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Every Breath You Take

Athena @ ST 10 November 2021


The coronavirus has sparked renewed interest in improving the quality of the air we breathe, specifically the air inside buildings. Although many are looking for short-term solutions that safely allow children to return to school and workers to get back to the office, innovations related to indoor air quality have the potential to yield substantial long-term benefits. - by Mark Niles
What is changing?

A wide variety of stakeholders from parents of school-aged children to business leaders are concerned with indoor air quality and looking for solutions to improve the safety and cleanliness of the air we breathe while inside. Although this is largely driven by concern over the coronavirus and its airborne transmission, innovations that follow may positively slow the spread of future pandemics in addition to positively impacting human health.

The solutions needed to improve indoor air quality may be costly and challenging to implement; however, many of the technologies required already exist. Furthermore, public pressure to improve indoor air quality and increased awareness of this issue has created a real opportunity for change. The majority of the air we breathe is from indoor sources and thus, improving indoor air quality could greatly reduce the number of airborne pathogens and harmful substances we are exposed to.

When it comes to the options available to provide clean indoor air, on one end of the spectrum are high tech air control systems like those found in hospitals and medical facilities. These are quite expensive and require routine maintenance. Extensive planning goes into designing these facilities and a variety of air control systems are utilized. Air exchange rates are high, especially in operating rooms where the air can be exchanged 15-40 times per hour ensuring a constant supply of fresh air. Medical facilities can also control the direction in which air flows throughout the building in addition to having access to high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration to remove contaminants and infectious particles from the air.

A more piecemeal approach to air filtration and quality control lies on the other end of the spectrum. This includes portable devices such as C02 monitors that parents are sending to school with their students to monitor air flow. Schools and businesses are using freestanding air purifiers to provide an increased level of protection. Many companies are trying to capitalize on the demand for air filtration devices. For example, a plethora of air purifiers, some as small as a travel mug, were featured at the 2021 Consumer Technology Association expo.

It can be very costly, especially in older buildings, to improve air quality; however, there are new approaches such as ceiling retrofitting that are making it easier to do so. Ultraviolet (UV) light technologies also show promise in killing viruses. Older buildings can also install new HVAC systems to significantly improve ventilation and air flow, both factors that can help the overall quality of the air.

The future of indoor air quality will depend on a number of factors including the public’s perception of the importance of this area. Architects will need to rethink the ways in which new buildings are constructed, taking cues from medical facility design. Government agencies might consider new building regulations that require improved ventilation and filtration of indoor air.

Pre-existing buildings such as hotels will benefit from retrofitting, the installation of new HVAC systems, and innovations in portable filtration devices and technologies that neutralize harmful substances in the air. Shifts in the way people live and work will also influence this trend area. Will we return to a world where the majority of people work together in offices or will remote work remain popular even after the current pandemic has subsided? The answer to this question will influence how we approach indoor air quality in the future.

Implications

The air quality inside can be five to ten times worse than outdoors. There are many toxins, chemicals, and common viruses found in the air that impact our health. Thus, improving the quality of the air we breathe can positively impact human health well beyond preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

Air quality in schools was a major problem even before the pandemic. Inadequate ventilation and poor air quality have measurable effects on the learning and health of students. Innovations borne from the need to halt the spread of the coronavirus could ultimately lead to positive learning outcomes for students.

Installing new HVAC systems, purchasing filtration units/purifiers, and redesigning buildings will be very expensive. Who should be responsible for incurring this cost, businesses, tax payers, government institutions?

Regular maintenance by trained technicians is required for HVAC systems to properly heat and cool a building. Once more advanced air filtration and cleaning technologies are integrated into these systems, further training will be required. This could create new job opportunities and create major challenges for existing companies. Even the best HVAC and air control systems will not work properly without regular maintenance.

Although the current focus on indoor air quality is directly related to the coronavirus pandemic, future innovations could help prevent a future pandemic or simply reduce the severity of the seasonal flu and other more common airborne viruses. This could save many lives over the long-term.

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