Many of us might not have heard the word “telecommuting” until very recently.
Telecommuting, a.k.a. working from home is a novel experience to many Malaysians.
All along, our workforce has been accustomed to a physical commute from home to office, then spending most of our work days in a sufficiently controlled environment of air-conditioning, ventilation, lighting, etc.
As office spaces are bound by local occupational safety and health requirements, we take for granted that the indoor air quality (IAQ) in workplaces is maintained through periodic repair and maintenance schedules.
Then comes Covid-19 and the movement control order (MCO).
Suddenly, everyone was sent home by their employers, and asked to perform their jobs from home (for non-essential economic sector workers).
Much like other countries affected by the coronavirus pandemic, such an unprecedented reset of norms in work/socialising takes much getting used to.
As our country’s effort in physical distancing and movement limitations are aimed at flattening the curve, we are further asked to adopt to the new normal, meaning the life we were used to is now a distant memory post-MCO.
While many are enjoying the comfort of their homes, being confined to a defined space with our family members 24/7 does present some challenges.
How many of us are bothered by the quality of air in our living spaces?
I am sure our family conversations do not revolve around this topic. Some of us are only presented with this topic when getting a sales talk from friends or family members who are promoting air purifiers.
Effects of cigarette residue
There are many possible contaminants to the air inside our homes.
An innocent act such as rising from a seated position can affect the ambient air around the person due to perturbation of fine solid particles from the seat surface and their suspension in air.
Similarly, performing household chores such as sweeping the floor and cooking can also alter air quality and dynamics, including introducing dust and smell or odour.
If there is a smoker in the house, indoor air quality can be severely affected in several ways.
A smoker lighting up his or her cigarette indoors will inhale the mainstream smoke himself/herself (first-hand smoke). People immediately surrounding the smoker during the act of smoking are exposed to the side stream smoke (second-hand smoke).
As cigarette smoke is a suspension of chemicals which consist primarily of solid carbon particles resulting from the burning process, these solid particles will sediment as residues that linger on the surface of furniture, walls and floor (third-hand smoke).
While many of us are aware of research establishing that first and second-hand smokers are at high risk of exposure to cancer-causing toxicants (a toxic substance that is produced by, or a by-product of, man-made activities), the impact of third-hand smoke is less well-known.
An immediate exposure of the smoke residues happens when one’s skin comes into contact with the surface of furniture, walls and floors. The residues are then transferred onto inanimate objects (e.g. remote controls, bed linens) or others (e.g. parents carrying babies).
A more direct transfer of toxicants from breath and skin happens when the smoker cuddles a child after a smoking session.
As we gain deeper knowledge into the contaminants in indoor air, we now know that besides exposure to micron-sized particles (1-10 micron and referred to as particulate matter, PM), ultrafine particles (UFP, usually < 0.1 micron) and nano-sized particles (NPs, 1/1,000 smaller in size compared to PMs) have also been detected.
Size matters because what this means is a significantly different level of toxicity when they enter human bodies.
A smaller sized particle not only has a larger surface area, but is capable of deeper penetration into the respiratory organ (lungs) and exert effects at cellular and sub-cellular levels.
This is an area of concern as we know for a fact that particles in cigarette smoke can cause cancer and respiratory illnesses following sustained exposure.
Servicing air conditioners
Back to general indoor ventilation, in our hot and humid tropical climate, most houses are fitted with air conditioners.
This means windows are normally tightly shut to not only prevent escape of the cooled air, but also to avoid the entry of another vector of communicable disease – mosquitoes, and other pests.
One should be aware that all particles (PM, NP, UFP) readily penetrate the air conditioner filtering mechanism and can be circulated indoors.
Most household air conditioning units are not fitted with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters that function to remove most particles from the air in circulation.
HEPA filters are normally reserved for use in commercial manufacturing premises.
I am sure by now you can imagine the “quality” of indoor air if someone smokes a cigarette in an enclosed air-conditioned space.
As most of us are bound to be working from home, sufficiently supported with remote-working tools for online meetings and work sharing activities, perhaps another area that requires some thought and care is regular cleaning of air conditioner filters and servicing of air conditioner units, now that we are spending more time at home.
If you have been smoking indoors, please make sure your air conditioners are professionally serviced according to schedule.
This is to ensure clean air is circulated in the space where we eat, work, play and sleep.
Current smokers should seriously consider kicking the habit for good. If you really need to smoke, do consider going outside your living space and practise physical distancing from other family members to prevent them from being exposed to second-hand smoke.
Be thoughtful if you smoke in your condominium balcony, as wind not only carries the smoke to the neighbours above or below your unit, but also sweeps the smoke back into your own unit.
Good hygiene should be practised by washing the face and hands thoroughly after a smoking session and changing to a fresh set of clothes before touching children at home.
Air out your home
To further protect third-hand smokers, regular washing or wiping of indoor items is recommended.
For most surfaces, plain water (with light detergent) will do.
Especially for houses located nearby streets with heavy vehicle traffic, dust must be wiped off surfaces on a regular basis.
Fabric materials, especially those in frequent contact with babies and toddlers, will require regular washing.
Do introduce frequent aeration of indoor air by leaving some doors and windows open at daytime.
Moving forward, when people return to a semblance of normal life by heading into their offices, indoor air quality at the workplace should also be made more of a priority to ensure workers maintain health levels, which will benefit the worker, the firm as well as the economy as a whole.
All hands on deck are required in order to kickstart the economy after such an unprecedented period of stagnation.
I am certain all of us are looking forward to resuming work and life activities post-Covid-19.
With the implementation of the recovery MCO, we can see that the government is intending to perhaps prepare us for a return to relative normalcy soon.
As such, we must do all we can to ensure stringent precautions are taken at home as well as at the workplace due to the looming threat of subsequent waves of Covid-19 infection.
This experience has taught us that telecommuting might be the optimal working norm of the future, considering savings from less travelling time and downsizing of office spaces.
So, as you contemplate some home improvement ideas, do give some thought to the air quality in your living space.
Dr Ng Yee Guan is an occupational safety and health expert. For more information, email email@example.com. The information provided is for educational purposes only and should not be considered as medical advice. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to the content appearing in this column. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.