The importance of indoor air quality is a matter of public health, and the pandemic has made this significance clearer than ever before. Now, new research suggests that businesses need to strongly consider indoor air quality not only to resume operations during the COVID pandemic but to ensure safe indoor air and working environments. This article will break down how indoor air quality is connected to human health and how the pandemic has made this connection very apparent. To do so, this article will also present what indoor air quality is, its health risks, and why indoor air quality is essential.
Indoor air quality (IAQ) is a measure of air cleanliness indoors. Humans can breathe freely with both indoor and outdoor air. However, indoor air must be monitored and ventilated into indoor spaces because airflow is restricted by walls and closed windows. This is why monitoring indoor air quality is so important.
Particulate matter, like hair, pollen, harmful gases, and bacteria usually exists in the air that we breathe. However, that air is considered to be polluted the higher the density of those particulates. Both indoor and outdoor air pollution can be harmful to health. The air would consist of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), fossil fuels, nitrogen dioxide, radon, asbestos, and other fine particulate matter.
Our indoor air is filtered in several ways. However, the primary means are through heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems and the introduction of fresh air by open windows. There are ways to provide cleaner air, like through an air purifier, and we will get into this later.
Before the pandemic, Americans were spending 90% of their time indoors. Indoor air quality was a concern, but it wasn’t a matter of life and death, nor were the regulations surrounding indoor air quality regulated as strictly as COVID required. “COVID changed the conversation,” says Matt Murray, vice president of leasing at Boston Properties, the largest publicly traded developer in the United States.
When the coronavirus became a global pandemic, government officials knew that they had to protect Americans from the spread of this disease. They learned that the virus spread through airborne transmission via aerosol droplets the size of 0.3 microns, which is the most penetrating particle size (MPPS) and a particulate size that most businesses were not equipped to capture and clean.
The building design is a product of different periods, and at each time, the standard procedures were optimized for airflow and air quality. But these standards continually changed, and businesses weren’t necessarily required to modify their HVAC to handle a HEPA filter or use air purifiers for better indoor cleaning. Because of this, companies were forced to shut down.
Suddenly, good air quality had a direct impact on their bottom line. Before the pandemic, the company would have to explain to bored executives why they should pay attention to indoor air. “Now, the CEOs are all saying, ‘What filters do you use? How you process the air you bring into the workspace?’” Murray says.
The pandemic forced the issue of poor IAQ back into focus. However, one key difference between what has been happening and now is that the pandemic shifted the focus to enforcing protections for human health. While businesses weren’t equipped with the suitable systems or technology to implement these changes right away, portable air cleaners and affordable HVAC upgrades quickly became available.
The EPA and other health officials recognize indoor air pollution as seriously problematic to our health, ranking it as one of the top five environmental risks to public health by the EPA. But it took a global pandemic for more people to realize the importance of enforcing good indoor air quality.
Health organizations know well the impact of poor air quality on health. Indoor air quality has been promoted in workplaces, factories, schools, and businesses since the early 1900s. Air quality laws, like building design, help regulate proper airflow, ventilation rate, air control, air changes per hour, and safe and unsafe airborne particulates. Organizations like the EPA, OSHA, and ASHRAE exist for this reason, and safe indoor air conditions are continually updated depending on new research and other societal factors.
In addition to COVID 19 concerns, having a poor indoor environment might cause acute and long-term health conditions. This primarily occurs because of increases in particulates (i.e., pollen, mold, hair, VOCs, harmful gases, and chemicals) which can be dangerous to our health.
Depending on the nature and volatility of the molecule, the particulate build-up can be toxic immediately (in the short-term) or detrimental to long-term health.
Indoor pollutants can cause acute health effects, which include eye irritation, nose and throat irritation, headaches, dizziness, fatigue, and worsened asthma symptoms. Acute health effects can also have severe reactions to chemicals like carbon monoxide and other bacterial contaminants.
It could be argued that acute effects of poor indoor air quality are sometimes taken more seriously by health officials because they can be easily identified, tracked, and then remediated. However, long-term health effects can steadily grow and lead to potentially fatal health problems.
Long-term effects can occur due to chronic exposure to indoor air pollutants. These effects may include respiratory diseases, heart disease, and cancer. Long-term health effects are severe, but unfortunately, are hard to stop until the disease presents itself or if the pollutant source is known.
Pollutant source control is often the best way to limit long-term health effects. Pollutants like radon and asbestos are two common examples of pollutant sources that can cause serious long-term health effects.
Two factors contribute to the importance of indoor air quality on human health.
The first is because indoor spaces are relatively closed systems. This protects occupants from the elements, but it also leaves minimal ways for fresh, outdoor air to be introduced into the space. Therefore, we need to be manufactured or natural ways to get fresh air to building occupants.
The second is pollutant sources. Indoor and outdoor sources produce harmful particulates, and air naturally carries these particulates.
Without clean air properly ventilating into the building, the build-up of these particles can cause a myriad of sicknesses. These include:
Suppose your students or workers are contracting these illnesses due to poor air quality in your school or workplace. In that case, this will have a profound impact on your organization’s productivity, performance, and bottom line.
Poor IAQ affects your operations in more ways than just health:
Tracking particulate sources and source control is often the best way to interrupt this connection between IAQ and health. Indoor airborne pollutants can come from inside sources, from polluted air being vented inside, and from the building occupants themselves.
Common indoor air pollutants include lead, radon, pests, carbon monoxide, dust mites, mold, pet dander, and secondhand smoke. Environmental factors like climate change, increased humidity, and precipitation can exacerbate indoor air pollution by promoting mold growth indoors and increasing dust mites, bacteria, and other bio-contaminants.
Removing contaminant sources, changing out HVAC air filters, adding in HEPA filters to the HVAC system, upgrading HVAC induct, and adding in air purifiers are the main ways to mitigate the threat between poor indoor air quality and health.
While each solution will be different for the building and business type, it is clear that the discussion around indoor air quality has changed since the pandemic. And it is the hope of officials and scientists that organizations will continue to have an understanding of indoor air health and its long-term effects even after the pandemic has died down.