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Indoor air pollution and our health: particles

Published:Sunday | March 10, 2019 | 12:00 AM
Kirkland Rowe
Staff members of the Central Sorting Office wearing dust masks after exiting the downtown Kingston building after noxious fumes triggered an evacuation.

Typically, when confronted by danger, we run to safety as we have perceived it with our senses. Air pollution, often nicknamed the silent killer, in many instances doesn’t afford us such luxuries. Instead, we’re often left to deal with its impacts after either short- or long-term exposures to harmful substances in the air we breathe.

At least 16 per cent of our children in Jamaica are asthmatic. The prevalence of other associated respiratory disorders such as rhinitis and hay fever is also very high.

According to the Ministry of Health (2018), non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are the leading cause of death in Jamaica. In fact, seven of every 10 deaths in Jamaica are attributed to four major NCDs, namely, cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and chronic lower respiratory disease.

Exposure to particles has been identified as a causative factor for cardiovascular and circulatory disease, as well as the onset of asthma.

We spend the majority of our time indoors. Some studies approximate this figure to 90 per cent of our day. The majority of that time, approximately 70 per cent is spent within a residence, with the remaining 20 per cent attributed to time spent within our workspaces, bars/restaurants and other indoor locations. The relevance of the outdoors is significant, however, as on average, 60 per cent of the fine particles we inhale indoors originate from the outdoors.

Sources of particulate matter in the indoors

PM in the air we breathe is directly related to the size of the actual particles inhaled. Particle size, in turn, is largely predicated by the source of the particle. The most important sources of PM within the home are combustion processes, cooking and cleaning.

Gas cooking generates ultrafine particles, while smoking, lighting candles, use of mosquito coils and incense burning, for example, are accountable for fine particles. Chores around the home such as folding clothes, sweeping, dusting, among others, are largely responsible for the large or coarse particles in the air we breathe.

The size of large, fine and ultrafine PM is such that they are not visible to the naked eye but their impacts can be substantial. It must be said that our homes do a lot to shield us from PM in the outdoor air, especially with respect to coarse and ultrafine particles, fine particles though tend to accumulate in the indoors.

Health Impacts of Exposures to PM

Traditionally, persons have held the view that extended exposure to PM leads directly to the onset of asthma. Studies on both adults and children in recent years have proven that this is in fact the case, especially with respect to traffic-related air pollutants.

What we may not be so familiar with is the relationship between PM and cardiovascular and circulatory health. Further, there also appears to be no safe exposure limit with respect to the development of cardiovascular and circulatory ailments.

Increased PM exposure within the home can lead to an inflammatory response in the lungs. The symptoms of inflamed lungs include pain in the chest and shoulders, shallow breathing, headaches, joint pain and shortness of breath. Ultimately, however, fine and ultrafine particles can enter the bloodstream and interact undesirably with blood cells and blood vessels.

Management Strategies

The use of air filters has improved blood vessel function and reduced blood pressure provided PM concentrations within the air we breathe is less than five micrograms per cubic metre of air inhaled. The features within our home, as well as the activities occurring in our homes, however, can largely influence our exposure to PM, and thus minimise harmful health impacts.

Air-quality monitors could also be useful. Recording our daily activities while simultaneously monitoring PM levels, as well as perceived health ailments over time, would allow individuals to better manage their own exposure response cycle. Practical activities that can also reduce exposure include the following:

i. Reduce or eliminate smoking indoors.

ii. Limit the burning of incense or similar materials within the home.

iii. Use varying mosquito repellent strategies. Don’t rely solely on coils and discard all ashes derived from burning, using moist cloths.

iv. Ensure that gas or electric stoves are located in well-ventilated areas. Preferably, they should be located some distance away from bedrooms or areas having high people traffic.

v. If possible, stoves should be fitted with extractor fans and HEPA filters to trap PM, and serviced regularly to ensure effectiveness.

vi. HVAC filters must be similarly serviced or cleaned as recommended.

vii. Keep tracked-in dirt to a minimum. Let’s leave our shoes at the door.

viii. Clean all hard floors, carpets, window sills, windows and areas where settled dust can accumulate frequently, using moist wipes to avoid unnecessary build-up. Always use appropriate personal protection, for example, a simple dust mask or a handkerchief securely fitted about the mouth and nose, if prone to allergic reactions.

ix.Vacuum carpets at least weekly; steam vacuuming would be good at least twice yearly.

x. Clean pet areas daily and, if possible, place litter boxes in low-traffic rooms.

xi. Keep our four-legged friends who are frequently indoors well-groomed and clean.

We have within our reach the know-how to manage our exposures to PM, and therefore, I challenge us to take heed.

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