Every so often — winter, Diwali — there’s talk of how smog and air pollution are hurting your lungs. But there’s a hidden danger to your health hiding in your home: indoor air pollution.
Within the glass confines of our office buildings and in poorly ventilated homes, you could be breathing in kitchen fumes, pest dander, even chemical traces from cleaning products.
“In a lot of homes, particularly in an urban jungle like Mumbai, the problem is worsened by lack of direct sunlight,” says architect Aravind Unni.
Call centre executive Rupali Gopal*, 25, for instance, has suffered repeated bouts of breathlessness, coughing and sniffling over the past six months.
“I never used to fall ill so frequently,” she says. Gopal and her colleagues eventually realised that their centrally air-conditioned workspace was to blame.
“There is hardly any ventilation and no openable windows,” says Nilesh Yevale*, 29. “As a result, we get no fresh air — and if one person falls ill, the virus keeps circulating.”
As the cost of commercial space skyrockets in Mumbai, companies tend to accommodate as many people as possible in a given area, says Pankaj Kapoor, director of realty consultancy Liases Foras. “Over the past 10 years, the average space per employee in Mumbai has dropped from 100 sq ft to between 40 and 65 sq ft,” Kapoor adds.
With few business districts in the city, many office buildings have been constructed in residential areas. “This brings large air-conditioning plants into the midsts of homes, and this is neither good for the local residents’ health nor is it sustainable ecologically,” says architect Unni.
Solutions must begin at the design and planning stages, at the macro and micro levels.
“Green building principles like keeping in mind direction of wind and sunlight to allow for natural lighting and ventilation are good starting points,” says Unni.
IN BLACK AND WHITE
“In Mumbai the value of land overrides everything, even the well-being of its population,” says Unni. It’s important that laws prescribing minimum amount of sunlight, fresh air, good ventilation are made part of the National Building Code (NBC) of India and enforced, he adds.
Even in the bylaws of the NBC there is no mention of climatic condition and building materials that are conducive to the environment and people’s health, says Prathima Manohar, an architect and an urban planner. “For instance, bamboo and grass curtains could work wonders in cooling spaces naturally.”
It would also help to create more commercial zones in the city. “Mixing residential and commercial use is not a good idea because both have different requirements and needs that impact on one another,” says Unni. “For instance, residential buildings generate more wet waste and this could spread infections in office buildings with a high density of people. Office spaces, meanwhile, typically accommodate less greenery and generate more heat.”
There are some things you can do to reduce your exposure to indoor pollution. One simple and effective measure is house plants. “They can work wonders in improving air quality,” says Manohar. Research done by environmental researcher Kamal Meattle in 2008 showed that the areca palm, mother-in-law’s tongue and money plant released the most oxygen, absorb the most carbon dioxide and reduce pollution in the air dramatically. If planted in the right amount, they could even improve air quality in a workspace. For instance, he says, you need six to eight waist-high mother-in-law’s tongue plants per person. He adds that plants like these could take care of problems such as eye irritation, headaches, lung impairments and other common respiratory diseases.
Another way to keep rodents, cockroaches and pigeons at bay is to build smart furniture.
“Furniture is no longer a prop to fill in an already cluttered space. It’s an important focus area in health and employee satisfaction,” says Umesh Rao, founder and CEO of Vector Projects, a turnkey solution provider for commercial and residential real-estate projects. “In India, we do not change our furniture even when it is beyond repair. The older the furniture the more chances are of it being attacked by pests and insects. This could worsen indoor pollution and spread infections.”
Finally, people must stop depending on the airconditioner to freshen their living spaces. “Keeping the windows open at least for an hour a day, ideally in the morning, when outdoor air pollution is low, could be one way to release indoor pollution and make your home healthier,” says Manohar.