In North America and Europe, people usually spend about 90 percent of their time indoors. All that time inside affects our health and happiness, but how?
Journalist Emily Anthes, author of the new book The Great Indoors tries to answer that question. It’s a fascinating read — especially at a time when the ongoing pandemic has changed how we spend our time inside. With restaurant dining off the table in many regions with coronavirus-induced lockdowns, people are spending more time cooking and baking at home. Others found themselves growing herb gardens in their kitchens to avoid long lines at grocery stores. The Verge spoke with Anthes about the costs and benefits that might come with some of our new indoor habits, and what we can do to foster a healthy environment at home.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What got you interested in the ways that indoor spaces affect people?
The spark for the book really came from seeing a lot of studies on what scientists are starting to call the indoor microbiome. What struck me was how diverse and expansive their findings were. They were finding hundreds of thousands of species of bacteria and tens of thousands of species of fungi in homes across America. And so, I really started thinking of our homes as ecosystems.
Most of these creatures or critters or organisms that are in our homes are totally benign. In fact, a lot of them actually come from us. There’s also evidence to suggest that being exposed to a wide range and a rich assortment of microbes, especially early in life, when we’re kids seems to have a protective effect. It makes us less likely to develop asthma and autoimmune disease later in life.
So how can I maintain a “healthier home microbiome,” while reconciling that with the fear of germs I’ve developed because of COVID-19?
That’s very much a matter of debate. People are talking about things like home probiotics, and there are actually companies that already sell what they claim are probiotic sprays. And that’s almost certainly premature. Partly because we still don’t have a good sense of what a healthy home microbiome looks like. It’s likely to be complex, not just one magic microbe you can spray around your home.
But there are some good rules of thumb. Moisture is the enemy in general. You might have a lot of dormant fungal spores around your home and they’re typically harmless. But if they get wet, they can grow into mold, which can trigger allergies and other problems. So keep your home dry, keep it well ventilated, make sure not to 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 it’s a balance and we want to not have these pathogens in our homes. But it turns out that just soap and water does a really good job of getting rid of it. I would definitely recommend people stick to things like that rather than wipes that are advertised as being antibacterial.
How might our built environments affect our health if we’re spending more time at home during the pandemic?
One thing that I’ve been looking into a little bit is indoor air quality. We know that increasing ventilation and making sure we have fresh air is a really important way to reduce transmission of the disease in indoor spaces. But it’s also important from the perspective of indoor air pollutants. Thanks to federal regulations, our outdoor air quality has gotten a lot better over recent decades. But indoor air quality remains largely unregulated. So for most of us, certainly here in the US, our indoor environments are now the main source of our exposure to air pollution.
Spending more time at home does a couple of things. One, it potentially increases the time we’re spending surrounded by these pollutants. But there’s also some data that’s emerging to suggest that the air quality in our homes might actually be getting worse as we spend more time at home. That’s partly because two of the main causes of indoor air pollution are cooking and cleaning. There’s anecdotal evidence to say that we’re doing a lot more of that during the pandemic.
So, how can we make our homes better for our well-being as we spend more time there during the pandemic?
A lot of people have been asking me this lately and my number one go-to recommendation is nature or plants. There’s overwhelming evidence that exposure to greenery and natural landscapes has all these benefits for us from reducing stress, anxiety, pain, boosting mood. The list of benefits is almost endless. And that’s something I’ve done in my own home. I’ve brought a lot more house plants in. But the interesting thing about it is, if you’re not really a gardener or you’re worried about keeping plants alive, or maybe you don’t have a lot of light, it doesn’t have to be real plants. There’s evidence to suggest that even photos of nature or even nature sounds can have some of the same stress-relieving effects, and presumably fake plants as well.
There’s a lot of evidence for the benefits of daylight, which also boosts mood. It keeps us alert during the day when we’re working. Exposure to lots of daylight during the day helps us sleep better at night. So, a real easy thing to do is make sure you open your curtains when you get up in the morning or raise your blinds. Those are two things that really have a lot of solid research behind them.
As an environmental reporter, I’m often exploring how outdoor environments might affect health outcomes or create disparities. How might the way indoor spaces are designed lead to any disparities?
It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot in terms of the pandemic. We see places where the biggest super-spreading events or outbreaks are happening in places like prisons, meatpacking plants, dorms for migrant workers, nursing homes. These are all environments that tend to be home to vulnerable and marginalized people. And I don’t think that’s an accident that we’ve created these dense, poorly ventilated spaces that are not great for the spread of infectious disease for people that society tends to shunt aside.
Obviously, the pandemic is devastating. And if I could snap my fingers and make it go away, I would. But it’s really made people more aware and conscious of their indoor environments. So I think there is an opening now to think through what kinds of spaces we want to create. There’s an opening and a chance to sort of do a better job of it. That’s something I’ll be watching for in the months and years to come.