Thoughts about indoor air quality and monitoring

My recent post about the benefits of indoor air quality (IAQ) monitoring spoke about how monitoring can be empowering and lead to improved productivity and business effectiveness. It was written before the full impact of the Coronavirus lockdown really hit. One of the most interesting things about monitoring and measuring IAQ is how our perception of what is important varies according what we are doing and how we are feeling at any time. Our urge to control our environment, even if that control may end up with exposure to something harmful, is very strong.

Photo by Kaique Rocha on Pexels.com

A recent article in the Guardian highlighted some interesting research about the link between high levels of pollution and high levels of Covid-19 mortality, in particular, pollutants such as fine particulates, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and ozone. Exposure to these pollutants seems to weaken the immune response and also damage the fine lining of the upper respiratory tract – the main site of infection by the virus.

There is an excellent podcast featuring Professor Anna Hansell (professor of environmental epidemiology and director of the centre for environmental health and sustainability at the University of Leicester) explaining all of this here.

Another report, also in The Guardian, adds weight to the link between Covid-19 and fine particulates, but this time suggesting that the virus might be carried on those particulates – two health threats for the price of one!

What does this have to do with indoor air quality and monitoring, especially at the workplace?

In modern airtight buildings with complex air management systems, it is possible to keep levels of these externally-generated pollutants down to safe levels. There are any number of air purifiers, filters and indoor vegetation systems that will help to manage this. And there are good IAQ monitors to help building operators to keep an eye on conditions. What cannot be managed, though, is the exposure of office workers to these pollutants on their daily commute or in their own homes.

Older buildings are more difficult to manage. They are often permeable (or just plain draughty), may have opening windows (which many office workers regard as being very important, and which are very effective at enabling people to reduce productivity-destroying carbon dioxide in a matter of minutes).

Openable windows would, in many situations, be great for businesses. Empowerment and physical comfort – both of which can be managed by the simple act of opening a window – are known to be drivers of performance. However, when opening a window means bringing in a load of invisible and harmful pollutants, then other measures must be taken.

An IAQ monitor (preferably with a real-time display) would, of course, be the an ideal tool to have. It would show when levels of harmful pollutants exceed safe limits and show when to close the windows. By making the monitor visible to staff, as well as building managers, the decision to act is in the hands of the workers – empowerment is restored.

Covid-19 has brought home how vulnerable we are when our respiratory tract is damaged. Pollution is something that we must pay more attention to – it is a modifiable risk factor. Not just within and immediately surrounding our workplaces (including our home workplaces – and who measures IAQ there?), but in the wider environment too. On our commute to work, where we take exercise, where we educate our children or house our senior citizens.

The old saw, “you cannot manage what you cannot measure”, is in many instances nothing more useful than the cliched utterances of a contestant on The Apprentice. However, where air quality is concerned, there is a lot to be gained by measurement.

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