Exploring how air pollution in indoor spaces affects human health

A mother embracing daughter making inhalation with a nebulizer

Three new research projects will investigate how air pollutants in indoor spaces can adversely affect the health of the people inhabiting them.

Indoor spaces being investigated include:

  • homes
  • schools
  • workplaces.

Researchers have received a share of £9 million funding from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) to better understand how the composition, concentration and exposures of air pollutants affect:

  • children with asthma
  • people living in urban homes.

A third project will build a platform to identify the worst pollutants and establish their link with neurological disease.

Severe environmental risk

In the UK, poor air quality is a severe environmental risk to public health, with air pollution estimated to be responsible for 40,000 early deaths a year.

Environment Minister Rebecca Pow said:

Indoor air pollution is a critical public health issue.

Building our understanding and evidence base around it is essential so that any future action is appropriately targeted and effective.

The government is already taking important steps, including phasing out the sale of coal and wet wood, a major contributor to the emissions of fine particulate matter, and making it easier for local authorities to tackle emissions from domestic burning through our Environment Bill.

These projects will help add to our evidence base, building on the forthcoming report from our Air Quality Expert Group and guidelines published by Public Health England to help us all better understand this issue.

Air pollutants and child asthma

One multidisciplinary team will follow 100 households in west London with at least one child with asthma and monitor chemical and biological pollutants within their home.

With many children now spending most of their time indoors, whether at home or school, this study will significantly improve understanding of the link between air quality and asthma symptoms.

Ambitious and complex programme

Professor Frank Kelly, of Imperial College London, who is leading the study, said:

This is an ambitious and complex programme of work which will substantially improve understanding of indoor pollution exposure and its effect on children living in urban environments.

By working closely with existing community groups and schools, together our joint efforts will have a much better chance of success of improving the wellbeing of children, especially those with asthma.

Air quality and urban homes

Air pollution regulations in the UK currently focus on pollutants in the outdoor environment.

In another project, a team made up of scientists from four universities will work with Bradford Teaching Hospital NHS Foundation Trust and Born in Bradford.

Born in Bradford is a long-term research cohort established with support from the Medical Research Council (MRC) and Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

It is following communities in the city to unravel the reasons for ill health.

Track and quantify

The team will track and quantify:

  • the composition of pollutants within indoor spaces, such as those from cooking and cleaning, and how these chemically react
  • how air pollutants from indoor air sources affect outdoor air quality and vice versa
  • how different occupant behaviours affect production of and exposure to air pollutants, and how in turn this affects health outcomes and health inequalities.

Professor Nicola Carlsaw of the University of York, who is leading the study, explained:

This study will investigate the causes of poor indoor air quality in UK homes in more detail than ever before.

Studying the Born in Bradford cohort allows us to focus on the health impacts of poor air quality in deprived urban areas and compare them with more affluent areas.

Through studying how occupant behaviour affects air pollution exposure indoors, we aim to design interventions that will lead to healthier buildings.

A new pollutant hazard platform

In a third project, researchers will also develop a new platform to evaluate current and future pollutants in our environment.

Using a chamber that can accurately simulate different types of air pollution exposure, the new platform will identify how toxic different types of air pollutants are, including:

  • diesel exhaust fumes
  • woodsmoke
  • cooking emissions.

The project will particularly focus on how common pollutants impact on neurological disease and cognitive function.

Building national capability

Leading the project, Professor Gordon McFiggans, of The University of Manchester, said:

Our exciting new collaboration will build national capability, enabling fundamental understanding of toxicological mechanisms causing adverse health outcomes from exposure to various air pollutants.

Using this platform, we will study impacts of pollution on neurological disease, providing a hazard ranking of pollutant sources.

This can inform policy decisions about the sorts of pollution to avoid to reduce ill health.

Our platform will be used in future to study other diseases.

Multidisciplinary research

The four-year projects are part of UKRI’s Clean Air Programme, with investment supported through UKRI’s Strategic Priorities Fund.

Each project will bring together specialists from communities in:

  • environment
  • social and medical
  • engineering
  • economics sciences
  • health.

Professor Sir Duncan Wingham, Executive Chair of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), part of UKRI which is funding the research, said:

Poor air quality affects millions of people in the UK, and this research will help us better understand how indoor spaces interact with pollutants, causing poor health.

Air pollution is a key funding priority, and these studies are part of a multi-million-pound investment by UKRI in monitoring, reducing and mitigating the impact of pollutants on the planet and our health.

Further information

This research is jointly delivered by UKRI research councils and other partners:

  • NERC
  • ESRC
  • Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council
  • MRC
  • Innovate UK
  • Science and Technology Facilities Council
  • Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
  • Department for Health and Social Care
  • Department for Transport
  • Scottish government
  • Welsh government
  • The Met Office.

Funded projects

Air pollution hazard identification platform

Professor Gordon McFiggans, The University of Manchester.

This project will construct a national infrastructure to study adverse effects of air pollution exposure on human health.

This platform will enable studies of controlled exposures to current and future pollutants in our environment, facilitating understanding of their toxicology and health effects.

Initially, this capability will be used to investigate indicators of brain dysfunction after exposure to indoor and outdoor pollutants. It aims to create a hazard ranking of sources of air pollution and their effects.

The project will give public health authorities the information required to enable targeted avoidance and control of the most hazardous sources of air pollution.

Research team:

  • The University of Manchester
  • Imperial College London
  • University of Birmingham
  • University of Dundee
  • The University of Edinburgh
  • University of York.

West London healthy home and environment study (WellHome)

Professor Frank Kelly, Imperial College London.

Children growing up in the UK today represent an ‘indoor child generation’, with most of their activities taking place primarily in homes and schools, with chemically diverse environments.

Despite its importance in human exposure terms, links between indoor air quality and public health is an under-researched area, with greater emphasis placed on outdoor air quality.

The WellHome consortia will work in partnership with our local community.

It will focus on the quality of air inside and outside over 100 homes with an asthmatic child selected from across the social spectrum.

Their intensive monitoring approach links toxicological assessments of chemical and biological pollutants with individual activity and health data.

It aims to identify triggers for worsening of their condition and thus improve quality of life.

Research team:

  • Imperial College London
  • Queen Mary University of London
  • Cardiff University

Project partners from:

  • Greater London Authority
  • non-governmental organisations
  • community groups
  • industry.

Ingenious: Understanding the sources, transformations and fates of indoor air pollutants

Professor Nicola Carslaw, University of York.

Despite the fact that we spend around 90% of our time indoors in the UK, air pollutant regulation focuses almost entirely on the outdoor environment.

Air pollutant concentrations measured outdoors by local authorities are assumed to represent our exposure to air pollutants, but ignore indoor environments completely.

The INGENIOUS project will provide a comprehensive understanding of indoor air pollution in UK homes, including:

  • the key sources
  • the variability between homes
  • pathways to formation of air pollutants indoors
  • the drivers of behaviours that affect our exposure to indoor air pollution
  • recommendations to improve indoor air quality.

Research team:

  • University of York
  • Bradford Teaching Hosp NHS Found Trust
  • The University of Manchester
  • University of Cambridge
  • The University of Sheffield.

Project partners from:

  • Born in Bradford
  • HomeLINK
  • Immaterial
  • National Centre for Atmospheric Science
  • Reckitt Benckiser plc
  • Ricardo AEA
  • Tincture London
  • WSP Group plc UK (Parsons Brinckerhoff).

Top image:  Credit: Ridofranz/GettyImages

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