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Indoor Air May be Hazardous to Women’s Health

By Ruth Schechter

Originally posted April 18, 2010 on GENDER NEWS, from the Clayman Institute for Gender Research


Vacuuming the carpet, making the bed, cooking dinner, or using room freshener may be hazardous to women’s health. These activities all release potentially harmful allergens and pollutants. However household air pollution is not regulated, putting respiratory health at risk.

Indoor air pollution can be up to 10 times worse than outdoor air pollution because enclosed areas allow pollutants to accumulate. And because women—including those employed outside the home—tend to take on the majority of household duties, their risk of exposure to harmful elements generated during housecleaning is greater.

“It has long been known that airborne particles can contribute to lung and heart disease,” says Lynn Hildemann, PhD, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and a Clayman Institute faculty research fellow. “However, regulation of pollutants has focused on outdoor air, even though people in developed countries spend most of their time indoors.”

Hildemann recently took part in a study that looked at the effects of indoor air pollution on women in villages in southern Bangladesh. The women cook by burning debris and leaves indoors in crude unvented clay stoves, creating dense buildups of smoke for several hours a day. Hildemann found that on a daily basis, the women breathed concentrations of airborne particles that were 15 times greater than the village men, who spend their time outdoors fishing. She also noted that respiratory illnesses among the very young were prevalent.

“More young children die from respiratory illness there than from diarrheal diseases,” she says. “But parents do not associate these deaths with smoke exposure, even though the mothers keep their youngest children close by while they cook.”

While the Bangladesh study was focused on identifying economic incentives for changing cooking methods, Hildemann became curious as to whether this health disparity between the sexes translated to developed nations.

She tracked down a large-scale U.S. study that compared gender and employment and found that most people spend about 90 percent of each day indoors. Women tend to spend more time in the home—as much as 12 percent—and 2 to 4 percent more time in the kitchen, the room with the greatest concentration of pollutants from cooking. Both sexes spend less than 5 percent of their time outdoors.

In a study to assess indoor activity and pollutant exposure, she and her team measured airborne dust levels caused by vacuuming. “The person doing the vacuuming gets 250 times more exposure to airborne dust than someone sitting nearby in a chair,” she says. “In fact, dust kicks up even if the vacuum isn’t on.”

An expert in assessing human exposure to air contaminants, Hildemann suggests removing carpets from the home and staying away from any product with pine or lemon scent, which reacts with other pollutants to create particles that are easily inhaled. She would also like to see clearer labeling so consumers can decide what products to use, but regulatory agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and OSHA do not oversee quality controls in the home.

“There is a connection between traditional gender roles and differences in air pollution exposure,” Hildemann says. “We need to know more about the relationships between locations, activities, and pollutant exposure levels. From there we can figure out how to reduce indoor exposure to air pollutants.”



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