Why Is Indoor Air Quality Important?

The encompassing effects air indoor air quality has on a building and its occupants.

Everyone looks forward to returning to the pre-COVID era when going indoors was safe. To achieve that goal, we need to do our part to protect ourselves and others by wearing masks, getting vaccinated, and practicing social distancing. 

Part of battling COVID-19 also includes ensuring our air quality is as clean and healthy as possible. In addition to the above precautions, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends upgrading ventilation systems in occupied buildings. Unfortunately, upgrading an existing HVAC system can be costly and beyond the means of many small businesses. A more affordable option is to supplement a current ventilation system with a portable air filtration system with a MERV filter rating of 13 or higher to capture the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

We need to remember that while SARS-CoV-2 is a highly contagious and life-threatening virus, there are many other contaminants present in indoor air that can pose health risks as well. 

This blog will address indoor air pollution, how indoor air quality affects job performance, and how to improve your business’s indoor air quality so we can all return to school and work—and a sense of normalcy.

Do You Know What You Are Breathing Indoors? 

We need to ask ourselves this daily every time we do an ordinary indoor task like grocery shopping, working out, or eating at a restaurant. What is in the air? Are you, your employees, and customers breathing in harmful chemicals, bacteria, or viruses? Ignorance may be bliss, but in this case, knowledge is power—and it could save your life and the lives of others. 

According to a Fast Company article, “We spend 90% of our time inside—why don’t we care that our indoor air is so polluted?” ventilation rates were reduced to save energy in response to the energy crisis in the late 1970s. As a result, pollutants have been building up in our structures since then without our knowledge. 

According to the authors, in North America and Europe, people spend 90% of their time indoors. To put that into perspective, multiply your age by 0.9 to determine your “indoor age”—the amount of time spent indoors in your lifetime. 

As our society focuses on the environment, the emphasis has been on outdoor air quality. We also need to spend more time looking at indoor air quality, as we spend more time increasingly inside. Of course, outdoor air quality is critically important, but there should be a balance. After all, a healthy planet with sick people is just as wrong as a sick planet with healthy people. 

Humans’ Contribution to Poor Indoor Air Quality

It is essential to understand that outdoor air pollution can negatively impact indoor air quality because it can seep through a building’s infrastructure. The amount of outdoor air that gets in may depend on your ventilation system and the age of the building. 

We are also partially to blame for our indoor air quality. We naturally dislike odors, whether from cooking, dust, mold, or other factors. That is why we use sprays, candles, and scented cleaners to mitigate odors in the air without considering how they affect our health. In addition, we do not thank the products we use for personal hygiene, including perfumes, deodorant, cologne, and scented shampoos, oils, and lotions.

Man sneezing indoors

We also cannot forget about all the building materials and furniture that off-gas pollutants into our sealed-box homes and offices. “There are all sorts of potential indoor contaminants, some of which you may be familiar with, and some of which you probably haven’t thought much about” (Allen & Macomber, 2020)

That is certainly a lot to consider and something many of us are happy to ignore. When it comes to commercial and public buildings, a manager’s number-one priority is the health and safety of their employees, patients, students, or customers. Air quality, then, is a critically important topic.

Back to SchoolPost-Covid Style

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a catastrophic ripple effect on the world’s normal operations, and one of the sectors most affected was education. 

While the school closures were necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19, they came at a price. According to a Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health report, “Healthy Schools: Risk Reduction Strategies for Reopening Schools,” 67.7%, or 1.2 billion, of the world’s students had their education disrupted. The report concluded that school closures would likely lead to an increase in the high school drop-out rate, and even students who stay in school will be affected. According to the report, they face a reduction in lifetime earnings of 1.6%, 3.3%, and 3.0% for White, Black, and Hispanic students, respectively, over a 40-year working life (Jones E., 2020).

Safely reopening schools is a priority so students can get back on track with their education. Before the pandemic, schools were already an environment where highly contagious diseases like chickenpox, measles, mumps, scabies, pinkeye, and norovirus spread. 

While vaccinations are required before school, a high vaccination rate does not guarantee 100% immunity. No vaccine is 100% effective, meaning outbreaks still occur occasionally in schools. We need to prepare for this possibility with the COVID-19 virus as well. 

To contract COVID-19, you do not even need to be in close contact with an infectious person. For example, a sneeze from an infected person can disperse the virus and remain in a room for hours. The Chan School of Public Health report recommends that improving indoor air quality should be part of a layered defense strategy against COVID-19.

High school students wearing masks

Indoor Air Quality Affects Job Performance

Schools nationwide are working to determine the best and safest way to reopen and remain open, but businesses also need to ensure employees’ and customers’ safety and well-being. That means they must address indoor air quality. 

An article by the Harvard Gazette, “Your building might be making you sick Joe Allen can help,” explains how several cognitive function studies demonstrated that indoor air quality impacts job performance. 

Joe Allen, Associate Professor of Exposure Assessment Science at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Director of the Healthy Buildings Program, and his team worked in concert with Syracuse University and SUNY Upstate Medical University, with support from United Technologies on the CogFX studies. They published the report, The Impact of Green Buildings on Cognitive Functions through their joint efforts. Allen has also co-written various reports on indoor environmental quality, such as The 9 Foundations of a Healthy Building and a book, “Healthy Buildings.”

