Inside Story

Reading Time: 4 minutesThese days it’s pretty easy to tell when pollution outside is bad. Just look out the window.

What many of us don’t realise is that air quality inside is up to 70 per cent more polluted than those balled up yellow clouds we see clogging our skies – and that those clouds have a significant impact on the air we are breathing inside.

“Outdoor air quality ultimately determines indoor air quality. If the outdoor air is bad, indoor air won’t be much better in the long run since indoor environments draw air from the outside,” says Christine Loh, the founder of Hong Kong policy think tank Civic Exchange.

Urban dwellers spend between 70 and 90 per cent of their time indoors. That means, for most of us, our total exposure to pollution will come from air breathed in our homes, schools and other indoor locations, such as after-school activity centres. Now, leading experts and parents are hoping to raise awareness of the potential pollutants in our homes, and are targeting schools to take action.

Prime indoor polluters

Cosmetics we apply, pets we keep, electronics we use and how we decorate and clean our homes and schools can all contribute to a build-up of bad indoor air, releasing fungi, mould, fibres and particles called volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. Smoke from tobacco, incense, candles and cooking also releases irritants.

Itchy eyes, nose and throat, runny nose, chest tightness and poor concentration are just a few of the conditions listed by the Hong Kong Indoor Air Quality Management Group that make up Sick Building Syndrome (SBS). Said to be more evident in air-conditioned rooms than ones that are naturally ventilated, SBS symptoms are likely to dramatically reduce or disappear when a person leaves an infected room or building. Beyond SBS, illnesses associated with poor air include respiratory, lung and cardiovascular diseases.

Children are particularly sensitive to conditions associated with poor indoor air quality (IAQ). In May 2010, the China Centre for Disease Control and Prevention released a study stating that annually more than two million Chinese deaths were related to health problems caused by indoor air pollution. Of these, nearly half were in children under five.

Inside out

Government and health bodies usually recommend alleviating bad air build-up by opening a window, allowing “fresh air” to circulate. But in October, children’s doctor Aaron Yu told Bloomberg News that a noticeably higher amount of children attend the Caritas Medical Centre in Kowloon, where the consultant is based, with respiratory problems, asthma, bronchitis or chest infections when pollution is high. Throwing open a window to invite in toxic pollution seems a confusing paradox.

“Filthy air outdoors means filthy air indoors,” says Professor Anthony Hedley, the former chair professor of community medicine at the University of Hong Kong. Professor Hedley pioneered the Hedley Environmental Index, a website that tracks the territory’s pollution levels, but left Hong Kong last year for the Isle of Man – a location with almost no pollution. He says outside pollution enters our living and working spaces through infiltration and ventilation systems. These systems “bring bad quality air indoors,” he says. Once inside, air conditioners merely regurgitate polluted air.

Cleaning air at home

There are some simple steps to combat bad air, says Professor Hedley. Choosing furniture carrying an ISO 14000 qualification and using paint carrying a Green Seal label is beneficial, he says. Even growing plants such as bamboo palm can help clear the air. Yet one of the most obvious choices – employing an air purifying system – can have adverse effects.

Mother-of-two, Ilse Massenbauer-Strafe, is a long-term Hong Kong expatriate originally from Austria. Shocked at statistics surrounding pollution here, Ilse set about researching air purifiers to install at home. The information she found was alarming.

The hepa and electrostatic filters commonly found on the market filter just two out of the nine World Health Organization-listed pollutants, and are unable to tackle tiny UFPs, or ultra-fine particles, pollutant gases and viruses found in the air. Ionisers and others systems using UV rays can actually introduce emissions, including carbon dioxide, radon and ozone. “When consumers purchase air filters, they don’t realise they are not getting a complete clean-air solution that meets WHO standards,” says Ilse.

She formed a company selling a product that does meet them. Ilse discovered a German technology being used to clean air in hospitals, and used it to create a range of filters that can be used at home, at work and in schools. In an independent comparison test conducted by the Hong Kong Government’s Electrical and Mechanical Services Department, Ilse’s Oxyvital systems were found three to six times more effective than others in reducing airborne bacteria, mould and viruses. Ilse, along with other clean air supporters, wants the government to enforce legislation that meets WHO standards, not merely recommend it.

Making the grade: IAQ in school

Government results show that cleaner air in the workplace results in less employee absenteeism and improved performance. With today’s pressure on students to succeed academically, clean air could aid results as well as ensure well-being. The government offers benchmarks for clean air standards, but schools have been slow to act.

“They don’t do anything unless there is a complaint,” says Kong-Sang Tso, the director of the Indoor Air Quality Association’s Hong Kong chapter. Despite recent viral outbreaks and pandemics, how schools deal with their environments is less than encouraging. “They don’t want to clean up properly,” says Kong-Sang. “Chlorine and bleach they use is bad for you; it’s banned by the Environmental Protection Agency in the US.”

For parents wishing to take action, the director offers simple, straightforward advice. “If you want to find out how good the air is, ask the principal if they’ve done any IAQ assessments, what precautions are in place, and what maintenance procedures they use. Are they using bleach, or an EPA-approved cleaning agent? Ask them, and see what they say.”

Elle Kwan
Elle grew up in England in a little suburb outside London, dreaming about bright lights and the big city. She wasn’t aware then just how many cities she would get to experience. When she thought she might spend a life playing others, as opposed to writing about them, a drama degree took her north to Manchester. Playing second fiddle to the acting career was waitressing, which she performed in cities across America. After picking up a lovely husband in Taipei and then moving with him to London, Elle had decided writing about people was even better than speaking their lines (and actually let her pay the rent). Since moving to Hong Kong nearly seven years ago, Elle has interviewed top politicians and pop stars, Michelin-starred chefs and mums, and found that each has their own inspiring story. Her best role has been becoming Mum to Reia and Rafferty. Follow Elle @ellekwan

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