Indoor Air Pollution: The Invisible Enemy of Allergy Sufferers

Published on: April 5, 2019


Outdoor air pollution is a global problem that has a major impact on our health. More than nine in 10 people around the world live in places where air quality levels exceed the limits set by the World Health Organization (WHO), with low- and middle-income countries suffering the highest exposures.1 But did you know that some indoor air pollutants can be up to five times more concentrated than outdoor air pollutants?2 The way we cook, clean and live is polluting the air inside, and this is compounded by the fact that we spend up to 90% of our lives indoors.2

What’s even worse is that it’s a real concern for people who suffer from allergic rhinitis – a common allergy that affects up to 40% of people worldwide.3 It occurs when a person’s immune system reacts to allergens in the air, such as pollen, dust mites or moulds, causing the lining of the inside of the nose to become inflamed.3 The symptoms of allergic rhinitis can be seasonal or year-round and, nowadays, air pollution is found to have a stronger link to an increased prevalence of allergies.4 It can also aggravate symptoms of allergic rhinitis, including headaches, blocked or runny noses, itchy or watery eyes and sleep disturbances.So, this World Allergy Week (April 7-13) we’re exposing the invisible enemy in our homes: indoor air pollution.

While there are many things that contribute to the invisible enemy in indoor spaces, the following sources may surprise you. The good news is there are some simple things we can do to reduce the indoor air pollution levels in our homes.

Everyday cooking impacts air quality

Approximately one third of the world’s population (2.5 billion people) cook with solid biomass (wood, coal, animal dung)5, which contributes to high levels of indoor air pollution. In poorly ventilated homes, indoor smoke can be 100 times higher in pollutants than it should be.6

Take Brazil, for example, where almost 10% of households cook primarily with firewood which can increase pollution in their homes up to ten times more than the air in the towns and cities.7 In Latin America, the person using firewood to cook breathes in air up to 26 times more polluted than the WHO’s safety limit.

While developed nations have access to more efficient cooking appliances, a recent study from the University of Colorado found the simple act of making toast could make a person’s home more polluted as the heating elements can burn the crumbs at the bottom of the toaster and release toxic particles into the air.

TIP: When cooking, always open doors or windows and, if possible, use an extractor fan. 

Innocent winter warmers strengthen the enemy

Similar to cooking with firewood, heating our homes with open fires also impacts our indoor air quality. 

The popular ‘hygge’ trend from Denmark, which has been translated around the world as snuggling up in front of an open fire, could be reducing air quality indoors. Log-burning fires can contribute to high levels of indoor air pollution, made worse during winter when people are less likely to open windows.

Burning scented candles can also contribute to higher levels of indoor air pollution, as they emit particles and other pollutants, such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can aggravate symptoms of allergic rhinitis.9 Allergy sufferers should also avoid burning incense sticks as they emit more than 100 times the number of fine particles as a candle10 – which can further exacerbate symptoms. 

TIP: If you suffer from allergies, try introducing certain houseplants into your home or office including a Spathiphyllum (Peace Lilly) or a Chrysanthemum sapling.

Dirty cleaning

Ironically, one of the biggest challenges for indoor air is the very cleaning products we use in our everyday housework, as they also contain VOCs.10 People suffering from allergies should specifically avoid cleaning sprays, which can be breathed in more easily, aggravating the symptoms. 

Scented cleaning products also contribute to indoor air pollution. Products that are lemon or pine scented contain fragranced chemicals limonene and alpha-Pinene, which are not known to be harmful on their own but when released into the air, can form new chemicals including formaldehyde, a form of VOC.10

TIP: Always open windows when cleaning.

Reducing indoor pollution is especially important for allergy sufferers as their symptoms can significantly impact their wellbeing. 

According to Professor Ignacio J. Ansotegui, President of the World Allergy Organization (WAO), “Many dismiss allergic rhinitis as trivial, yet its symptoms do have a major impact on those who suffer, affecting their psychological and physical wellbeing. Symptoms such as a blocked or runny nose and itchy eyes can prevent a person from performing at their best – impacting their ability to work, and the many roles they play in their personal lives.”  

The Centre for Workforce Health and Performance in 2017 found, in the US, allergies resulted in the highest lost productivity cost ($44.9b), in comparison to heartburn ($30b) and chronic pain ($20b).11 Adults with allergic rhinitis are also more likely to have sleep issues, resulting in fatigue and decreased cognitive functioning.3

So, now that you know what contributes to indoor air pollution, how polluted do you think your home is?

As part of World Allergy Week, we have developed the “Air Pollution: The Invisible Enemy of Allergy Quiz” to test your air pollution knowledge and assess your potential risk of indoor air pollution. Take the quiz today.

To learn more about allergic rhinitis, talk to a healthcare practitioner.