People living at energy-efficient homes at higher risk of lung cancer, asthma due to indoor air pollution

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Energy efficient house
Ben Cormack stands in the doorway of his home on the Isle of Eigg, Inner Hebrides, Scotland May 27, 2014. Reuters/Paul Hackett

The trend towards energy-efficient houses has been found to cause a range of undesirable health problems such as lung cancer and cardiovascular diseases due to lack of proper ventilation. A new study warns that indoor air quality turns more polluted as the houses become more energy-efficient.

Poor indoor air quality traps air pollutants that were also found associated to worsen allergies and asthma symptoms, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and airborne respiratory infections. The pollutants were produced from substances used in cooking, cleaning and aerosols like hairsprays.

People who renovated leak-proof homes to meet the carbon reduction targets could unknowingly aid the pollutants to stay indoors and damage people’s health, said Professor Hazim Awbi, researcher of the study. The study was funded by Beama, which represents firms that install ventilation systems and UK’s electro-technical industry.

Many people spend 70 to 80 percent of their time at home or as much as 90 percent for those with home-based jobs. Awbi explains that an individual takes an average of 500 litres of air an hour, and considering the air is polluted, “you can imagine how much of this pollution is going to be absorbed.”

The Guardian reported that those who spend most of their time indoors, particularly young mothers, children and older people, including those with long-term health conditions, are more likely at higher risk. The increasing airtightness for UK dwellings, for example, may increase the number of cases of health symptoms associated to poorer indoor environment quality, Awbi added.

The study indicates that Britain’s goal to achieve an 80 percent cut in carbon emissions in 2050 will come together with the negative effect of developing energy-efficient homes, increasing the current number of 5.4 million people suffering from asthma to 80 percent.

Peter Howarth, a professor of allergy and respiratory diseases at Southampton University in England, said that asthma and other allergic conditions could worsen because of the poor ventilation that causes the humidity, helping mould and house dust mites to spread indoors.He added that the formaldehyde emitted by wooden furniture can also contribute to the health risks.

The World Health Organisation has already identified indoor air quality as a health hazard, which the study also indicates that concentrations of chemicals from aerosols would increase 60 percent above the 24-hour limits of the WHO, while nitrogen dioxide levels would rise 30 percent over its limits.

Howarth described Awbi’s estimates as a realistic assessment of the danger of poor indoor air quality to human health if building regulations will not respond to indoor air quality problem to improve ventilation and ensure “air exchange.” Awbi noted that to let in fresh air by simply opening windows is not enough, and it suggests that certain form of mechanical ventilation is needed.

Dr Sotiris Vardoulakis, Public Health England’s head of environmental change, said that as energy-efficient houses are helping to address climate change, it is important to consider proper ventilation levels are maintained and indoor air pollution sources are reduced to protect public health.

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