COVID-19 ISO Insights

Stay-At-Home Guidelines Steers Attention to Indoor Air Pollution Risks

June 22, 2020

By: David Geller, CPCU, SCLA

One of the few welcomed byproducts of COVID-19 confining people around the world to their homes was a significant drop in outdoor air pollution. Some of the developments that occurred during the height of social distancing included:

  • A reduction of 40% in levels of PM2.5, per CNN, was observed in Los Angeles. The professor of environmental health services at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health, reportedly explained that a large contributor of PM2.5 are vehicles, and that since traffic across the state plummeted by 80% since California’s stay-at-home order was put into effect, PM2.5 levels dropped in tandem.
  • A Forbes article pointed to statistics pulled from the European Environmental Agency that nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions from major European cities (Barcelona, Madrid, Paris, Milan, Rome, etc.) decreased from 30-60%. Additionally, Forbes also noted that carbon monoxide levels in Manhattan have dropped by 50%.

However, as people spent more time at home, different studies have emerged pointing to the potential dangers of indoor air pollution as well.

What activities, which may have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, could be exacerbating the risks of indoor air pollution?

Cooking Pollutants

According to Scientific American, some research has found that different types of cooking, such as the roasting of a pan of brussels sprouts in the oven, “can generate 250 micrograms of fine particulate matter per cubic meter of air, an extraordinarily high level.” The study noted that these levels are akin to “‘the world’s most polluted cities.’”

The article mentioned that gas stoves tend to emit significantly more particulate matter than electric stoves, such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide, the latter of which is a purported lung irritant that could lead to respiratory problems, especially in children.

While the statistics do appear to reflect the presence of pollutants as a byproduct of home cooking, Scientific American does report about some uncertainty regarding what the consequences may be—if there are any. Contrary to outdoor air pollution, in which the potentially harmful particulates tend to be present for an extended period of time, it is unknown how the short bursts of matter produced by cooking ultimately affects human health. Scientific American reported that there likely is more research that still needs to be done.

Cleaning Pollutants

It would be natural for the COVID-19 outbreak to coincide with a significant increase in cleaning. However, Scientific American also points to these activities as a potential contributor to indoor air pollutants. For example, mixing bleach with water could lead to the production of hypochlorous acid, which can reportedly “react with the dirt and debris on your floor and counter.” The article also reported that bleach “can volatize, wafting through the air and reacting with airborne compounds that are emitted by other cleaning agents, personal care materials, or by-products of cooking.”

Other Household Products That May Emit Pollutants

Prior to this report from Scientific American, a Business Insider article cited various concerns with items typically found in a home, including:

  • Furnishings laden with flame retardants, which are reportedly limited or banned in 14 U.S. states. Per the article, flame retardants have been linked with thyroid cancer, ADHD, slower brain development, and decreases in children’s IQ’s.
  • Bisphenol A (BPA), which is typically found in water bottles and plastic packaging. This chemical has reportedly been linked to obesity.
  • Phthalates, which the U.S. federal government reportedly banned for use in toys and children’s products in 2008, are common in various products, such as vinyl flooring, shower curtains, detergents, shampoos, and more. Phthalates, per Business Insider, have been connected with obesity, ADHD, asthma, diabetes, and breast cancer.

Of note, a prominent concern with these pollutants, reports Business Insider, is their dispersion after a fire and the potential effects that may linger. Relatedly, with respect to wildfire risk, we posted back in 2019 about how planned blackouts in California had reportedly led to an increased use in portable generators, which may also emit harmful pollutants.