We challenged ourselves this month to improve air quality as part of our New Year’s Resolutions. Although we had hoped it would coincide with Clean Air Day (now postponed until 8 October), we nonetheless have been busy making practical changes to prevent, mitigate and avoid air pollution in our local area – with some colleagues having more success than others.
Outdoor air pollution
Since lockdown, the weather in this part of the world has been unseasonably sunny and warm – perfect days for a barbecue. My household talked about getting an outdoor grill for years but with many of my housemates working fly-in fly-out jobs and oftentimes spending the summers abroad, the decision to invest in a BBQ was put off – until travel restrictions came into force earlier this year. A small, low-to-the-ground fire pit was built out of bricks found in our yard, and the kitchen oven racks now make an appearance outside whenever my household gets the urge to do some caveman cooking.
I must admit, there’s something nice about an open fire (especially if s’mores are on the cards!). But I also appreciate the pollution it creates, how it can exacerbate existing heart or lung conditions and am especially conscious of this whilst we’re still in the thick of the Covid-19 pandemic where links between high-pollution areas and increased death rates have been established. My household has used the fire pit a few times so far but we have tried to limit the amount of pollution emitted by:
- Burning only dry material
- Enabling enough oxygen to mix for a cleaner burn (the first time, the propellers of a model plane were used to fan the flames!)
- Cleaning the grill and fire pit before each BBQ
- Using newspapers and matches to start the fire instead of lighter fluid or fire-starters (our technique still needs perfecting, however)
Using ‘cleaner’ fuels, whether that’s gas, FSC-certified lumpwood charcoal or perhaps electricity (if your energy comes from renewable sources), can also help reduce the impact on air quality. Whatever you decide, be sure keep a watchful eye on the fire and try to keep the smoke to a minimum.
The lockdown has also prompted many of my neighbours to spruce up their homes and yards. With more time for landscaping and fixing fences, waste from their projects amassed (especially with local Household Waste Recycling Centres being closed) until it ended up on the late-night bonfire. And it’s not just my neighbours. Our advisers often receive calls from people thinking they’ve reached Environmental Health (note: we are not; we are the Environment Centre). Anecdotally, a number of these calls recently have been to report nuisance smoke billowing into vulnerable residents’ properties from neighbours’ bonfires.
To illustrate how travel choices affect how much air pollution we breathe, last year I carried a Plume Labs Flow monitor around with me that tracked and recorded air quality measures, including particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide and volatile organic compounds. I happened to be testing it on Bonfire Night (5 November) and the readings were through the roof, even once inside behind closed windows.
Whilst there are no laws about having a bonfire per se, local authorities can take action if these become a statutory nuisance. Councils can also designate “Smoke Control Areas” where smoke emissions are highly regulated. Find out if your property is within Southampton’s smoke control zone.
If you choose to burn, be mindful of your neighbours, especially those who may be shielding in their homes, with limited access to fresh air. And before reporting a neighbour to Environmental Health, please consider speaking to them first.
Indoor air pollution
Many of us have been spending an exceptional amount of time at home recently, so it made sense to investigate our indoor air quality and find solutions for a better indoor environment.
One colleague took the lockdown opportunity to redecorate her home. She was keen to change the colours of her walls but wanted to ensure her indoor air quality wasn’t marred in the process. Paints often contain Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), which can be both dangerous to human health and the environment. Our colleague instead opted for low-VOC paints and kept the windows open to ventilate the area well.
Another colleague got busy propagating houseplants in her free time. Plants offer not just a boost to mental health, they also filter the air and absorb carbon dioxide. The baby houseplants have been growing well thanks to a lot of TLC from our colleague. When adding plants to your home, be sure to look after them well, including keeping leaves free from dust and keeping an eye on any resulting mould.
The place I live has been full of activity since lockdown, with housemates unable to travel far for work. That has also meant more home cooking, more showers and more general indoor humidity. (Did you know a family of four can expel 30-40L of moisture a week just from breathing?!) Mould in the kitchen and bathroom has been an ongoing battle since I moved in but there are a number of actions we’ve taken to try to reduce the relative humidity in our home and hence reduce the condensation and mould, like:
- Keeping the bathroom and kitchen windows open whilst washing
- Using the bathroom extractor fan (although we haven’t found it to be very effective)
- Investing in a dehumidifier for the bathroom. We turn this on when we hop into the shower and turn it off only after the mirror has fully cleared up (that’s our benchmark)
- Drying laundry outdoors
- Taking a cupboard door off its hinges to increase ventilation to a dust mite-prone area
When mould does inevitably appear, we’re quick to wipe it away and, if necessary, replace seals that have become too difficult to treat.
CO and Gas Safety
The summer is an opportune time to think about servicing gas boilers. Carbon monoxide from faulty gas appliances and burning solid fuel can be deadly (there’s a reason this gas is nicknamed “the silent killer”!). These appliances should be checked every year by a Gas Safe engineer and, for extra peace of mind, consider getting a carbon monoxide alarm if you don’t already have one.
Our colleague shares even more tips on improving indoor air quality here:
So grab a duster, some natural cleaning spray and surround yourself with plants (maybe not quite like this guy) to breathe cleaner air.