We think of allergies as being part of the tough luck that accompanies the joy of
life. But what if allergies are a created problem? A problem, moreover, that may even be aggravated by the very environments created to cure people of health problems?
When ‘prevention’ is aggravation
In Breathing Space: How Allergies Shape Our Lives, Gregg Mitman, a professor of history of science at University of Wisconsin-Madison, chronicles the way allergies have risen in the US in tandem with increasing agricultural, industrial, urban and medical development over the 20th century. Mitman shows that sometimes the very changes we make to the physical environment to prevent allergies can lay the seeds for their aggressive growth.
For instance, ragweed is a common weed along highway margins and in vacant lots in America. In many, its pollen causes hay fever, an allergic illness which affects millions of Americans annually. Talking about the many campaigns over the 20th century to uproot and destroy ragweed, Mitman points to an acute irony: Uprooting ragweed disturbed the soil and thereby created favourable conditions for the seeds of that very weed to take hold and remain viable in the soil for 40 years.
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Problem of place
Mitman believes that allergies are a problem of place— bed, home, city, region—as much as of factors such as heredity. The peculiar ecology of each place—including its geology and climate— supports or inhibits the presence of different allergens. Mould thrives in humid climates. Pollen is an issue in the Bangalore winters partly because the climate means it is held low in cold air, at a breathable height.
Our living environment exposes us to many potential and actual allergens, indoors and outdoors. Dust mites, mould, chemicals from indoor finishes and furnishings are the common allergens in our homes.
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Solutions of space
Unmould: Design, the choice of materials and the nature of maintenance directly affect our exposure to allergens. Context responsiveness is crucial here. A poorly ventilated home or office in a humid climate (say, along the coast) will harbour mould in corners and cabinets. Of course, even in a well-ventilated space, mould can grow on fancy wall paint. Humble lime plaster is much better for those allergic to mould, since it does not provide the right conditions for mould to take hold. Polished wood or veneer can harbour mould too. And no, melamine polish is not the answer, since it too encourages mould; it may also cause respiratory problems, especially while spraying.
Dust off: Design can also affect the prevalence of dust and dust mites, as well as the ease of cleaning. In dusty regions, buildings can be designed to reduce the free movement of dust from outside to inside. For instance, traditional desert architecture in Rajasthan used very small courtyards into which all room doors or windows opened, while remaining walled off from the outdoors. Indoors, spaces and objects (such as furniture) with many intricate horizontal or tilted-up surfaces are major dust traps. Cleaner lines, simpler surfaces are easier to clean, can look good and may even be good for health. In this at least, modern aesthetics seems to have done right by the body.
Burst the bubble: “Allergies are rising everywhere,” says Nobhojit Roy of Cehat (Centre for Enquiry into Health and Allied Themes), Mumbai. He believes that while chemical dust from construction activity may cause allergies, the trend is rooted in a built environment where landscaping or concrete covers everything natural. “And soon...nature becomes ‘foreign’ and we are allergic to natural substances,” he says.
The last frontier of escape, the completely protected air-conditioned interior, solves nothing. Mitman observes that allergies are an ecological illness involving the unique interplay between body and environment. An air-conditioned environment merely substitutes one ecology for another. Many air-conditioned spaces are poorly designed and maintained, and can harbour germs and allergens within filters and ducts. The horrors that this indoor ecology can unleash on allergy sufferers is best left for another column.
The author is a Goa-based architect and writer.
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