In the CogFX study, 24 participants were tested in nine areas:

The research concluded, “Crisis-response scores were 97 percent higher at the green office setting compared with that of conventional office space, and 131 percent higher at the green+ office setting” (Walsh, 2018).

The Cost-Benefit Advantage of Healthy Buildings

The research clearly shows a productivity increase, but Allen voiced concern that decision-makers would view healthy buildings as too expensive. To that end, Allen and his team researched the monetary benefits of implementing healthy building practices through the CogFX. Allen concluded, “doubling the ventilation rate costs less than $40 per person, per year in all climate zones… However, the same change in ventilation rate can increase the productivity of an employee by $6,500 a year” (Walsh, 2018). This data should make any business manager think twice before dismissing a healthy building model implementation due to cost. 

Putting It Into Practice

Allen and his team put their research into practice at The Harvard Healthier Buildings Materials Academy at the T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The Academy was created in 2017 in collaboration with Harvard’s Office for Sustainability, with a goal “to ground our product purchase decisions in the latest science, including leading research done right on our own campus” (Harvard Healthy Buildings Program, n.d.).

The Academy conducts workshops and information sessions across the University to educate stakeholders on the science of healthier materials, creating real change. Currently, there are 40 projects throughout the campus focused on ingredient transparency. 

Allen and his team converted their research findings into a checklist, “Nine Foundations of a Healthy Building.” Air quality, dust and pests, lighting and views, moisture, noise, safety and security, thermal health, ventilation, and water quality.

Modern LEED Certified Office Building

Recommendations for Cleaner Air

The question remains: How can building managers ensure employees’ and customers’ well-being? The Healthy Buildings Program and the CDC recommend upgrading ventilation systems to improve indoor air quality. For classrooms, they suggest four to six air changes per hour (ACH)

To calculate ACH, find the clean air rate by multiplying the cubic feet per minute airflow by 60. Then, divide by room area:

In addition to upgrading the ventilation system, it is essential to filter the indoor air. As discussed in our blog post, “What is the MERV Rating System?” installing a MERV-13 filter or higher will increase the efficiency of the air filtration system. However, these filters must be replaced periodically and monitored to verify proper installation and fit.

Even with upgraded ventilation systems, high-efficiency air filters, and portable air cleaners, there is always room for another layer of protection—ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI). UVGI uses low-wavelength ultraviolet light (UVC light) to destroy viruses. It is effective in disinfecting surfaces and air and cleaning bacteria and viruses such as influenza.

In buildings, “this technology is usually deployed as upper-room UVGI to destroy airborne viruses in the upper airspace of a room or as UVGI in supply air ducts to destroy airborne virus present in recirculated air” (Healthy Buildings)

However, UVGI presents some issues in both installation and operation. For instance, UVGI needs to have substantial contact time with the virus to do its job effectively. In addition, companies and organizations may be worried about cost, maintenance, and the potential health risks of being exposed to UV light. 

Consultation with an expert before buying a UVGI system is recommended. Much like MERV filters, they can significantly provide a cleaner and healthier indoor environment. Still, miseducation and misuse of these air-cleaning techniques will cause them to be ineffective and possibly harmful. Refer to the article Debunking UVGI Myths for further details on this topic.

Healthy Building Protocols Benefit Everyone

As discussed at the start of this blog, the pandemic heightened our awareness of the air we breathe. With the pandemic still ongoing, it is even more critical for business owners to educate themselves and their employees about indoor air quality. 

The Harvard Healthy Buildings program has concluded that implementing healthy building protocols will add money to your company’s bottom line. Given what the world has faced this past year, companies worldwide need to make severe adjustments to their business environments. If your company has decided to have employees work remotely indefinitely, adjustments to their home office environment must also be made. 

As a society, we are doing what we can to protect the environment through recycling, limiting fossil fuels, buying electric cars, and more. Now it is time for us to take steps to improve indoor air quality collectively. 

Guidance from the Sanalife team will help you find the best disinfection and sanitation solution suited for your business or organization. You will have peace of mind knowing you gave employees, customers, and students indoor air. Contact us today to get started!

Diverse Corporate open Concept Office

References

Allen, J. G., & Macomber, J. D. (2020, May 20). We spend 90% of our time inside—why don’t we care that indoor air is so polluted? From Fast Company

Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, March 23). Ventilation in Buildings. From Center for Disease Control and Prevention

Hammer, K. (2017, February 7). The study opens the door to better sleep, work, health—the Harvard Gazette

Harvard Healthy Buildings Program. (n.d.). Healthier Materials. From Healthy Buildings

Harvard University. (n.d.). The impact of green buildings on cognitive function. From Harvard University - Sustainability

Healthy Buildings. (n.d.). Healthy Buildings. From Healthy Buildings

Jones E, Y. A.-L. (2020). Healthy Schools: Risk Reduction Strategies for Reopening Schools. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Healthy Buildings program

LearnMetrics. (2021, April 12). Air Changes Per Hour: What It Is, How To Calculate ACH? From Learn Metrics HVAC Systems

McGowan, M. K. (2021). Debunking UVGI Myths. ASHRAE Journal, 1-2.

Walsh, C. (2018, February 14). Your building might be making you sick. Joe Allen can help. The Harvard Gazette, pp. 1-7.

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