U.K. doctors predict new indoor air pollutants

Monday, February 29, 2016

Burgeoning technologies may also come with unforeseen environmental contaminants and health impacts warns a new study from the United Kingdom’s Royal College of Physicians. In examining indoor air pollutants and exposure risks, the wide-ranging report co-sponsored by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health points to advanced materials and three-dimensional printing as two recent arrivals that bear watching.

“The construction, occupancy and exposure profiles of newer workplaces will lead to the potential for novel inhaled hazards and risks, and vigilance will be required in order to identify the occupational lung problems attributed to the workplaces of tomorrow,” advise the authors of Every breath we take: the lifelong impact of air pollution.

Much of the report focuses on pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulphur dioxide (SO2), ozone (O3), black carbon and particulate matter that have been emitted to the outdoor environment, but it also lists a lengthy inventory of indoor contaminants related to combustion of fossil fuels, the chemical and/or mineral composition of products and furnishings, bacteria and viruses, and even the soil and bedrock at the building foundation. While the volume of pollutants is typically greater outdoors, indoor environments are a much more compressed space for all this virulence.

“The indoor environment is one situation where the issue of simultaneous exposure to multiple substances is of high relevance,” the report maintains. “This is one reason why radon, which is important in itself, is increasingly recognized as a very significant indoor air pollutant. Also, pollutant gases found indoors, such as NO2 and formaldehyde, can markedly increase the effects of exposure to allergies such as house-dust mites by acting as adjuvants in enhancing allergic sensitization.”

The multiplicity of contaminants can make it more problematic to determine the precise source of an exposure-triggered illness and more difficult for epidemiologists to quantify cases. However, the report estimates indoor air pollutants “cause, at a minimum, several thousands of deaths per year in the U.K., and associated with healthcare costs in the order of tens of millions of pounds.”

The report calls for “a more systematic approach to the quantification of the effects of indoor air pollution”. It notes, for example, that researchers have made progress in examining the contributing factor of volatile organic compounds, ozone and particulate matter to various “non-specific upper airway, eye and nasal symptoms” occurring among measurable numbers of specific building occupancies. This, in turn, has helped to inform preventative strategies.

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