EVIL AIR and how to beat it
It is utterly forgettable that we do not live in an empty space, but, just like fish, we swim in the air. We push against the ground like the bottom of the ocean, walk around like little crabs and drink the air deep into our lungs, where it feeds us every waking (and sleeping) moment of our lives. In, perhaps, a sad turn of events, though we can taste rot and (most) poison in our drinks and food, we get used to the smells and reeks in the air1 so quickly that we forget how harmful they can be.
Every day, 9/10ths of our time is spent being locked up2 in air terrariums where, just like exotic pets getting warm under a heating lamp, we have no say in the quality of our environment. Even though it is regulated by law how often the air in our cages must be changed and the necessary quality of the air we breathe, these rules are minimal3,4 in comparison with the guidelines set by the leading organisations in the field of air quality5,6. Also, compliance with the requirements is often lacking, as it’s possible to save money by choosing cheap solutions and the bare minimum in ventilation disregarding the comfort of the inhabitants7.
It follows – the very gasses we exhale, smother us in such environments. If carbon dioxide is in a concentration of around 1000 PPM (part per million), we feel tired, our heads hurt, we lose the ability to concentrate and produce quality work. The intensity of these symptoms, of course, grows with the concentration of CO28. Similar symptoms become apparent where a high concentration of particulates and other substances are present. But they also have an increased ability to chemically affect our organs, cells and their processes. And in somewhat a game of chance the resulting cellular damage can lead to the loss of organ function, cancer and not to speak of the damage to airways and their epithelium (that leads to immunity loss), and to the skin and eyes9.
Another big part of the brew of indoor pollution are volatile organic compounds (VOC), who, just like the name says, are volatile, that is – they are emitted from their source nonstop. They are often found in solvents and therefore VOCs off-gas from a wide variety of furniture, equipment and materials – tables, sofas, shelves, wallpapers, linoleum, and even folders, computers and keyboards to a lesser extent. It’s almost a rule – the cheaper the product, the more VOCs it emits, especially, if the objects have been damaged by water or mould. In addition to the effects written previously, this organic poison cocktail can also create such consequences as neurological damage and impact humans on a hormonal level, and who knows what else, knowing how unpredictable and reactive organic molecules are10,11.
Another guest to this pollution party is particulate matter. PM consists of teeny-tiny little dust, soot and smoke particles the size of only a couple of micrometres. Indoors they’re emitted by our skin, printers, and from the degradation of different materials. A lot of them come from outside, where they are created by combustion engines, factories12, and the salt and sand that is used on roads in the winter and that then agitated by the spring wind13. And even from deserts and volcanoes14, if they so happen to be near. Particulate matter not only physically irritates airways (resulting in sneezing), but also acts like incredibly small planets made up of heavy metals15, organic and inorganic substances12, and are inhabited by viruses and bacteria. They then fall into our noses, mouths and throats, and lungs, and the very smallest ones can even pass over the alveolar barrier into blood. They cause all the problems associated with that particular substance, and can also induce obstructive pulmonary disease and increase the risk of lung infection16.
Now that we know the cocktail we’re pouring into ourselves with every breath, one finds themselves next to a window trying to pry it open. But. A lot of windows these days don’t even have handles. And what if it’s winter – is it really a good idea to freeze for some fresh air?
It must be said, there is little to be done about air quality problems as an individual. Of course, one can always buy a gas mask and become and industrial goth, but I can tell from experience, the cheaper masks fog up easily and the better ones are truly expensive. Air quality should be improved systematically, meaning – on a building level or, even better, on the city and country level.
For example, there are many rules and regulation in the European Union about the use of different chemical substances in the manufacturing processes of the already mentioned furniture, finishes and objects. Though the products in the EU are oftentimes more expensive, they are safer for human health. The work of phasing out the most harmful pollutants from the manufacturing process is ongoing with the goal to create environmentally and consumer friendly products17, 26.
Different policies can be adopted on a country level: banning cars that emit an immense amount of exhaust gas, encouraging manufactures to create environmentally friendly engines and factories to reduce emissions, banning waste incineration and improving waste management practices over all18. Not to mention – adopting strict air quality regulations and measuring the air quality objectively19.
Cities can promote using less petrol and diesel engines by creating driving restrictions. It’s already been done in Paris, Stockholm and London, where the old “flatulent” cars have been almost banned from entry20. The city can promote the use of public transportation, electric modes of transit, plan the city with lots of green space and separate these from the industrial territories, support green architecture and create an environment where riding a bike and just walking around is safe, economical and nicer than driving a car18.
In buildings that care about their inhabitants, it’s possible to install different devices that improve the air quality. Perhaps, the most optimal is air purification with filters. It must be noted, that these systems need regular check-ups, but it’s often the case that what’s out of sight, is out of mind. But out of the lungs? Not so much21. To abate the indoor smells, ozone generators are sometimes used. It works when ozone degrades organic molecules. As humans are also made from organic matter, next to an ozone generator, they themselves become the smell they tried to eliminate22. Similar to how green spaces can improve the air quality in cities, the same can happen indoors. Unfortunately, one potted plant can do little more than give joy to its owner, just like one little poor birch growing on the roof of a factory can do little about the surrounding smog. But if the plant numbers are increased to several hundred, the effect can be substantial. This can be done by so called botanical biofilters that are based on the principle of bioremediation, which is the ability of nature – living things – to purify the surrounding environment23.
In order to live in good terrariums, one must carefully think about its accessories. For example, with the printers that emit the very small and damaging graphene dust particulates, it’s desirable to install and use a vent10, 25. Carpet is not recommended, as it increases the amount of dust, is hard to clean and bacteria and viruses love soft textiles. Carpet becomes just like a forest that can easily hide and protect monsters. The quality of furniture and finishing materials is very important – choosing not only what is cheap and looks good – but also what doesn’t smell and emit pollution24.
It’s imperative to practice cleanliness not only for a health spirit, but also to reduce the amount of dust and particulate matter in the room. But, exaggerated use of chemical cleaning supplies can be quite harmful especially for those who do the cleaning. If every morning is met with a large whiff of artificial lemon and moonflowers, there are large amounts of ammonia and bleach in the air10.
Air pollution is an enemy that can never be truly beaten. Even by returning to the bosom of mother nature and by saying bye-bye to civilization as we know it, sand, smoke, dust and even plant and human emitted odours will come with consequences, even if they are, perhaps, a lot less harmful than what the modern world huffs and puffs at us every single day. All we can practically do is measure what kind of substances we let into the air, test if they’re harmful and look for solutions and possibilities to remove or reduce the harm. And so, step by step, we can create an environment where we lead a quality life. Just like a well taken care of pet in a terrarium.
The article was prepared in Latvian and translated to English by the team of KO TU ELPO in 2020. We design, manufacture and sell botanical biofilters focusing on connecting nature, engineering and science with the goal of creating an improved quality of life.
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