Indoor air quality (IAQ) has rapidly climbed up the public agenda in the past twelve months and is now under discussion at government levels.
It’s fair to say that indoor air quality has been a hidden issue for many years but the past two years and a global virus have changed all of that.
As a result, public awareness of the link between health and the air we breathe has increased where even the national press addresses ventilation in schools and offices.
Recently, the UK’s chief scientific officer Sir Patrick Vallance and the British Medical Association (BMA) have called for better standards for building ventilation and indoor air quality to help ensure the country has a safe return to working as normal.
Sustainability is also about ensuring that buildings can safeguarding health, wellbeing and productivity
Ventilation reduces risk
A report commissioned by Sir Patrick highlighted the importance of building ventilation in reducing the risk of Covid-19 and other infections.
It was published by the National Engineering Policy Centre (NEPC), a group of 43 professional engineering organisations representing 450,000 engineers.
It found that ventilation was often neglected and that the Covid-19 crisis had revealed flaws in the design, management, and operation of buildings.
The Building Engineering Services Association (BESA) had already raised awareness of Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) in 2019 when it called for buildings to be ‘safe havens’ to protect occupants from the worst impacts of air pollution.
Graeme Fox, head of technical for of BESA, says: “The idea of Buildings as Safe Havens is to promote and encourage the concept of clean indoor air zones that protect occupants from the worst impacts of air pollution while also supporting good health and wellbeing. It reflects the fact that most of us spend 90% of our lives indoors, whether that’s at work, at school or at home.”
A major health issue
Air pollution is one of the biggest health problems we face today, and the quality of outdoor air impacts significantly on our health indoors.
Findings from Public Health England 1 show that pollution causes between 24,000 and 36,000 deaths every year in the UK.
These pollutants include nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which arises mainly from petrol and diesel engines, and sulphur dioxide (SO), released when coal is burned for fuel in power stations.
Some of the most harmful pollutants take the form of particulate matter (PM), tiny particles that are a mixture of solids and liquids present in the air. Sources of PM include friction from car brakes, dust from roads and construction work and wood-burning stoves.
Harm from chemicals
There are also numerous chemicals and substances in our homes, schools and workplaces that have a detrimental impact on health.
These include carbon dioxide caused by respiration which builds up in poorly ventilated spaces.
Then we have what are known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which cover various chemicals found indoors, such as cleaning products, aerosol sprays, scented candles, glues, printers and photocopiers.
In addition, homes can experience excess humidity.
It is often the result of poor heating and ventilation and can be caused by drying clothes in unventilated spaces. In addition to poor ventilation, damp conditions lead to mould, widely recognised as detrimental to lung health.
Some dust, bacteria and viruses fall into the smallest category of particulate matter, PM1, which can penetrate deep into the human body, causing severe damage.
Following two years of COVID-19 and its impact on the operation of most businesses, tackling PM1 is an area of growing concern for anyone managing the health and wellbeing of occupants in buildings.
Tackling airborne dangers
With airborne hazards outside and indoors, how can building managers set about achieving good indoor air quality?
Ventilation is key to solving this issue, but it must also be set against other considerations such as building energy use and occupant comfort. In-building filtration can help as a secondary means of protection.
However, it is essential to consider the energy required to heat or cool outdoor air before it enters a building. And introducing air that is too cold or too warm can adversely impact occupant wellbeing and performance.
Mechanical ventilation with heat recovery (MVHR) is a valuable technology that balances energy efficiency with the provision of fresh air ventilation. MVHR systems can also remove internally generated heat and moisture from a space and pollutants from incoming air.
It is vital to select an appropriate level of filtration for these systems to achieve the best results. BESA and Mitsubishi Electric recommend referring to the global technical standards ISO 16890: 2016 to select the correct efficiency class for system filters.
For example, class ePM1 filters will remove particulate matter down to PM1, so it is an excellent choice for ventilation systems in buildings close to roads in city centres.
Monitoring indoor air quality is another option to consider. There are some IAQ tracking schemes and equipment that are very stringent but costly for some clients.
Cheaper air quality monitors are available on the market, but it is vital to check that they are calibrated instruments backed by support for interpreting results.
In occupied spaces, CO2 is also a very good judge as to the effctiveness of the fresh air systems and how well they are serving the space. CO2 monitors can be used to show the level of fresh air being delivered, so that it can be increased under high occupancy conditions and reduced once the room has less occupants.
We must pay attention to indoor air quality when designing new buildings. Medical and scientific experts support the benefits of good IAQ.
Still, to mitigate against the effects of outdoor and indoor pollution, building design must allow for appropriate technology, and regulations should reflect this.
Gone are the days of paying lip service to fresh air and designing to the bare minimum…..and yes this does mean a higher M&E cost will be on IAQ, but then we owe it to our employees to give them better than the bare minimum.
Good indoor air quality can go beyond simply keeping occupants ‘safe’ from pollutants and viruses. It supports good physical and mental health, creating more productive environments in an office, library or school.
Make the right choice
Graeme Fox says: “The government needs to understand the concept of a sustainable environment in the widest sense.
“Sustainability is not just about carbon and energy saving; it is also about ensuring that the facilities we build and refurbish can sustain human activity in the long-term while also safeguarding health, wellbeing and productivity.”
For building services professionals, helping building owners make the right equipment choices that support good IAQ will be an important part of our role.
With this in mind, we are working with BESA on a new publication that aims to identify the right equipment for each project, particularly with the refurbishment of existing buildings in mind.
Philip Ord is Head of Marketing and Strategy