Indoor Air: A Change In Perception

Indoor Air: A Change In Perception

The first in-person Cleaning Products US Conference since 2019 will happen this month and its return is widely welcomed in the industry. It will be a long awaited chance to discuss trends and challenges and to share new ideas face to face with colleagues, clients and friends.The Cleaning Products US Conference website states that ‘Focusing on emerging market drivers, shifting consumer trends, and changes to the regulatory landscape, this year’s agenda will explore the key issues that are impacting the supply chain in a post-COVID marketplace.’

This implies a shift in the industry, a change to the way the industry thinks and works, spurred on by the pandemic. The question is then, what is this key change in perception?

The air has become visible.

Water v Air

Its seems foreign to us now but there was a time when it was accepted behaviour to drink water from an unknown source without a second thought. It was assumed that the water was safe or, even if it wasn’t, then nothing could be done about it. In the 19th century, waterborne diseases were simply accepted as a way of life just as, until recently, we were reconciled to the inevitability of catching airborne diseases.

An apathy existed around the contents of the air we breathe indoors. Yes, deep concern was expressed regarding our outdoor air, and laws exist in almost every country regarding acceptable outdoor pollutant levels, but indoor air? The air we breathe for the majority of our day without a second thought? Our concern bordered on ignorance and a  ‘stick heads in the sand’ attitude that inevitably resulted in an unrestricted level of respiratory illness and ill-health.

We spend most of our time indoors, but the air we breathe inside buildings is not regulated to the same degree as the food we eat and the water we drink. In the developed world we expect clean water from our taps so why shouldn’t we have the same expectations for our indoor air? In 1945, scientist William Wells published a paper in  ‘The Scientific Monthly” arguing that while we were investing in disinfecting water and keeping our food clean, we had done nothing for our indoor air. It has taken a further 75 years or so (and a pandemic) to heed his words and change our perception.

An overhaul in ventilation standards could be similar in impact on our health and wellbeing to the 19th century transformation that took place when we started ensuring clean water supplies.


Laws and Regulations

And thankfully at last, the process has been put in motion. The Clean Air in Buildings Challenge, launched by President Biden in March 2021, calls on all building owners and operators, schools, colleges and universities, and organizations of all kinds to adopt key strategies to improve indoor air quality in their buildings and reduce the spread of COVID-19. 

The Clean Air in Buildings Challenge is a call to action for leaders and building owners and operators to assess their indoor air quality and make ventilation and air filtration improvements to help keep occupants safe. As part of the Challenge, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a best practices guide for improving indoor air quality and reducing the risk of spreading dangerous airborne particles. This guide – developed in collaboration with the Department of Energy, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – contains a set of clear recommendations that aims to mitigate the risk of respiratory illnesses and improve health for all.

In Canada too, there has also been newly passed and much welcomed regulations. In January 2022 the ‘Volatile Organic Compound Concentration Limits for Certain Products Regulations’ was published.  The purpose of the Regulations is to prohibit the import and manufacture of products in Canada that exceed prescribed Volatile Organic Compound (VOCs) concentration limits in approximately 130 product categories and subcategories. This is a clear win for indoor air quality and the built environment.

So there is no doubt that since the pandemic we are more air aware. The air is now more visible. This change in perception is certainly a positive. The fact that the pandemic has raised expectations for health and safety surely will benefit us all.

The consumer now, with a  growing health consciousness, is searching for products that have benefits on the air we breathe. We are looking at products from a different perspective and asking. What impact is this product having on the quality of my indoor air?


Cleaning Products

Indoor AirOne major habit change triggered by the pandemic was the frequency of cleaning. According to a study published in the International Journal of Clinical Practice, it was observed that the frequency of cleaning (69.3%) and the amount of cleaning product usage (74.2%) increased significantly. The sale of cleaning products skyrocketed. The global household cleaning products market size was USD 235.76 billion in 2021 – exhibiting an incline of 6.5% in 2021 alone.

But what impact do these products have on our indoor air? The truth is that the use of some cleaning products and air fresheners may actually increase indoor air pollution by introducing potentially harmful volatile organic compounds into the air. Household cleaning product ingredients are many and varied. The American Lung Association recommend using only cleaning products that “don’t have volatile organic compounds, fragrances, irritants or flammable ingredients” and that air fresheners should be avoided altogether. However, in most States, it is not a requirement to disclose all the ingredients in a cleaning product so the list on the label may be incomplete. How does the consumer know how the product impacts indoor air?

It is not just that we cannot know what exactly a product contains but also how do we know that manufacturers’ claims about products are true?  With so much money at stake, the market is wide open to exploitation. Fraudulent claims are rife and one just needs to take a glance at the US Food & Drug website to see the extent of it.

As of August 2022, there were 221 entries on 23 pages of Fraudulent Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Products published on the website. These are all products with false or misleading claims to prevent, treat, mitigate, diagnose or cure Covid-19.


