Is Everything Fine Indoors?

In today’s fast world, we enjoy a comfortable and appealing lifestyle due to various products we use in and around our homes. At the same time, these products have also undoubtedly added issues that cause concern to our wellbeing and the environment. In current times, health issues are increasing in parallel to continuous and fast-paced development of new products. One of the causes of ill health is sometimes attributed to different types of chemicals present in the products, which when exceeding safe levels can be injurious to health. While not all chemical products are damaging, the toxic chemicals present in cleaning products, cosmetics, food (processed or as in food chain), drugs, and various other household materials are known to cause adverse effects on our health. The exposure to toxic chemicals occurs when we come in contact with them either through skin, ingestion or breathing.

Poor air quality, both indoor and ambient, is also known to cause various ailments. People spend more than 90% of their time indoors especially in western countries where the climate is most of the time cold and wet. Even in developing countries, people remain indoors as watching television is a leisure time activity. Buildings are air tight and are not ventilated in order to make them energy efficient; this in turn results in a very poor indoor air quality. The stressors of a poor indoor environment include dust, chemicals, biological materials, temperature and humidity which cause considerable concern to its occupants. These concerns gained more attention recently mainly due to recognition of its effects on occupant’s health and productivity of office workers.

‘Sick Building Syndrome’, a well-known term for some time now, is the term given to a combination of ailments which are associated with the indoor occupants of a building. Early in 1984, a World Health Organisation Report (WHO, 1984) suggested up to 30% of new and refurbished buildings worldwide may be linked to symptoms of ‘Sick Building Syndrome’. The main cause for this sickness has been identified as due to chemicals associated with the various building products and materials used in built environment furniture and fit-outs. The ailments are manifested as sensory organ irritations, headaches, allergies and breathing difficulties. The long-term effects of these ailments could cause cancer or damage nerve.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), some of which have a nasty odor, have been identified to be chemicals of concern. These are known to emit from the various building materials, furniture and fit-outs. The levels of chemical emitted from the building materials and products of daily use are the useful indicators for the possible health impacts.

The health effects of exposure to VOCs (including formaldehyde from wood products in the indoor residential environment) range from sensory irritation at low to medium levels of exposure to toxic effects at high levels. In general, tissues affected are mucous membranes of eyes, nose and throat, skin on the face, neck, hands and upper or lower respiratory airways. Among several others, VOC emissions are one of the key parameters recognised to produce toxic effects in individuals. For example, some of the chemicals (e.g. benzene, toluene and xylene) are not only known to be carcinogenic but also produce nasal and nervous disorders.

So next time if you are suffering from cold, cough or allergies, it may not be due to the bugs in the air but could be due to nasty chemicals present in the indoor products. Some people may find a solution in having indoor ornamental plants. However, these plants have associated disadvantages of growing mold, fungus and bacteria which again are detrimental to health.

To our relief, the picture is not so grim. People supporting non-toxic products are coming up with new designs for sustainable ‘green’ products that will prevent or minimize adverse health effects.

Subbalakshmi Yerramilli