Fresh Thinking About Fresh Air

Fresh Thinking About Fresh Air


Reading an article in the American News ‘The Economist’ on It is time to clean up the air in buildings’. According to the Lancet Covid-19 commission, schools are chronically under-ventilated. A study of 100 American classrooms found 87 with worryingly low ventilation rates. Across Denmark, France, Italy, Norway and Sweden, researchers found that indoor-air quality in 66% of classrooms fell short of healthy standards.

In America nearly one child in 13 has asthma—a condition triggered by allergens often found in schools. Outdoor-air pollution can penetrate inside buildings—childhood exposure can affect neurodevelopment and academic performance, and cause cancer. USA has acknowledged the important of ventilation in indoor spaces and President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan assigns $123bn to improving school infrastructure and mentions ventilation as a priority. Other countries should follow suit.

The above referenced funding ONLY addresses ONE sectors need but the problem extends well beyond classrooms. Many people spend more than 90% of their time indoors. Researchers have linked under-ventilated spaces in buildings to a range of ailments—headaches, fatigue, shortness of breath, coughs, dizziness, nausea, and irritation of eye, nose, throat and skin. Poor ventilation has been blamed for increased absences from work, decreased productivity and asthma, all of which add a cost to the economy.

A short history lesson: In 1842 Edwin Chadwick, a British social reformer, published his “Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population”. By documenting evidence of social and geographic inequalities in health, Chadwick showed that poor sanitation was associated with poor health. The report eventually led British cities to organise clean water supplies and to centralise their sewage systems, in turn reducing the prevalence of infectious diseases, in particular cholera. Similar reforms around the world in the 20th century tackled food safety and outdoor-air pollution. Now a new public-health priority is becoming apparent: making indoor air cleaner.

The pandemic has brought a new urgency to the matter. The virus which causes Covid-19 spreads between people less by close contact and infected surfaces and more by hitching a ride on aerosol particles from people’s lungs that can linger in the air of an ill-ventilated room. Again, we make reference to The REHVA (Federation of European Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning Associations) control hierarchy to reduce the environmental risks of airborne transmission.

Indoor-air quality has attracted little government attention. But achieving clean, pathogen-free air in buildings and indoor public spaces is possible.

The steps are:

  • Provide people with more information and educate people on how well-ventilated their air is;
  • Provide people with good information on sterilisation technologies that can assist improve their indoor air quality;
  • Develop national indoor-air-quality standards would help;
  • Provide government funding to businesses, hospitality, health care and educational sectors etc;
  • Develop a process for enforcing and monitoring good ventilation strategies through ventilation certificates for buildings, similar to food-hygiene certificates that already exist for restaurants; and
  • Seek continuous improvements.