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Respiratory Health 2019

Indoors or outdoors, air quality is the health issue of our time

Mark Leftwich

Director of Personal Health, Philips UK&I and the Philips Foundation

Poor air quality is the biggest public health issue of our time, exacerbating problems among vulnerable populations. Yet there are things we can all do to make indoor air cleaner.

The average person will breathe around 250 million litres of air in their lifetime — although most of us don’t give a second thought to the quality of that air.

Yet we should, insists Mark Leftwich, Director of Personal Health for Philips UK&I and the Philips Foundation, because air pollution is a massive global health risk, one that’s believed to cause seven million deaths a year every year, including at least 36,000 in the UK. Poor air quality can lead to reduced lung function and has been blamed for an increase in asthma and other respiratory illnesses. “It has lasting impacts on people’s health, causing chronic conditions, cardiovascular problems and lung cancers,” says Leftwich. “It’s also associated with shortened life expectancy and, in high pollution areas, we’re seeing links with dementia, blindness and lower birth weights in babies.”

There’s a temptation to think that this issue is already being dealt with, thanks to environmental bills and emissions targets. But just because we don’t see pollution, it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. “The volume of ultra-fine particle emissions — including dust, dirt, and gasses from factory and car emissions — has increased significantly,” says Leftwich. “These particles can be breathed into your lungs and also soak into your bloodstream and travel to your vital organs. We believe this is accelerating the health challenges we have seen recently.”

There are real things that vulnerable communities can do to make a positive impact on air quality in the short-term, while core issues are being addressed in the long-term.

Poor air quality is a problem for indoor spaces too

Still, at least if we go indoors — where most of us spend 90% of our time — we’ll be better protected, because the air will be cleaner. Right? Wrong, says Leftwich.

In fact, indoor air can be three to five times more polluted than outdoor air. That’s because ultra-fine particles enter from the outside, mixed with pollutants from cooking, open fires and chemicals in cleaning products, among other sources. “Double-glazed windows trap all of the toxic air inside,” notes Leftwich.

“So, unless you’re cleaning and purifying your house regularly, your home is at risk of having poorer health quality than the outdoor spaces that surround it.”

Duty of care to our most vulnerable populations

Of course, it’s not just our homes that are affected by poor quality indoor air. It also affects workspaces, hospitals and schools, and can have a negative impact on the health of vulnerable populations, particularly children, whose young lungs and bodies are still developing. While the government is setting targets and looking at policies that will help protect those most vulnerable to air pollution, Leftwich flags that it will take time to get these revised systems in place. “Change needs to happen now,” he insists.

So, in October, The Philips Foundation, the charity Global Action Plan and the University of Manchester launched a Clean Air for Schools programme in 20 schools across the Greater Manchester area, reaching 6,000 children. “Children spend a huge amount of their week in classrooms,” says Leftwich. “If the school is in a highly polluted area, near a busy road, or using cleaning products which compromise air quality, children could be breathing poor quality air day in, day out, damaging their physical health and affecting their ability to learn.”

Taking positive actions to make healthier communities

All of us — government, companies, parents, children, schools, hospitals and other public institutions — need to be better educated about air pollution, and the things we can do to protect our indoor spaces. These include better ventilation and use of natural cleaning products and purification devices.

“There are real things that vulnerable communities can do to make a positive impact on air quality in the short-term, while core issues are being addressed in the long-term,” says Leftwich. “On the plus side, there’s never been so much attention given to the issue of air quality. More and more people and organisations, including the NHS, are becoming vocal about it. And rightly so, because air pollution is the biggest public health issue of our time.”

As the UK government steers the country towards meeting the World Health Organisation’s air quality guidelines of PM2.5, the role of technology to deliver against this standard will become equally as important as our behaviours, to minimise emissions. Currently, there are no industry standards for technologies like air purifiers, in the same way that there are for other domestic appliances like irons and vacuum cleaners. We believe this issue needs further attention. Purifiers sold in the UK should meet an agreed standard of filtering out the most dangerous particles and genuinely improve the health of the people who buy them. 

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