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In Conversation With: Francesca Brady, AirRated

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Outdoor air quality has become increasingly topical in recent years with concerns around pollution, and its impact on us, frequently making headlines in the news cycle. It’s perhaps unsurprising that outdoor and indoor air quality are closely connected, yet many of us don’t fully understand the importance of good indoor air quality. We spend more than 85% of our time indoors – much of this in our own homes – so it’s worth taking the time to familiarise yourself with what you’re breathing in everyday and seeing where you can make improvements if needed.

To help us break it all down (pollutants included!), we sat down with Francesca Brady, CEO and Co-Founder of AirRated, the global benchmark for indoor air quality, to find out how we can help make our homes that little bit healthier.

Hi Francesca. Please could you explain what indoor air quality is and why it matters?
Indoor air quality (IAQ) describes the quality of air inside any built space, whether that’s a home, office or your favourite shop. IAQ can be affected by a range of factors, from external air pollution and ventilation to the building’s layout and the materials used to decorate and furnish the space.

IAQ is largely about the health, comfort and wellbeing of the people in the building, and it’s incredibly important because poor air quality can have a huge impact on your health and how you function. If you’ve ever spent too long in a meeting room at work that felt ‘stuffy’, it likely had poor ventilation. Poorly ventilated spaces lead to a build-up of carbon dioxide (CO₂) and pollutants called volatile organic gases (VOCs) - when this happens it can give you a headache and makes it hard for you to concentrate. Over a sustained period of exposure, some pollutants can also cause more serious, long-lasting damage to our vital organs and physiological systems, including airways, lungs and respiratory system, and even the heart.

How can I find out what the indoor air quality is in my home?
A good first step is to invest in IAQ sensors as this will help you to get a better understanding of the air quality within your home to see what areas need improvement. There are plenty of sensors on the market; just make sure that they monitor the key factors, in particular: temperature, humidity, CO₂ (carbon dioxide), VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and PM2.5 (fine particulate matter). Look for a sensor that comes with a companion app or dashboard as this will allow you to gain further contextual information about your IAQ data and will help you to understand whether you have specific issues in certain rooms.

If you’ve got major concerns about your home or feel you’re suffering from symptoms of poor air quality, it’s worth getting experts in to investigate further.

Do you have any easy suggestions for improving indoor air quality at home?
Some of the easiest improvements can come from simply eliminating or substituting simple things in your home.

  • - ‘Air fresheners’ might sound like they are helping your air quality, but they may be doing more harm than good, so remove that chemical-based air freshener and instead improve ventilation. Open the windows and indoor doors to create a flow of air and you’ll be replacing stale indoor air with ‘new’ outdoor air, which will dilute pollutants that have built up and regulate humidity to help prevent the risk of condensation, damp and mould. It’s best to do this when dusting, vacuuming or cooking, as well as during the night when outdoor pollution levels are at their lowest.
  • - I always recommend opting for non-toxic or natural cleaning products as this will minimise the amount of VOCs that are released into the air.
  • - Use extractor fans in your bathrooms and kitchen to regulate humidity and to remove pollutants. An important tip is to keep them running for at least 20 mins after bathing or cooking.
  • - Lighting an open fire or burning a candle are relaxing ways to unwind after a busy day, but they both contribute to high levels of PM2.5 (fine particulate matter) in the home - so if you are going to do it, ensure you have proper ventilation in the room. Also opting for beeswax, soy wax or vegetable wax candles are a good alternative, as they’re lower in VOCs.

A certain level of pollution in the home is inevitable, so buying a high-quality air purifier can be a really beneficial way to improve your IAQ. They work by trapping pollutants, filtering them and then releasing the clean air back into the room. I recommend choosing a system with HEPA filter technology and high CADR (clean air delivery rate), as this means the air will be filtered and redistributed more quickly.

And what do you recommend if I want to invest more time and money into improving my indoor air quality?
If you’re unsure about what is best for your home, or you need help with the data, always remember that there are professionals who will support you in finding the best improvement advice for your home and situation.

Other investment-worthy options are air purification and ventilation systems:

  • - Ventilation: Homes in the UK typically lack mechanical ventilation systems (other than extractor fans), so installing a more powerful ventilation system will go a long way to improving the air in your home without the need to open windows and potentially bring in outdoor pollutants. A mechanical ventilation with heat recovery (MVHR) system will also help with this, by providing a constant supply of filtered outdoor air in your home.
  • - Air purification: Portable, in-room air purifiers are a great addition when installing a mechanical system isn’t viable for structural or financial reasons. Air purifiers help to remove pet dander, clothes fibres, construction dust and other particles from your air, and if you get one with a carbon filter, this will also remove gases such as NO2 (a gas produced by traffic emissions).

What benefits can I expect to see from making these changes?
There are so many benefits, from reducing the short-term symptoms of poor indoor air quality - such as headaches, blocked nose and poor sleep quality – to reducing the likelihood of developing the more serious long-term health issues associated with it.
If you work from home, you’ll see benefits in your concentration and productivity too. A study* found that when volunteers worked in well-ventilated conditions (with lower levels of CO₂ and VOCs), they scored 61% higher in cognitive tests than when they worked in typical office building conditions. And when they worked in the optimal conditions (with low CO₂ levels and higher ventilation rates), their scores climbed by 101%!

Thanks so much, Francesca!

* Read more about COGfx Global Buildings study here.

Francesca is the CEO and Co-Founder of AirRated, an indoor air quality (IAQ) certification company - creating the benchmark for IAQ. Formerly Head of Research, she was promoted to the role of CEO in 2020.

Francesca is focused on improving air quality and having conversations on the best way to foster healthier living and working environments. She is an advisory member for the Camden Clean Air Initiative, the BREEAM Health and Wellbeing technical group, a member of the International WELL Building Institute's Covid-19 Taskforce and is a regular speaker at universities, schools and industry conferences. Francesca is dedicated to promoting and educating audiences from all walks of life about the importance, benefits and management of good indoor air quality. She was honoured on the Forbes 30 under 30 list in 2021, Management Today's 35 under 35 in 2022 and the inaugural Stonehage Fleming XV (alongside Dame Catherine Bingham and Karen Blackett OBE to name a few) for her work with AirRated. airrated.co

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