Poor air quality in Australia’s homes, offices, factories and buildings may be costing the nation as much as $12 billion a year due to ill-health and lost production, a senior scientist has warned.
Despite our healthy, outdoors self-image, Australians in fact spend 90 per cent of their time indoors, 7 per cent in cars and only 3 per cent outdoors, says Mr Steve Brown of CSIRO Building Construction and Engineering.
“Up to now, most of the national effort and billions of dollars have been spent on improving outdoor air quality – but these figures show there is a clear need for Australia to improve indoor air quality as well,” he says.
In a typical office or home, Australians could be constantly breathing in a potent cocktail of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted by building materials, paint, carpets, furnishings, office equipment and consumer products, as well as gaseous and particulate pollutants from indoor source, Mr Brown says.
“The type and concentration of these pollutants varies according to the age of the building, the materials used in its construction and the type of equipment working there. Two common pollutants are formaldehyde, emitted by certain particle boards and plywoods, and nitrogen dioxide, emitted from unflued heaters.
“Another is dust mite allergen, that accumulates in carpets, furniture and bedding.”
“These pollutants commonly occur at much higher levels indoors than they do outside, so people are far more heavily exposed for much more of their time.”
Symptoms of indoor air pollution include sore throats and eye irritation, nausea, headaches and a feeling of general discomfort. Illnesses attributed by medical science to the high levels of polluted air range from asthma to lung cancer.
In the UK ill-health and lost productivity due to poor indoor air is estimated to cost the economy $30 million a year, while in the US the cost is $170 billion.
“In Australia, we estimate that the same set of problems is costing us around $12 billion each year. Furthermore, we believe they can largely be prevented.”
Mr Brown highlights two cases of indoor air pollution. The first was a two-storey office building, of which the downstairs was being repainted. The upstairs floor was still occupied but had a separate ventilation system. However half the staff began to report nausea and headaches during work and for some hours afterwards.
“When CSIRO took air samples and analysed them, we found the upstairs air to contain 10,000 micrograms per cubic metre of VOCs. No wonder the people got sick – that’s 200 times the national indoor air quality goal.”
The second case was a portable classroom which had been renovated with new paint and carpet. For three years afterwards both teachers and students reported headaches, nausea, sore throats and increased use of asthma medication in the classroom.
“Even after three years the total VOC level (mainly solvent residues from interior paint) was 550 micrograms per cubic metre, which exceeds the indoor air quality goal of 500. CSIRO understands this particular classroom is no longer being used.”
Mr Brown said that a common response to indoor air quality problems was to open the windows or crank up the air conditioning. While these might reduce air pollution, they also created other problems – such as security risks, increased noise pollution or higher power consumption to add to the nation’s $6 billion cooling and heating bill.
“CSIRO’s view is that it is possible to eliminate most or all of these pollutants at source, and we are already working with the building, paint and materials industries to do just that.
“To have healthy buildings, you have to design for them, and that means right down to the individual materials used in construction, decoration and furnishing.”
CSIRO has developed a national facility of dynamic environmental chambers, capable to detecting chemicals in concentrations as low as one microgram per cubic metre of air. This is developing the basis for clear national indoor air standards and the testing of new, healthier products and processes for Australian industry.
More information from:
Dr Steve Brown, CSIRO 03 9252 6027
Mr Rob Nixon, CSIRO 03 9252 6385
Mobile 0419 314 968