A scientist’s guide to life: How to protect yourself from indoor air pollution

Cleaning products… candles… cookers… How much does indoor air pollution really affect us, and what can we do about it? Respiratory specialist Dr Jonathan Grigg explains all.

Indoor air pollution is widespread

It takes many forms, from the tiny particles that are emitted when we cook or clean, to the spores released by mould when it’s damp, and the chemicals that are embedded in our furniture.

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The possible impact on health is concerning

Small particles that are inhaled can travel to the lungs and cause problems. Studies suggest that indoor air pollution is linked with an increased risk of certain respiratory problems, such as asthma and bronchitis.

Put it on the back burner

We know that cooking releases particulates into the air, and that levels can remain elevated long after cooking is finished. Open a window when you cook and use the extractor fan if you have one. Put the pot on the back burner, where it will ventilate to the fan more efficiently. Keep the fan on for at least 10 minutes after cooking ends.

Need to know…

  1. If you have an extractor fan, keep it on its highest setting while you’re cooking, and open a window.
  2. Your wood-burning stove might be lovely, but try to use it sparingly and fuel it with properly seasoned wood.
  3. Keep an eye out for damp and mould, and tackle it before it becomes a bigger problem.

Cook with electricity, if you can

It’s more environmentally friendly and less polluting than gas, because gas appliances generate carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide. These pollutants are invisible. Good ventilation is key.

Use your log burner sparingly

Open fires and older wood-burning stoves emit a mixture of gases and tiny particles. Burning wet wood is worse than dry, seasoned wood. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) recommends burning wood that has a moisture content of less than 20 per cent, along with certain stoves that are less polluting.

A cooking pot with steam, and a factory in the background © Jacob Stead
© Jacob Stead

Don’t go overboard with candles

Candles and incense can also impact air quality. One study in Danish homes found that candles were the main source of indoor pollution. We don’t know if that’s the case in the UK, but lighting the odd candle isn’t likely to be much of a problem.

Clean with care

Cleaning products and indoor fragrances produce various volatile organic compounds which can be suspended in the air or settle in dust and on surfaces. Spray cleaning products close to the surface, then wipe with a dry cloth, then wipe again with a cloth that’s been dampened in water.

Read more from A Scientist’s Guide to Life:

Furniture is another source of indoor pollution

Fabrics and certain furnishings are treated with flame retardants, and formaldehyde can be found in some furniture, floorings and building materials. Although we can’t yet confidently identify the extent of any health effects that are caused, we need to establish set emission standards and a clear labelling system for these items.

Go green

Outdoor studies hint that plants can help provide a barrier against some forms of pollution, but the evidence from indoor studies is still lacking. We don’t know if specific plants can reduce air pollutants in the home, but they certainly look good and are great for our wellbeing.

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Be aware of damp

If you live in a house with damp and mould, and have a child with asthma, it can exacerbate their symptoms. Help to prevent damp by cleaning away condensation and mould, and ventilating rooms as thoroughly as possible. If your windows have trickle vents, keep them open.

About our expert, Dr Jonathan Grigg

Jonathan is professor of paediatric respiratory medicine and environmental medicine at Queen Mary University of London. He is the leading UK paediatrician in the effects of air pollution.