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Indoor Air Quality 101

So you live and work in the UAE. Congratulations. I do too. You’re also probably making good money. Your friends may envy you. Or not. While we tend to work hard and hit our targets or KPIs at work, we always tend to avoid the ‘how long we’re staying in this country’ forecast. Since we’re here, let’s talk about the air we breathe. Why? Because unfortunately, we spend at least six months a year going from inside to inside and inhale around 11,000 liters of air daily.

Fine, so if you have an office job, you spend an average of 8 hours a day in that office, 5 days a week, minus vacation days, that’s on average around 1,900 hours a year, breathing office air – that’s around 22% of your adult life! Ok ok, let’s go home now, I will assume you go out every day and spend only 10 hours a day at home, minus vacation days, that’s around 3,400 hours, or around 39% of your adult life! If you think breathing “bad” air at home or in the office won’t affect your long-term well-being, think again.

Breaking news, the air we breathe indoors is polluted – two to five times more so than outdoor air, as per the EPA of the USA – that is in a country where people don’t rely on conditioned air for at least eight months a year.

Let’s talk a bit about air conditioning. Air gets recirculated, hundreds of times, even thousands of times. Now comes ventilation, i.e. introducing some fresh air from the outside. If you live in an apartment, or when you’re in the office, you’re basically under the mercy of the developer/owner/manager of the building. To minimize the bills, they minimize fresh air – because it costs double to cool outside air than to recirculate the relatively cold inside air (FYI fresh air systems’ bills are always part of common area expenses). Such measures are often called “going green” – I call it “going grey” or “sick building syndrome”.

sick building syndrome:

a condition affecting office workers, typically marked by headaches and respiratory problems, attributed to unhealthy or stressful factors in the working environment such as poor ventilation.

You live in a villa? Awesome, you have your own AC and ventilation system, and I’m pretty sure you get reminded of that every time you receive your electricity bill. For some odd reason, most of the fresh air intakes have been taped shut by maintenance people – sometimes because tenants nag about high humidity inside, other times because they nag about the high electricity bill; whatever the reason, Mr. Maintenance Guy has a solution. If that’s the case, you technically live in an apartment – from a ventilation point of view – and you’re exposed to ‘sick villa syndrome’. If you’re one of the lucky ones who still get fresh air, this thing is most probably introducing a lot of dust, humidity and traffic pollution – unless you live in a villa compound in the middle of the desert, in which case, just a whole lot of dust.

So, what are these pesky indoor pollutants?


Three types; inert, like dust and smoke, oh and these are great carriers of viruses and bacteria, which brings me to the second type: biological. Yes, you guessed it – viruses, bacteria and all the other living stuff and third, the chemicals; mainly volatile organic compounds and traffic pollution – the latter especially if you’re in a busy area.

Inert particles are there. You can’t escape them, you can only filter them out – all types of smoke, particulate matter, respirable dust and so on…

Chemicals either off-gas from household items and furniture (that nice “new furniture smell” is actually a nice blend of volatile organic compounds) or are introduced from outside traffic pollution and nearby industrial processes. Since they’re gases, their particles are tiny and subsequently near impossible to filter.

Biological pollutants such as viruses, bacteria, mold spores, and so on… some can be filtered and some, like viruses, are smaller than what the most advanced HEPA filters can catch. 

Biological contaminants such as bacteria and mold spores can be filtered with medical-grade HEPA filters. Viruses, however, are too small to fall for the same trap. They literally fall through the cracks and get away with bringing us colds, flus, and all kinds of nasty stuff.

Recent studies have shown that 1 out of 6 Dubai residents suffers from asthma, especially school-aged kids. Contrary to popular belief, asthma is not simply genetic, it’s actually developed as a result of long-term exposure to indoor air pollutants. Knowing what’s in the air early on and preventing the buildup of pollutants can actually save lives.

Air pollution kills more than 2.4 million people globally due to heart diseases and latest studies in the UAE show that 30% of all deaths here are due to cardiovascular diseases …  hmm.

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