Reducing the pollution that exists within our workplaces and homes

A recently released study on pollution by the European Commission’s Joint Research Center has led to considerable concern. Pollution inside buildings can in some cases be twice as high as that in the atmosphere outside, claim JRC scientists following experiments at the Indoortron laboratory in Ispra, Italy, and measurements in European cities. Hundreds of pollutants detected were produced by products we use every day at home and at work. Given that we spend 85 percent of our time indoors, the effects can be considerable. Kathimerini went to Ispra to visit Indoortron and talked to the Greek director of the Physical and Chemical Exposure Department, Dr Dimitris Kotzias. «All this confirms how important it is to be careful with the materials and products we use – particularly in public buildings, schools and kindergartens,» warns Kotzias, who has worked at the JRC since 1986, among leading scientists from all over Europe. What exactly does the Physical and Chemical Exposure Department do? Among other things, we monitor pollution within buildings. At Indoortron, the special laboratory in Ispra, we simulate conditions prevailing, for example, in a home or office. We do this with the help of machines and the latest equipment for analyzing pollutants. Inside a special room we measure the types of pollutants and the extent to which each of the objects and materials in the room emit them. We are interested in seeing to what extent this pollution affects people. We have found that in most cases, indoor pollution, particularly from pollutants such as aromatic compounds, such as ketones and aldehydes, is greater than outdoor pollution. What is even more interesting is the fact that the concentrations to which a single person is exposed are greater than the concentrations found indoors and outdoors. That is why we believe that there are sources of pollution that we still do not know about. What is the greatest source of indoor pollution? Is it cigarette smoke? We put a great emphasis on cigarette smoke because we have found that even with increased ventilation, its effects are not reduced. The main thing is to find out what is emitted by the various substances found in objects in the indoor environment, such as furniture, cleaning products, parquet floors, paints. All these contain chemical substances that are attracted into the atmosphere and of course accumulate in the atmosphere because they are not able to disperse. They make a dangerous combination, I suppose. That is where things get more complicated, for while we have been estimating exposure to a single substance, now things are made more difficult because we have to estimate exposure to more substances and we do not know exactly how these react when we inhale them together. Is this the «sick building syndrome»? Indoor pollution, as I have described it, leads to the «sick building syndrome,» particularly when it is combined with other factors, such as insufficient ventilation, or biological pollutants like bacteria, viruses and so on. Can we replace materials, such as paints, with organic materials? Yes, non-chemical substitutes are always a good idea. For example there are water-based paints, where what evaporates is not an organic solvent whose toxic qualities we are not aware of, but water. There are ways in which we can control things. One way is for the European Commission to set limits on emissions of substances from products we use every day. How does indoor pollution affect us? It can create and magnify health problems such as asthma, allergies and headaches and generally cause difficulties with the respiratory system. it also leads to a strong feeling of unease, reducing a person’s energy levels. Information important What can we do as consumers to reduce the risks? What we can do is continually seek information on the products we use on a daily basis at home. The Consumer Institute (INKA) can help with this. As for smoking, we should avoid it, especially at home, in places where children play and sleep. They are the most vulnerable. Do you foresee European directives on this? That would be very difficult. Now we have a program called «Indoor Exposure Limits,» in which we are trying to set limits for certain substances, but it is difficult because it involves interference in people’s private lives and in what their put in their homes. I cannot tell you not to use this or that in your home, or not to smoke there. It is your business, it is your private space. What I can do is tell you that if you buy that table, for example, and put it in your home, I and the European Commission have ensured that it will not emit harmful substances. This is the direction we are moving in.