The Challenge of Indoor Air Pollution

The smog over Los Angeles, the grey, chemical haze in Beijing and brown over Mexico City are the world’s collective images of air pollution. And while no doubt such pollution is dangerous, the images miss a key point -- some of the most dangerous air pollution is found indoors rather than outdoors. Because of imagery, our allocation of effort and resources addresses one side of a problem but not another.

The data on America’s indoor air pollution seems stalled in the 1980s. Articles on the topic frequently mention that Americans spend 90 percent of their lives indoors, though few writers note that this research dates to 1989. Likewise, the research claiming that indoor concentrations of air pollutants are typically two to five times higher than outdoor concentrations dates to 1987.

Internationally, we see a similar cocktail of recognition and indifference. “The Global Burden of Disease Study 2010,” published in The Lancet, reveals that outdoor air pollution kills 3.2 million people per year prematurely while indoor air pollution kills 3.5 million—that’s more than AIDS and malaria combined. However, we don’t see pollution-stricken nations asking for air purifiers.

According to the World Health Organization’s “The top 10 causes of death” fact sheet, heart disease, stroke, lower respiratory infections and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are the top four causes of death. Hundreds of peer reviewed medical papers (many summarized in this 2013 WHO/Europe report) have found that all four diseases are strongly associated with polluted air.

We would think that numerous innovations would come along to address such a widespread problem. That after all is the pattern we usually see with diseases and dangers, but few have -- why?

The reasons we innovate solutions to certain problems over others is not logical and linear. It’s emotional and complex.

Modern environmentalism, for instance, is often traced to “Silent Spring,” the landmark book by Rachel Carson that illuminated the dangers of pesticides. Similarly, Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” will likely be remembered as a milestone in the raising awareness about global warming. Both transformed distant political issues into an emotional and ethical burden for the reader or viewer.

And while we might identify indoor air pollution to be just as widespread and dangerous as pesticides or global warming, we’ve yet to feel the emotional and ethical burden of polluting our homes. The imagery and the sense of a collective problem are currently missing.

Outdoor air pollution is highly visible and has prompted stringent regulation in many cities and countries. We started this article by pointing out how powerful the images of Los Angeles, Beijing and Mexico City are. Rachel Carson brought to life the death caused by pesticides. Al Gore brought to life the retreat of glaciers, rising water levels and crop failure.

Indoor air pollution, however, is currently invisible and individual. We do not yet think of pure air as a human right the way we think of clean water and food as basic rights.

Moreover, we think of the home as each family’s responsibility—not the community, not the state and not the federal government’s responsibility. If someone is releasing pollutants in their own home, it is their fault. The household cleaners, paints, glues, molds, bacteria, smoke and gases that enter the home are their choice.

We find a similar debate with food: people are responsible for what they buy at the grocery store and what they eat. However, here’s the difference: government entities try to educate people about good eating habits, and using small nudges, direct the public towards better choices.

While research on indoor air pollution is common, you will not find it "pushed’ upon people or taught in any significant way. It does not matter that the prevalence of pediatric asthma has more than doubled over the past 20 years, and is now the leading cause of hospitalizations and school absenteeism.

The hardest health threats to address are those not immediately visible and painful to people, in the same way that the hardest environmental challenges to address are ones that most people don’t feel (i.e. protecting endangered species). Indoor air pollution is unique in that it is both a health and environmental problem, though due to a lack of imagery, emotion and ethical investment, it struggles to stoke concern.

Today, given the personal responsibility we attach to the home, innovation in treating indoor air pollution is driven by consumer air purifiers rather than movements and governments. Innovations that bring clean air fall in the private sector.

And that is the challenge of image and innovation: it differentiates how problems are recognized and characterized, and who steps up to address them.

Herman Pihltrad is the President of Blueair, USA.

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