March 15, 2023
In a previous article, we discussed the way that humidity affects indoor air quality, as well as the importance of maintaining optimum humidity levels for the health and well-being of elderly individuals.
Now, let’s shift our focus to another aspect of air quality: protecting ourselves and our aging loved ones from the harmful effects of air pollution.
Research has shown that people living in polluted urban areas have a reduced life expectancy and an increased risk for respiratory problems and heart attacks.
But how does air pollution affect the elderly? For them, indoor air pollution can pose a severe health threat, with exposure to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) exacerbating pre-existing diseases.
If you are a long-distance caregiver for a parent or grandparent, it’s crucial to understand the types of air pollution and what steps you can take to alleviate the health risks.
In this article, we delve into the issue of air pollution — with a focus on what we can control on a small scale, which is indoor air quality — and its impact on senior health. We will explore a few solutions that can help you protect your elderly loved ones from this invisible threat. So sit tight and join us as we navigate this important topic.
When we think of air pollution, most of us imagine massive industrial factories releasing dark clouds into the sky. Or endless traffic lines with exhaust fumes wafting through the air. Those who have the means to make significant changes in their lives can take various measures to limit their exposure to outdoor pollutants, such as renting a home in a less polluted city region or even retreating to a rural area.
But air pollution is often invisible — think of the “sick building syndrome”, when you find yourself more tired than usual or displaying allergy-like symptoms due to the unhealthy environment you live or work in.
Below are the most common types of pollutants you need to be aware of:
PM10 is inhalable and can lead to coughing and irritation, but it doesn't usually penetrate the gas exchange area of the lungs. In contrast, fine particulate matter, that is smaller than 5 microns, can be breathed in and cause severe damage to the respiratory system.
Individuals with respiratory difficulties, young children, the elderly, and those who are more sensitive to chemicals are more prone to irritation and disease from air pollutants.
Generally, elderly individuals spend more time indoors, so it’s important to be aware of the air quality and adjust accordingly.
When it comes to VOCs, benzene, ethylene glycol, formaldehyde, methylene chloride, tetrachloroethylene, toluene, xylene, and 1,3-butadiene are some of the most common examples that could be present in our homes.
Formaldehyde is used in glues and resins, dyes, textiles, disinfectants, and building materials. It is classified as a human carcinogen and long-term exposure to formaldehyde and other VOCs can lead to liver and kidney damage, and even central nervous damage.
A 2022 study on indoor air pollution in elderly centers found that when there was a lack of room ventilation, the concentration of VOCs exceeded the limit values. The same study mentioned that frequent cleaning is crucial to keeping bacteria and fungi away from the home and from the elderly’s lungs, respectively.
Another study from 2013 in France showed that, among various monitored age groups, elderly citizens who were exposed to indoor aldehydes and VOCs had a higher risk of breathlessness than younger individuals.
All in all, poor air quality can lead to a range of health problems for older adults in their homes, including:
Eliminating air pollution altogether is not very likely to happen. But we can limit it to the best of our abilities and significantly reduce its health risks.
First off, you need to make sure your loved one’s home is not exposed to harmful compounds from furniture and building materials.
Opt for second-hand furniture if you can (it would have released most toxins in it) or look for companies that build non-toxic furniture. Try to create a minimalist living space — the fewer unnecessary products they have, the fewer VOCs are emanated.
Make sure your aging parent gets plenty of fresh air every day!
Ventilation, HVAC systems, and air purifiers are some of the solutions suggested by the American Lung Association to reduce particulate matter pollution and VOC concentration.
Be careful when choosing an air purifier, as it can be a double-edged sword. According to these MIT researchers, while some devices can actually destroy VOCs, they also generate harmful compounds in the process. Their safest recommendation is to opt for air cleaners that use activated carbon filters.
Read the labels of the cleaning products you buy and go for the ones that don’t emanate VOCs. As for personal care products, unscented formulas are the way to go. Explore what options are available in your area and give your senior loved one a ready-made list of safe products they can buy.
Ecological options are a win-win for the environment and your health.
If you’ve ever moved home and found that its walls smelled like tobacco smoke even if no one lived there for a long time, you understand how persistent some toxic chemicals are.
In this case, that surface residue is called thirdhand smoke, and it’s actually harmful to your health, much like the passive smoking that we are all familiar with. Benzene, ethylbenzene, and styrene are some of the VOCs emanated by tobacco smoke.
The solutions can be quite expensive, like repainting the entire walls (with non-toxic paint, of course) or replacing carpets and other affected surfaces.
Something that we can learn from biophilic design is to incorporate more plants into our indoor landscape. Not only do they have proven positive effects on our mood, but some plants can absorb VOCs, like the English Ivy and the chrysanthemum morifolium.
Here is a thorough article that compares various studies about the air-purifying properties of plants.
Aging-at-home technology has come a long way, from basic wearable devices that monitor vital signs to advanced monitoring systems that provide a secure living environment.
CareAlert, our elderly monitoring system, is equipped with sophisticated sensors that can detect volatile organic compounds (VOCs) — and seven other important parameters — and provide a real-time report on the air quality of your elderly loved one's home. If there's any unusual change in their environment, you'll be the first to know.
Indoor air quality is an increasingly important health consideration, particularly for the elderly, who are a growing vulnerable population in our society.
As caregivers, we need to be mindful of the various sources of indoor air pollution, including natural pollutants, combustion, volatile organic compounds, and particulate matter, and take steps to limit exposure to these pollutants.
By maintaining proper ventilation, regulating humidity levels, and diligently monitoring their living conditions, we can help protect our aging loved ones from these dangerous threats.
In fact, an assessment of the present environment is a crucial first step toward mitigating this complex problem. If you’re looking for a user-friendly device to show you how much the air quality is affected by VOCs, you can count on CareAlert.
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