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Now SAGE chimes in on cost-of-living crisis: No10 adviser says closing windows or using log burners to cut energy bills ‘increases health risk’

  • Brits are keeping windows closed and turning heating off to keep bills down
  • But a Government adviser has warned these actions reduce fresh air in homes
  • In turn, they raise the risk of breathing in pollutants, rhinocort aqueous and pregnancy viruses, damp and mould 

Cost-saving energy hacks may be putting our health at risk, an expert has warned.

Millions of Britons are keeping their windows closed, turning the heating off and using log burners in a bid to save energy and keep bills down. 

But these actions increase exposure to pollutants — such as those from cooking or burning wood — according to Professor Catherine Noakes, a mechanical engineer at the University of Leeds.

A lack of ventilation also drives up the chance of spreading illnesses, such as Covid and flu, and raises the risk of damp and mould, which can trigger respiratory infection.

Professor Noakes, a member of SAGE who advised the Government on its pandemic response, told Britons to open their windows ‘intermittently’ and turn on extractor fans after showing and cooking to boost air turnover.

The cost-of-living crisis is seeing Brits avoid making their homes colder so they don’t need to turn the heating on — amid warnings average annual bills will double to £2,500.

With food, fuel and mortgage rates also soaring, many may be unwilling to run the risk of making their home colder. 

Professor Noakes, a member of SAGE who advised the Government on its pandemic response, told Britons to open their windows ‘intermittently’ and turn on extractor fans after showing and cooking to boost air turnover

Ventilation is the process of introducing fresh air into indoor spaces while removing stale air.

Letting fresh air into indoor spaces can help remove air that contains virus particles and prevent the spread of infections such as Covid, flu and measles.

Good ventilation has also been linked to health benefits such as better sleep and concentration, and fewer sick days from work or school. 

When someone with a respiratory viral infection breathes, speaks, coughs or sneezes, they release small particles that contain the virus that caused the infection. 

While larger droplets fall quickly to the ground, aerosols containing the virus can remain suspended in the air for some time, including after an infected person has left the area. 

These particles may then be breathed in by others or can come into contact with the eyes, nose or mouth. 

In poorly ventilated rooms the amount of virus in the air can build up, increasing the risk of spread, especially if there are lots of infected people in the room.

Source: UK Health Security Agency 

Professor Noakes said: ‘I have a real concern that some of the things people are doing actually have a compounding effect.

‘So if you are at home, for example, and you don’t turn the heating on and you keep the window shut, not only have you reduced ventilation, but you’ve also created a condition where you might get more damp and mould, which has a knock-on effect of impacting your health.’

Previous research by Professor Noakes suggested that being in a room with fresh air reduces the risk of catching Covid from airborne droplets by more than 70 per cent.

This is because ventilation dilutes the particles containing Covid.

But the benefits of fresh air also apply to other viruses, such as chickenpox, measles and influenza, which pose a higher risk in poorly ventilated spaces, she said.

Professor Noakes said: ‘We breathe about 14,000 litres of air every day.

‘A lot of what we’re exposed to comes from what we breathe.

‘Around 90 per cent of the time we’re indoors — that might be your home, workplace, schools, transport and social settings.

‘There is so much evidence that the quality of the air we breathe is really important for our health — and ventilation is a really big part of that.’

She said there are many ways in which ventilation can be improved at low or minimal cost. 

These include ensuring ventilation systems are well maintained and raising awareness about the importance of ventilation, Professor Noakes said. 

She said: ‘[When] you open windows intermittently, you can get some of that fresh air in without actually having a significant impact on your energy use.

‘Making sure you open a window after you’ve had a shower or using an extractor fan in your kitchen when you cook can also help.

‘You’re only using it for short periods of time — so you’re not using much energy to provide ventilation.’

Where improving ventilation is difficult, using air cleaning devices can be a low-energy way of improving indoor air quality, she added.

Better ventilation in workplaces and schools is also associated with lower illness absence, Professor Noakes said.

Along with an international team of scientists, Professor Noakes is spearheading a campaign — called World Ventil8 Day, which takes place on November 8 — to raise more awareness about how building ventilation supports health and wellbeing.

She said: ‘It is critical to making buildings more resilient to health threats including our regular battles with the transmission of colds and flu around crowded indoor spaces.’

Professor Noakes is on SAGE and sub-committee Environmental Modelling Group (EMG) and conducted research into the spread of the virus.

She warned in June 2020 that it was too soon to ease social distancing rules and that person could catch Covid from someone 4 metres away in a poorly ventilated space.

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