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Indoor air pollution and the lungs

Indoor air pollution and the lungs

This factsheet is also available in FrenchGermanGreekItalianPolishRussian and Spanish.

Most people think of pollution as the smog they see outside when pollution levels are high. Almost everyone knows that outdoor pollution can damage health. But not many people realise that pollution indoors can also affect them. How much time do you spend indoors? Do you think it is about half your day or a little less? Now think about it more carefully. Include all the time you spend in your house, your office, your school, and in shops and restaurants. We actually spend about 90% of our time inside, so indoor air is very important for our health. Poor indoor air quality has been linked to lung diseases – such as asthma and allergies, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and lung cancer – and affects other parts of the body. People who already have a lung disease are more likely to be affected by indoor air pollution and those with severe disease are also likely to spend more time indoors. The aim of this factsheet is to describe the main sources of indoor air pollution, what causes the problem and what we can all do to reduce the risk of ill health from indoor air pollution.

Where does it come from?

Indoor air pollution can come from many places, including open fires and heaters, building materials and furniture, cleaning products and cooling systems, and air pollution that comes in from outdoors (if you would like to know more about outdoor air pollution, please read our factsheet).

What does it do to our lungs?

Irritant effects, such as a dry throat and cough, can be felt after quite a short time of exposure to  indoor air pollution (days or weeks). The effects of longer exposure, such as lung cancer, may not appear for many years. The next page gives more details about the health effects of some indoor pollutants. 

Is it going to affect you?

Some people are more likely than others to be affected by some indoor air pollutants. For example, children seem to be more sensitive to other people's tobacco smoke, while women in general are more likely to get a dry throat and dry eyes. In addition, it is clear that patients allergic to dust mites and/or pets will suffer when exposed to them indoors. Otherwise it is not possible to know in advance whether you are more likely to be affected by indoor air than anyone else. But where exposure is very high, almost everyone will suffer.

How can we reduce risks?

Levels of outdoor pollution are measured and recorded in almost every country in Europe, and there are certain levels that countries have to keep to. Some countries have set guidelines for indoor air pollutant levels, but setting maximum levels of indoor air pollution is very difficult. There is a certain amount of individual choice in and control over what we use in our own homes and how we ventilate them. It is also hard to check, establish and maintain good levels in the indoor environments of schools, offices and shops. However, we can be aware of the risks from indoor pollution so that we can try to reduce them. Laws are now being introduced to improve indoor air. For example, bans on smoking in public places have had a great effect on the health of bar workers and others exposed in such places.

What is ventilation?

There are many ways for air from the outside to enter a building:

To reduce energy use, buildings they have become more tightly sealed to prevent uncontrolled ven-tilation. Because of this, outdoor air cannot enter as easily and dilute or clear away pollutants. The amount of ventilation in a building is important when thinking about indoor pollution and its effects.

How can we tell if we have problems?

By asking ourselves the following questions about our homes, we can decide whether indoor air pollution is a problem.

Questions like these only raise the possibility of an effect of indoor air on your health. They cannot prove it.

How can you help control it?

Below is a more general list of things you can change now for the better:

The information was written and compiled by the European Respiratory Society Environment and Health Commitee, and reviewed by the Health and Environment Alliance.

For more information, go to the ELF website.