Extreme Weather Can Worsen Indoor Air Quality

lightning stormEarlier this week, a string of bad storms blew through metro Atlanta, at one point leaving 100,000 homes—my entire neighborhood included—without power. Shortly after we lost electricity and realized it wasn’t coming back on anytime soon, my husband and I began lighting every candle in the house to help supplement our two lone flashlights that definitely were not making the cut. Remembering the importance of indoor air ventilation and how candle soot can damage your indoor air quality, I cracked open a few windows to help get airflow moving.

This apparently wasn’t enough. Within a half-hour, my eyes began to feel irritated; I could feel my lungs growing tighter; and the humid, stale, un-conditioned air felt clammy and downright unhealthy. Eventually, we had to get outside for some fresh air relief. It was then that it dawned on me—we were experiencing the negative effects that extreme weather can have on your indoor air quality. It was a strange coincidence. After all, I was working on a blog about this very subject.

Last week, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies released an interesting and eye-opening report detailing how climate change and extreme weather events can worsen indoor air quality, exacerbating occupants’ existing health problems and paving the way for new ones to develop. The report—Climate Change, the Indoor Environment, and Health—identifies and explores five major types of climate-induced indoor environmental problems, including:

  • Indoor air quality
  • Dampness, moisture, and flooding
  • Infectious agents and pests
  • Thermal stress
  • Building ventilation, weatherization, and energy use

The authors evaluated how each of these problem areas can contribute to serious health conditions as a result of extreme weather patterns, such as heat waves, cold snaps, increases in outdoor pollen levels, flooding, and wildfires.

For example, the report cites that brownouts caused by extreme heat or violent storms lead to a loss of healthy indoor air ventilation. This can expose indoor occupants to excessive heat and humidity for long periods of time, which can take a toll on our bodies and magnify the severity of existing medical conditions. In addition, during a brownout, increased levels of carbon monoxide may lead to carbon monoxide poisoning as a result of backup generator usage.

Another example cites that increased outdoor pollen levels can lead to alterations in indoor pollen levels and greater use of toxic pesticides. In turn, this may up the frequency and severity of allergen-induced illnesses and lead to respiratory distress from increased pesticide exposure.

The authors conclude that while altered climatic conditions may not necessarily introduce new risks for building occupants, they may make existing indoor environmental problems more widespread and severe. Their final takeaway:

“Opportunities exist to improve public health while mitigating and adapting to alterations in indoor environmental quality induced by climate change.”

As the current wave of extreme weather patterns continues to evolve, I suspect we will be hearing much more about this issue.

To read the report in full, visit http://www.iom.edu/Reports/2011/Climate-Change-the-Indoor-Environment-and-Health.aspx.

In the meantime, I will be investing in a couple more flashlights.

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