Air Purifiers

Indoor AirA particular product that may pose such a potential problem is the air purifier. Work from home preferences, rising health concerns, and increasing awareness among consumers about the benefits associated with air purifiers have all fuelled a bonanza in the market growth of air purifiers. The global air purifier market size was valued at USD 12.26 billion in 2021.

One major player in the field has faced multiple class action law suits ‘arising from the marketing, sale and distribution of defective air purifier devices’. ‘Defective’ because they do not live up to claims that are made using absolute language such as ‘eliminate’ and ‘completely’.  Its claim to use independent testing labs has also come under scrutiny – some of the testing took place at a lab at which the company’s founder is a director, and at another that the company sponsors.

The manufacturer has been called out by Wirecutter, a technology review website affiliated with the New York Times and by Consumer Reports, a non-profit organisation providing unbiased product ratings and reviews.

Although the company has vehemently defended itself, it has had to withdraw many of its long held claims after investigation by the National Advertising Division (NAD)during which 26 of their advertising claims were found to be unsubstantiated. The NAD provides independent self-regulation, overseeing the truthfulness of advertising and so is a valid and important entity but must the consumer have to rely on a self-regulated voluntary body to audit product claims? Surely there is another way?

Third party certification answers many of the problems.


Third Party Certification Benefits

Third party certification is an independent, objective review of a product’s safety and of its performance. Products are tested to a specific, relevant set of transparent standards and therefore the process results in safer more reliable products. Furthermore, it distinguishes those manufacturers making compliant products from those who do not, allowing the consumer to quickly identify quality and authenticity. Because the testers have the expertise, the experience, and the testing materials, the certification process can be cost effective and efficient.

It’s probably true to say that manufacturers generally use design engineers rather than safety engineers to design their products. This could result in a product that performs well but when a company submits its products to third party certification, it is a way of demonstrating its commitment to going beyond the minimum, to being tested to a higher set of goals around product performance.

The asthma & allergy friendly® Certification Program is one such third party certification program. It seeks to assist people to identify products which will make a genuine difference to their indoor environment. It develops best-in-class certification standards for relevant categories of products, and all certified products must undergo testing to those standards. In this way, the consumer can then make an informed choice about products and materials like air purifiers, cleaning products, insulation and flooring that they bring into their home.


Testing and Certification of Air Cleaners/Purifiers

In the case of air cleaners/purifiers, a controlled environmental chamber is set up to mimic a real home set-up -furniture, such as a table or chair, is added to the chamber, so that there are surfaces where allergen can settle, just like in household rooms.

Once the simulated room is set up, test dust that contains allergen is introduced into the room through a vent. The air cleaner is run and the particle level in the room is monitored. A test without an air cleaner is also carried out so that the two scenarios can be compared.

The removal of allergen is then measured and there must be over 90% less allergen in the air when the air cleaner is operating. The filter of the air cleaner is also tested , to make sure that at least half of the allergen removed from the air is captured in the filter and has not simply collected on surfaces in the chamber. Finally the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) section 21:801.415 requiring ozone exposure at less than 0.1 mg/m3 must be achieved.

Only air purifiers that meet these standards are awarded the asthma & allergy friendly® Certification Mark.


Testing and Certification of Cleaning Products

indoor Air

For cleaning products to be CERTIFIED asthma & allergy friendly® there is firstly an ingredient review involving a detailed chemical assessment of all the constituents in the cleaner and an assessment of the individual concentration levels. Any potentially irritant or sensitizing chemicals present must be at a low enough level so that the probability of a reaction to them is as low as possible.

For the category of hard surface non-disinfecting cleaning products,  the product is then used in an environmentally controlled chamber, where all the chemicals released into the air (VOCs) are measured. The levels are recorded after 15 minutes, 90 minutes and 24 hours to make sure that throughout this time period the potentially harmful VOCs remain below certain levels. Airborne particle concentration during use must also remain below certain levels.

Finally, the cleaning product must be able to remove allergens from hard surfaces but must not result in an increase in allergen levels in the air.

Only cleaning products that meet these standards are awarded the asthma & allergy friendly® Certification Mark.


Change in Perception: Educate, Regulate, Certify

It took multiple cholera epidemics and other waterborne diseases for the contents of our drinking water to become visible. It has taken a horrible pandemic for our indoor air to become visible. Let us not waste this chance while our perception is changed and our eyes are open. This is the time to educate, to regulate, to certify. To know better is to do better. This is the time to make our built environment safer and healthier for all.


Medical & Lifestyle Author Dr Anna O'Donovan

Medical & Lifestyle Author Dr Anna O’Donovan


About Dr. Anna O’Donovan – Medical & Lifestyle Author 

Anna is a mum of three children, one with allergies, and she suffers from allergies and asthma herself. She is a qualified doctor and worked as a General Practitioner and as a dentist for a number of years. She is also an award-winning author.


Key Words

indoor air quality, environment, air quality, asthma, healthy, allergies, allergens, air purifiers, healthy home, air cleaner, irritants, pollutants, toxin, COVID-19, cleaning products, Clean Air, water, sanitation, airborne transmission, third party certification,  standards,


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