Sick building syndrome is fast becoming a public health risk. How can we tackle this?
This is my fourteenth column and I’m happy to report that reader response has been good. I receive many emails from readers who are keen on reducing the toxic, chemical overload within their homes and are looking for safer and natural solutions.
We are now used to the idea of air pollution and smog in urban areas caused mainly by automobile emissions. However we have not fully woken up to the perils of our indoor air quality, both at home and in closed spaces like malls and offices. You will be surprised to read that your home and office’s toxic load can creep up in the most innocuous of ways.
An estimate of your home’s indoor air quality (IAQ) can prove to be a shocker. This is now being measured consistently in western countries where citizens spend close to 90 per cent of their time indoors. It is also beginning to show up in studies in India, where it is estimated that close to 70 per cent of our time is spent indoors (either at work or at home).
The inside of our homes and offices are not the haven we assume them to be – in many cases, standing outdoors, even in hot and humid weather is healthier.
International standards for appropriate IAQ have been established by countries like the U.S, Canada and Sweden after extensive studies. Poor indoor air quality leads to a poorer sense of well-being and can illnesses like blocked nose, irritable eyes, headaches, dizziness, dry skin, lethargy, fatigue and so on. The level of escalation of symptom varies according to age, gender, and basic health parameters of the individual. These ailments are collectively called “sick building syndrome”.
Poor indoor air quality is now recognised as an important public health risk all over the world. Indoor hazards include biological and chemical contaminants that arise from direct use (chemicals used in cleaning the home, aerosol sprays to deter insects, use of synthetic personal products), contaminants from products used to improve interiors (chemical fragrances used to improve mood or aesthetics), and contaminants that are a by product of the furniture in the home and office (notably formaldehyde from MDF-based furniture). Apart from this, poor lighting and poor ergonomic building design also play a part in contributing to the building and people sicknesses.
Researchers at the National Institute of Environmental Sciences in the U.S report that people who use air fresheners or other household cleaning products which are delivered through an aerosol spray as little as once a week experience reduced heart rate variability – a condition linked to heart attacks and high blood pressure.
Household chemicals cause 7 million accidental poisonings each year in the U.S with more than 75 per cent of the cases involving a child under six years. In India, not only is this number not estimated, our current BIS norms impose only voluntary standards on non-food and non-electronic household products. So you would not be able to find out exactly what your floor cleaner or dish wash product actually contains, even if you were curious.
We also do not have any specific regulations that limit harmful chemicals in most household products. Almost all regulations are process and not product regulations. So a factory which creates bleaching products needs to comply with pollution control norms for its effluents but the chemical composition of the product that it manufactures for household use is largely unregulated.
To understand the scale of the problem considers this information. Procter & Gamble, a leading worldwide manufacturer of household products, declares on its website that it uses 642 different types of chemicals just to create the fragrances used in its products! All of these chemicals are compounds created in the factory only in the last few decades and therefore it is impossible for us to get a clear picture of their safety for human use which happens only over several generations. Contrast this with the use of neem or turmeric which has thousands of years of recorded safety for human use.
This series will therefore explore several non toxic alternatives to the cleaning products we use at home, in order to help us lighten its toxic load. We will also explore natural, environmentally-sustainable alternatives to household furniture and accessories.
We do not have any specific regulation that limits harmful chemicals in household products