COLLEGE STATION, Texas — A home should be a safe haven, but new research suggests the very air people breathe in their apartments and houses may be inflicting serious damage. Scientists from Texas A&M University say air quality inside domestic homes may actually be worse than within office buildings.
Study authors investigated indoor air quality and health outcomes among people working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic. They measured air quality within both offices and homes among a group of employees between 2019 and 2020. Then, the team looked at the health outcomes of the people living and working in those places.
What causes air pollution within indoor settings?
Most of the time, indoor air pollution has a connection to either harmful building materials or any number of actions people take inside those buildings. More specifically, typical indoor air pollutants include mold, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from carpets, furniture, and paints, as well as fine particulate matter (PM2.5).
Studies show extended exposure to these pollutants can cause a wide array of health conditions, ranging from relatively mild symptoms like a headache or dry eyes to much more serious life-threatening afflictions like cardiovascular disease and lung cancer. In recent decades, office buildings across the country have put measures in place to reduce and eliminate indoor air pollution.
Since COVID-19, however, more and more people are working from their homes. So, for perhaps the first time ever, home air quality is becoming a workplace health issue.
To research this topic, study authors analyzed indoor air quality within an office building between May and July 2019. Next, they examined the air quality within employees’ homes between June and September 2020.
Researchers used a standard, readily available to consumers air quality monitor to make these measurements. On a more detailed level, researchers assessed each indoor environment’s air temperature, relative humidity, and PM2.5/VOC concentrations. Simultaneously, the team assessed outdoor air quality conditions thanks to data provided by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Study participants also filled out a survey asking how often they experience various symptoms such as dry or irritated eyes, a stuffy nose, and irritated skin.
All of the participants lived in single-family homes with central air conditioning, and no one smoked or handled hazardous materials on a daily basis.
Converting homes to make remote work healthier
That analysis revealed fine particulate matter concentrations were indeed much higher in residential homes than office buildings. In fact, the PM2.5 amounts recorded in most homes far exceeded levels considered safe for a working environment. Similarly, VOC concentrations were higher in homes as well. However, researchers note that VOC levels recorded in both offices and homes were still well below the limit set by most health standards.
Importantly, most employees reported dealing with more symptoms while working from home as opposed to commuting to an office.
This study confirms that indoor home air quality is almost certainly an issue that needs to be addressed, especially as the world continues to switch toward a work-from-home model more and more due to the pandemic. Luckily, there are a few quick fixes. Assuming local outdoor air is of a high quality, simply opening some windows is one way to let in some fresh air. Alternatively, the team says employers should consider supplying their remote workers with air filters.
The study is published in the journal Atmosphere.