Should I Open the Window ?

Guest post by Gareth Hooper – Environmental Scientist.

If I open the window, do I improve the air in my home ?

For most of us, our modern lifestyles mean indoor air is something we breathe far more of than outdoor air. But if you search for ‘air quality’ on the internet, you’ll have to scroll quite far down to find any information on the air quality indoors.

For those of use living in cooler climes, double glazing helps keep us warm, and along with keeping out draughts, lowers our heating bills. If we were to open all our windows we’d be colder, poorer and might perilously be encouraging climate change !

Additionally many of us live in homes close to busy areas, roads, aircraft flight paths or industry and keeping our windows closed keeps out noise and air pollution.

But we are also locking-in our own indoor air pollution !

Which is worse ?

This is a familiar dilemma – take red wine, which has been linked both with giving us longer lifespans . . . and shorter ones. Or jogging, which makes us fitter, but makes our joints sore. Everything in moderation…..until we tell you otherwise ?

So how about leaving the bedroom window slightly ajar. Does it do more harm than good ?

Hopefully you’ve not been holding your breath waiting for me to get to the answer – because it’s not that simple.

Outdoor air pollution has many sources, but one is dominant.

In the UK we don’t have ‘pea-souper’ smogs of the 1940’s and 1950’s anymore, when we all burned coke and coal (and almost anything else for that matter) in our fireplaces, but in it’s place came traffic pollution from our cars. Like any new technology, air pollution particles have become smaller, and we can’t often see air pollution these days. Of course, a bus or a lorry kicks out a plume of pollution when it pulls noisily away from traffic lights, but our bodys are pretty good at keeping those large, visible particles out. It’s the pollution we can’t see that is more harmful to us.

This particularly applies inside our cars !

A report by International Center for Technology Assessment  in the USA says:

‘… the air inside of cars typically contains more carbon monoxide, benzene, toluene, fine particulate matter, and nitrogen oxides than ambient air at nearby monitoring stations used to calculate government air-quality statistics. In-car pollution is often even worse than pollution in the air at the side of the road.’

Even the much sought after ‘new car smell’ is a collection of chemicals that we don’t particularly need !

The good news is that in much of the developed world, the levels of these pollutants are slowly diminishing, as engine and fuel technology improve, and legal emissions standards increase, but walking to your destination would be better for both your and everyone else’s air quality.

Whenever we do travel by car, we could try opening  the windows when we can and draw some of that outside air in – improving the air inside. Probably best to also avoid air fresheners, and to vacuum the seats every now and then – not to mention the occasional spot of dusting.

Outdoor air quality is the responsibility of the authorities, but indoor air quality within our own home, is largely down to us.

There are a number of straightforward things we can all do to improve the quality of the air within our homes:

• Remove asthma triggers such as mould and dust, in which mites can live

• Keep all areas clean and dry. Clean-up any mould and get rid of excess water or moisture

• Be sure to ventilate bathrooms and kitchens well, as these rooms give rise to the most warm, damp air

• Don’t let people smoke indoors

• Try to select lower odour or volatile cleaning products and paints

• Always ventilate when using products that can release pollutants into the air

• Tightly close the lids of stored products (such as paint, cleaning products etc)

• Inspect fuel-burning appliances regularly for leaks, and make repairs when necessary

• Have a number of indoor plants, which may help improve indoor air quality

• Consider installing a carbon monoxide alarm

So there’s no easy answer to the original question – it depends on the degree of pollution in the air outside, compared to the air inside your home – but it’s probably true that for most of us opening a window will probably be of benefit.

We’re responsible for the quality of the air in our own homes, and should probably give it more attention.

We might also want to contact our authorities responsible for the quality of the air outside, including our local Councils, to discuss it with them, and encourage them to do all they can.

Photo by Bio Friendly via Flickr