Press play to listen to this article
As you read this article, you’re likely doing something that could (slowly) kill you: breathing indoor air.
Scientists have long warned that the air in homes, offices and public spaces — where people spend an estimated 90 percent of their time — can be more heavily polluted than the busiest city roads. But campaigners felt not enough was being done to tackle the problem — that’s changing thanks to the coronavirus.
“The issue of indoor air quality has indeed received greater attention in the pandemic context also at EU level,” a Commission official said.
Because COVID-19 is an airborne disease that spreads more easily in poorly ventilated rooms, people are increasingly conscious of indoor air quality, said Corinne Mandin, president of the International Society of Indoor Air Quality and Climate, an NGO.
There’s a “real change in the perception of citizens, but also policymakers and industries and economic actors,” she said.
Monitoring air quality has become a key tool in preventing the spread of the virus, and many health authorities now recommend using high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters that can remove nearly all airborne particles, including dust, pollen, mold, bacteria, as well as viruses.
Campaigners hope the focus on keeping people safe from COVID will bump the wider issue of indoor air quality up the policy agenda in Brussels.
“EU legislation covering indoor air quality is fragmented and we lack a comprehensive, integrated approach,” said Javi López, a Spanish MEP with the Socialists & Democrats who is pushing for greater attention to indoor air pollution in an upcoming revision of EU air quality rules expected in the fall.
To be effective, Brussels needs to “effectively mainstream the issue in other EU policies,” including its green agenda, he added.
Hiding in plain sight
Modern life — even pre-pandemic — involves a lot of time spent indoors. But indoor air can up to five times as polluted as the air outside, scientists say.
Most indoor pollution comes from toxic substances emitted by building materials (asbestos, for example) and consumer products, or from human activity like cooking, cleaning, smoking, burning candles or using printers and photocopying machines. Polluted outdoor air also tends to seep inside.
Radon, a naturally occurring radioactive gas linked to lung cancer, is among the main culprits poisoning indoor air, along with “tobacco smoke, gases or particles from burning fuels, chemicals, and allergens,” according to the European Environment Agency.
Cooking with gas is effectively “a combustion source at home,” said Nicola Carslaw, a professor studying indoor air chemistry at the University of York, as it emits particulate matter and nitrogen oxides — pollutants spewed from car tailpipes that have been linked to respiratory diseases.
According to a study conducted by U.K. heating, cooling and ventilation company Zehnder, frying an omelet raises levels of particulate matter to over three times that of a typical London road.
Household pollution — which causes some 3.8 million premature deaths worldwide a year, according to the World Health Organization — disproportionately affects lower-income groups. Studies cite poor quality housing, indoor smoking, locations near high-traffic roads and higher occupant density as the main culprits for the bad air in poorer households.
In the EU, it’s deadliest in Eastern European countries where many people still use solid fuels for cooking and heating their homes.
“I think it is … important that we link the debate on indoor air pollution to inequalities,” said López, noting that lower-income groups are at higher risk because they tend to rely on “low-quality solid fuels” and don’t have access to pricier clean technologies.
Legislating clean air
Campaigners say Brussels is waking up to the issue.
The Commission last year launched a call for research projects focused on improving indoor air quality, acknowledging that the issue “has become even more prominent” due to the pandemic.
The EU executive is also slated to assess policy options to improve indoor air quality “and propose legislative measures as relevant” in 2023 as part of its Zero Pollution Action Plan, which aims to reduce premature deaths caused by air pollution by 55 percent by the end of the decade compared to 2005.
Speaking at an Environment Council meeting in December, Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius said curbing pollution related to home heating systems would be key to hitting its overall pollution reduction targets.
Advocates also want Brussels to tackle the issue as part of its revision of EU air quality rules, expected in the fall. Heal, an NGO, said the EU needs “an integrated framework … for clean air both indoors and outdoors.”
NGOs have also called for better monitoring of the air quality in public buildings and for a harmonized labeling system indicating whether building materials and furniture emit volatile organic compounds.
The issue is set to become increasingly urgent as the bloc prepares to roll out new plans to green its building stock, including a revamp of rules on buildings’ energy performance, which mentions indoor air quality, and the massive Renovation Wave Strategy aiming to ensure “high health and environmental standards.”
Without strong requirements to clean up indoor air, energy efficiency legislation risks making staying inside more dangerous, warned Carslaw. Better insulation and double-glazing windows will make buildings more airtight, meaning people will be “sealing [themselves] in those buildings” with indoor pollutants.
That also means people locking themselves in with the coronavirus.
“People are very aware that they’re breathing in what other people are breathing out,” Carslaw said. “And that’s been really good for thinking about building ventilation and building design.”
Want more analysis from POLITICO? POLITICO Pro is our premium intelligence service for professionals. From financial services to trade, technology, cybersecurity and more, Pro delivers real time intelligence, deep insight and breaking scoops you need to keep one step ahead. Email [email protected] to request a complimentary trial.