Healthy debate over air quality

A move towards embracing more sustainable building materials and a focus on monitoring and measuring indoor air quality (IAQ) are at the heart of efforts to protect people and properties.

A subtle, but significant, shift is increasingly likely to occur around the construction of our best commercial buildings which for many years have been judged on qualities such as their location, aesthetics and energy efficiency.

In the aftermath of COVID-19, there is a growing push for healthy buildings which support the physical and mental health of occupants, including through a focus on improved indoor air quality and filtration.

The hope is that these buildings, on the back of superior ventilation and better control of airborne diseases, will help contain the spread of COVID-19, pathogens and illnesses in the workplace and contribute to better productivity levels and wellbeing for workers.

Jason Green is principal consultant of occupational hygiene at Greencap, a consultancy that specialises in the management of health and safety, property risk and environmental risk. He believes there is growing awareness about the impact of hazardous building materials on IAQ.

“It’s absolutely something which needs to be looked at in further detail,” he says.

Green says the building industry is going through a “transition phase” as questions are raised about the use of some materials that most manufacturers and suppliers maintain are safe.

“But these materials may have semi-toxic or irritable-style chemicals which are within those building materials which can extract themselves if they’re newly installed into the buildings.”

He cites the case of formaldehyde, a strong-smelling and flammable chemical that is used in materials such as particleboard, plywood and other pressed-wood products, while some other products may give off gasses if they are not installed into the building fabric correctly.

“They can inadvertently cause potentially significant indoor air quality issues,” Green says.

“There needs to be more clarity in this area.”

The hope is that new buildings, through “product stewardship” and smart design by architects and building developers, will be more environmentally and human friendly. By contrast, those developers who opt for the cheapest materials and products will potentially contribute to poor IAQ and associated health issues.

“They’ll have these products which could cause potentially negative indoor air quality issues for the building occupants now and down the track if these building products start to break down or get damaged,” Green says.

Patty Olinger, executive director for the Global Biorisk Advisory Council (GBAC) in the United States, agrees with such analysis.

“There’s no doubt that we’re starting to look at building construction, and what goes into that construction,” she says.

Other factors that are on the minds of IAQ experts include inferior work practices among cleaning and hygiene workers, and inadequate training of employees.

“We should be really paying attention to the tools that they use, from microfibre towels to different spray systems and the mop systems and the floor scrubbers,” Olinger says.

No room for complacency

With historical research from the US Environmental Protection Agency revealing that Americans spend about 90 per cent of their time indoors, there is a compelling case for focusing on better IAQ.

Daniel Massaioli is a chemistry expert who has been developing pharmaceutical and cleaning agent formulations for decades and has developed the product SAN-AIR, an air-purifying reactive gel that is inserted into air-conditioning units to prevent mould and bacteria infestations. The business also produces a surface mould remover and surface sanitiser.

Massaioli is concerned with the perception that the worst of COVID-19 is over, leading to some facility managers scaling back their commitment to IAQ. For example, one of his client’s customers reported that fogging for SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 dropped virtually overnight by 98 per cent.

“It was like people went from being desperate to do something to doing nothing,” Massaioli says.

He is encouraging building owners and facility managers to stay the course.

“Indoor air quality is an important aspect of everyday life, and we are living in a world that produces more and more particulate matter that brings pathogens into our air space. So, we need to stay vigilant and produce IAQ protections that are adequate for the environment that one lives in – and what’s adequate in Australia may not be adequate for someone in Europe or Africa, where a different approach may be required.”

Olinger says whether it is in our homes, or in office buildings, IAQ really has a “huge impact” on our health.

“Research also shows that bad indoor air quality, as opposed to better indoor air quality, can affect our performance and our children’s performance at school. So, a lot of data is coming forward on the medical outcomes of having good indoor air and why it’s important.”

There are a range of factors that can contribute to poor IAQ, including inadequate ventilation, chemical pollutants from building materials and cleaning products, and biological contaminants such as mould and bacteria. These contaminants can accumulate over time and cause a build-up of toxins in the air, which can be harmful to building occupants.

Olinger thinks indoor air quality monitoring will increasingly be a focal point for building owners and managers now and into the future “because once we start to monitor and measure, then we can at least put a game plan together”.

She adds indoor air pollutants can cause serious health problems and need to be better understood and controlled. “And monitoring systems can actually help us with that,” she says.

“We have a lot of work to do in this space, including examining our HVAC systems in general, and looking at our air turnover rates and what kind of filtration we should have in these occupied spaces where we spend most of our time.”

Green is also an advocate of monitoring and assessing real-time data related to IAQ.

“This is something which is really coming to the fore – looking at new technologies and appropriate monitoring devices that collate information. We’ve heard talk of carbon dioxide monitors, for example, and getting useful point-in-time information and useful data from buildings. This will become more and more important.”

Lessons from the pandemic

Olinger says the COVID-19 pandemic has been a wakeup call regarding IAQ. She urges industry leaders to remain vigilant and keep embracing new technologies and ideas to prevent any harmful effects.

“There will be another pandemic or novel organism sometime in the future,” she says.

“Hopefully it’s a long time in the future. But it could be tomorrow. And I think the questions we have to ask ourselves include, ‘Are we ready?’ and ‘What have we learned?’ ”

She endorses the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals that, in part, call for a holistic approach to health and wellness and healthy work environments.

“We really need to pay attention to that. For me, I take the concept from biosecurity of ‘One Health’ – healthy buildings, healthy people, healthy planet. Being able to embrace that in the long run, we’ll all be much happier and healthier going forward.”

This article first appeared in INCLEAN Australia magazine 

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