In North America and Europe, people typically spend about 90 percent of their time indoors. All the time inside affects our health and happiness, but how?
Journalist Emily Anthes, author of the new book The big ones inside tries to answer this question. It’s a fascinating read – especially at a time when the ongoing pandemic has changed our time inside. With the restaurant dining off corona viruses in many regions, people spend more time cooking and baking at home. Others built herb gardens in their kitchens to avoid long queues at grocery stores. The edge spoke to Anthes about the costs and benefits that some of our new indoor habits could bring and what we can do to promote a healthy home environment.
This interview was edited for the sake of length and clarity.
What interested you in how interiors affect people?
The spark for the book really came from many studies of what scientists are beginning to call the indoor microbiome. What impressed me was how diverse and expansive their results were. They found hundreds of thousands of bacteria and tens of thousands of fungi in homes across America. And so I really started to look at our homes as ecosystems.
Most of these creatures or living things or organisms that are in our homes are completely harmless. In fact, many of them come from us. There is also evidence that exposure to a wide range and variety of microbes, especially when we are young when we are children, appears to have a protective effect. It makes us less likely to develop asthma and autoimmune diseases later in life.
So how can I maintain a “healthier home microbiome” and reconcile it with the fear of germs that I’ve developed due to? COVID-19?
It is very controversial. People talk about things like probiotics at home, and there are actually companies that already sell probiotic sprays. And that’s almost certainly premature. Partly because we still don’t know exactly what a healthy microbiome looks like at home. It’s probably complex, not just a magic microbe that you can spray around your home.
But there are some good rules of thumb. Moisture is the enemy in general. You may have a lot of dormant fungal spores in your home that are usually harmless. However, if they get wet, they can become molds that can cause allergies and other problems. So keep your home dry, well ventilated and do not use antimicrobial products. [Anthes writes in her book that, “Bacteria adapt to these chemicals at lightning speed, and using them in our homes could help drive the emergence of new superbugs … Moreover, coating the inside of our homes with antimicrobial compounds can wipe out the good microbes along with the bad.]
When it comes to the coronavirus, I understand that it’s a balance and we don’t want these pathogens in our homes. But it turns out that only soap and water do a really good job of getting rid of it. I would definitely recommend that people stick to things like this rather than wipes that are advertised as antibacterial.
How could our built environments affect our health if we spent more time at home during the pandemic?
One thing I did a little research on is indoor air quality. We know that better ventilation and ensuring fresh air is a very important way to reduce the transmission of the disease indoors. But it is also important from the perspective of indoor air pollutants. Thanks to federal regulations, our outdoor air quality has improved significantly in recent decades. However, indoor air quality remains largely unregulated. For most of us, certainly here in the United States, our indoor climate is the main source of our air pollution today.
Spending more time at home does a few things. First, the time we spend on these pollutants may increase. But there are also some data that indicate that if we spend more time at home, the air quality in our homes will actually deteriorate. This is due in part to the fact that two of the main causes of indoor air pollution are cooking and cleaning. There is occasional evidence that we are doing much more of this during the pandemic.
so, how can We are improving our home for our wellbeing as we spend more time there during the pandemic.
Lots of people have asked me about it lately and my first recommendation is nature or plants. There is overwhelming evidence that exposure to green spaces and natural landscapes has all of these benefits for us by reducing stress, anxiety, pain, and improving mood. The list of benefits is almost endless. And I did that in my own house. I brought a lot more houseplants with me. But the interesting thing is, if you’re not really a gardener or are worried about keeping plants alive, or if you don’t have a lot of light, then it doesn’t have to be a real plant. There is evidence that even photos of nature or even sounds of nature can have the same stress-relieving effects, and presumably fake plants.
There is plenty of evidence of the benefits of daylight, which also improves mood. It keeps us awake during the day when we work. If we are exposed to a lot of daylight during the day, we can sleep better at night. So it’s a very simple thing to make sure that you open your curtains when you get up in the morning or raise your blinds. These are two things that really have a lot of solid research behind them.
As an environmental reporter, I often investigate how outdoor environments can impact health outcomes or lead to inequalities. How could interior design lead to inequalities?
I’ve thought a lot about the pandemic. We see places where the greatest events or outbreaks occur, such as prisons, meat packaging plants, dormitories for migrant workers and nursing homes. These are all environments in which vulnerable and marginalized people live. And I don’t think it is a coincidence that we created these dense, poorly ventilated spaces that are not good for the spread of infectious diseases in people that society tends to put aside.
The pandemic is obviously devastating. And if I could snap my fingers and make it go away, I would. But it has really made people more aware and aware of their inner environment. I think there is an opening now to consider what types of spaces we want to create. There is an opening and a chance to do better. I will pay attention to this in the coming months and years.