Study Into Asthma and Poor Indoor Air Quality – Is There A Link?

12th December 2017

The dangers of outdoor air pollution is an issue which has received much attention and discussion.  But what of the air we breathe every day inside our homes, schools and workplaces?

In recent years there’s been a growing awareness and recognition of the impact of poor indoor air quality, and how it can have a detrimental effect on our health and well-being.

Findings released last week from a new research study by the Asthma Society of Ireland suggest that the air inside our homes may be putting our health at risk – an especially serious concern for people who suffer from asthma and other respiratory conditions.

But there is also some encouraging news to come from the study, which may help asthma sufferers to better manage their symptoms and improve their quality of life.

Read on for our full review of the research findings, or click straight to the information you’re most interested in using the table below.

What Is Asthma?

To help put the rest of the information in this article in context, we’ll firstly take a quick look at the nature and causes of asthma.

Lady with asthma inhaler

Asthma is a chronic condition where your airways become inflamed and sensitive.  This leads to swelling and the production of mucus, which in turn can cause a number of symptoms, including:

  • coughing
  • tightness in the chest
  • shortness of breath
  • difficulty in breathing
  • wheezing

If you have asthma you may only display one symptom, or a combination of several.

What Causes Asthma Symptoms to Occur?

Asthma symptoms can be brought on by exposure to certain triggers.

These include airborne contaminants and particulate matter such as dust mites, mold spores, pet dander and pollen.

In addition to these ‘natural’ sources of indoor air pollution there are also several man-made products which can pollute our indoor environments – items that may seem on the face on it innocent, or even created specifically to make our living spaces more pleasant.

scented candleFor example, it might surprise you to learn that artificially-fragranced products (such as scented candles, wax melts, pot pourri and air fresheners) are made from a mixture of chemicals (many of them derived from petroleum) and give off something called volatile organic compounds, which can have adverse health consequences.

Even carrying out routine day-to-day activities can impact on our indoor air quality.

Cleaning our homes with synthetic products, cooking food on the stove, or lighting the fire or wood burner all release emissions which may act as a trigger.

Why Poor Indoor Air Quality is a Concern For Us All

While contaminated air has been linked to a rise in the frequency and severity of respiratory conditions such as asthma, COPD and lung cancer, it can also prove detrimental to the health of people who don’t suffer from any medical conditions.

Rather, it’s a global concern with the potential to affect us all.  According to the World Health Organisation an average of 4.3 million premature deaths can be attributed to indoor air pollution.

With many of us now spending up to 90% of our time indoors there has never been a more critical time for research to help us understand more about this problem.

And more importantly, what we can do to try and address it.

Parameters of the Study Into Asthma and Indoor Air Quality

For this study into a possible link between asthma and indoor air quality, the Asthma Society of Ireland (ASI) joined forces with 2 companies – Envirion and NuWare Sensors.

The study commenced in October 2016 and involved a total of 9 participants, all asthma sufferers.

Air quality sensors from NuWave were installed in the homes of the 9 individuals for a period of 3 months, and they were also provided with a compatible app to log their asthma symptoms for the duration.

Halfway through the study an air purifier from Envirion was installed and used for the final 6 weeks. research target

The aim of the study was two-fold.

Firstly, to examine whether asthma symptoms were more frequent and severe when indoor air pollution levels were higher.

Secondly, whether both air quality and symptoms were improved when an air purifier was used.

The Results

The data obtained from the study indicated that a significant number of asthma events could be linked to poor air quality inside the homes of the participants.

By logging these events into the app, users were in most cases able to match their asthma symptoms with an air quality issue that had been picked up by the sensors.

Once the air purifiers had been installed and were in use, the vast majority of the participants experienced a dramatic drop in levels of dangerous indoor air pollution.

Knowing Your Enemy – Why The Study Results Are So Significant

Trigger avoidance is a crucial part of asthma management.  But of course, that’s far easier said than done.

Often it can be very hard to pinpoint exactly what has brought on the appearance of symptoms, as there are many possible trigger sources.

In addition, many potentially offensive particles are invisible to the naked eye, meaning an asthma attack can suddenly strike without warning.

The reason why the results from this study are so significant is summed up in this quote by Kevin Kelly, Interim CEO of ASI:

“The ability to log asthma symptoms against the current air quality in the home is hugely helpful for people with asthma, as it can make identifying and avoiding asthma triggers much easier”.

For instance, if your sensor warns of a decline in air quality after you spray some perfume, and you also experience some symptoms a short time after, it may be an indication that perfume acts as a trigger in you and you can then take steps to limit your exposure to it.

A New Enhanced Approach to Asthma Management?

It appears from the results of the study that real-time, accurate air quality monitoring may prove to be an invaluable tool in helping people to identify, and thus avoid, their own personal asthma triggers.

generic air purifierAnd that using an air purifier in your home can significantly reduce the level of harmful pollutants lingering in the air you’re breathing in.

Indeed, according to the report’s authors, the study shows that “improving indoor air quality may help people with asthma manage their symptoms…(and) the research suggests that air quality monitoring and air cleaning could be a vital part of ongoing asthma management”.

This belief is also echoed by John Sodeau, Professor of Chemistry at University College Cork:

“The main lesson to be learned from this report is that air filtration systems are a real help in reducing the number of airborne particulates present in your house.  Every asthma management plan should have one”.

It’s important at this point to note the references to ‘part of’ asthma management.

There’s no suggestion that medication and other forms of treatment should be replaced as a result of these findings. 

Rather, monitoring and air cleaning should supplement any existing asthma management plans.

What Are The Best Air Purifiers For Asthma?

In terms of which air purifiers are best for asthma, units fitted with a HEPA filter, or which have combined filtration systems, are considered to be more effective.

The filter is the part of an air purifier which traps contaminated particles.  But standard filters have larger holes in them, meaning some of the offending particles are released back into the air.

HEPA filters, on the other hand, have much smaller holes and so they’re better at holding onto these particles. 

HEPA filters are subject to stringent standards, and as such are often used in places where a sterile environment is essential, such as hospitals.

Another thing to be mindful of when choosing an air purifier for asthma is the level of room coverage it offers, and how many times an hour it can clean the air in a room that size.

For example, you may see a model which says it can clean the air 2 times an hour in a room up to 700 square feet, or 4 times an hour in a room up to 350 square feet.

4-5 air changes are recommended if you suffer from asthma or allergies, so please do check carefully before making any purchase that the model you want is able to adequately purify the actual space you have.

You can find details of one of our favourite air purifiers for asthma on Amazon here

Hope For The Future

This study by the ASI is of course very small in scale, and much larger and longer-term studies will undoubtedly be required in the future to build upon it. sun in blue sky

Nevertheless, it is significant in that it appears to identify a definite connection between our indoor air quality and the development of asthma symptoms.

And it also offers encouragement that asthma sufferers will be able to play a proactive and positive part in managing their symptoms through a combination of air quality monitoring and cleaning.

The final word goes to Professor Sodeau, who applauds the ASI for taking this first step, and who calls for more funding to be made available to asthma researchers:

“…the prize is big because in the future it may prove possible to develop instrumentation that informs you when an asthma attack is likely to occur. Such an early warning system might eventually even be tailormade for you because it has been tuned directly to your exact triggers and sensitivities”.

An aspiration for us all to aim for.

Medical Disclaimer:  Please note, this article is intended for general information purposes and is in no way intended as a substitute for the advice of your own doctor or healthcare professional, nor should be acted upon as such.  Please always consult them if you have any specific health queries or concerns.

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