetheless, thanks to the Indian government’s recent campaign where more people are getting better fuel like LPG for cooking, the situation is getting better.
In cities, the outside air pollution also contributes along with building materials (paints, varnishes, wood flooring, etc.), adhesives in furniture and electronics, broken CFLs and tube lights, excess moisture to the overall indoor air pollution.
Out of all these sources, burning solid fuels like wood, cow dung, coal, etc. for cooking is the leading source of indoor air pollution in India.
How to combat Indoor air pollution
Prevention is always better than cure. This is equally true in the case of indoor air pollution.
I am sure you don’t want to wait for that day when you have to buy pure air from the supermarket to breathe inside your home.
So what can you do to prevent indoor air pollution?
Here are some simple things that should be adopted by people-
1. Awareness: There is extremely low awareness about indoor air pollution among people. Although people take air pollution in general seriously nowadays, most people are still ignorant about indoor air pollution.
If you don’t know about the problem, how could you even think about a solution? Therefore, educating people on indoor air pollution and its enormity is of utmost importance. The most important thing is to spread awareness among people who are still using biomass as cooking fuel. People should be educated about the use of cleaner sources of energy to replace the direct combustion of biomass fuel.
2. Improvement in ventilation: Although it is a common thing, people do not give it enough attention due to their ignorance. Utmost importance should be given to proper ventilation, especially, in the kitchen.
3. Change in the usage of fuels: Reducing the usage of biomass fuels for cooking could be one of the best ways to prevent indoor air pollution. Affordability is a big issue while choosing a cooking fuel for most people. Government and other bodies should promote cleaner fuels that are affordable and available. Biogas, liquefied petroleum gas, electricity, and natural gas are some of the cleaner fuels for cooking.
4. Plants inside the home: Houseplants are awesome indoor air cleaners. Numerous studies have proved it. Houseplants help to maintain adequate levels of humidity inside the home. Not only that, some plants have been found to remove toxic chemicals like benzene, formaldehyde, trichloroethylene, xylene, and ammonia from indoor air. Of course, some plants are more effective in doing these than others.
The graphic below by lovethegarden.com shows some NASA recommended most effective houseplants-
Project Pravaah and its contribution to counter indoor air pollution
Pravaah is one of the projects by an international non-profit organization named Enactus SSCBS with the help of their partner, Mr. Bipin Bhaskaran Nair. Enactus provides a forum for over 70,000 young future leaders across 36 countries to create impactful programs.
Established in January 2009, Enactus at Shaheed Sukhdev College of Business Studies Delhi (SSCBS) was started as an attempt to reach out to people in need, based on principles of entrepreneurship and philanthropy.
Enactus SSCBS has been operational for eleven years now and has continuously striven to use the positive power of business to empower the underprivileged. You can visit their website to know more about their projects.
Every year the air pollution in Delhi reaches its peak during winter due to stubble burning by farmers in nearby areas. Managing the stubbles which becomes useless to farmers is one of the prime challenges to control air pollution.
Since stubble is rich in nutrients like phosphorus, nitrogen, iron, etc., it can be utilized in making pots to grow houseplants. Through Project Pravaah, the organization has employed stubble in making pots. Thus, almost 5000 Kg of stubble has been prevented from being burnt.
Further, project Pravaah aims to solve the problem of indoor air pollution with curative and preventive solutions through its products like air purifiers. Pravaah air purifier is a triple layer air purifier which consists of a pre-filter, activated carbon filter, and H-13 HEPA filter. The efficiency and affordability of these filters make them a great arsenal for people to combat indoor air pollution.
We need more such projects at multiple places to tackle indoor air pollution through multifaceted and innovative solutions. The participation of youth is necessary to spread awareness and educate people.
A small wound can cause cancer if not treated in time. The situation of air pollution is worse already.
It is disheartening to hear that in some Indian cities pure O2 is sold to people already. Oxygen bars are opening in various polluted cities in India.6
Imagine tomorrow if you have to spend money for breathing fresh air, how devastating that is.
Think about your next generation.
What if they ask you questions like
‘what have you done to the atmosphere of earth?’ ‘Why haven’t you taken any action to prevent extreme pollution?’
Are you not answerable to them?
You perhaps cannot do much to change the atmosphere of earth by yourself.
But you can certainly change the atmosphere of your home by yourself.
Do not give your next generation an apocalyptic world where even breathing seems impossible.
They also deserve to breathe fresh air just like you.