Can COVID and Wildfires Trigger a Revolution in Indoor Air Safety?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the major stories and debates of the day.

Photo illustration: Jack Forbes/Yahoo News;  photos: Getty Images (4)

Photo illustration: Jack Forbes/Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images (4)

What is happening

Huge plumes that blanketed the northeastern United States last week were a stark reminder of the dangers toxic air can pose — not just in the atmosphere, but indoors as well. As New York City faced the worst air quality in the world, millions of people found the potentially dangerous particles that had seeped into their homes.

But experts say it shouldn’t take such an unprecedented event to put indoor air quality at the center of health efforts. Scientists have known for many years that it can reduce heart and lung disease, improve cognitive performance in adults and children, and prevent the spread of a long list of deadly pathogens. The World Health Organization estimates that household air pollution is responsible for every year in the world. There is even a phenomenon known as that has been documented to reduce productivity and increase absences from schools and workplaces.

, but neither public nor governmental health authorities have given indoor air quality the kind of attention given to drinking water, food safety and outdoor air pollution. That’s started to change since the start of the , which provided undeniable evidence of the life-and-death difference that things like air circulation and purification can make.

Late last year, the Biden administration hosted a , bringing together experts from health, ventilation, business and education to discuss ways to improve indoor air quality to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. Then, in May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued the first federal recommendations for how often air should be circulated in a room to stem the spread of disease – five times per hour.

Why there is debate

Medical experts hope the awareness created by the combined effects of the pandemic and increasingly frequent wildfires will help lead to an indoor air revolution in the same way diseases like cholera have done. drinking water an imperative for cities around the world nearly two centuries ago. As elegantly said: “Air is the new poo.”

But many clean air advocates say there is still a long way to go before there is enough urgency to create the society-wide change they believe is needed. They argue that only corporations and governments have the ability to effectively address a problem whose burden typically falls on individuals.

On a small scale, improving indoor air can be as simple as opening a window. But the technologies needed to have a wider impact — including updated HVAC systems, air purifiers and ultraviolet light disinfection — will be expensive to implement. A number of experts say this effort will ultimately save businesses and governments money by reducing healthcare costs and increasing productivity.

And after

Some scientists are advocating for new laws requiring better indoor air management. Others argue that change will only come through a coordinated public pressure campaign that compels schools, businesses and lawmakers to make indoor air safety a central public health goal.

With increased awareness of airborne viruses, the problem is not going away.


Plans must be flexible to accommodate the needs of different climates

“A major challenge is to reconcile a building’s energy efficiency and indoor air quality. In places where the outside air is very cold or very hot, pumping large amounts of it into interior spaces could then require even more energy to heat or cool the building accordingly. …Different places also have radically different built environments. — Mary Hui

Ventilation should be elevated to the same importance as plumbing

“A hundred years ago they developed codes and rules for water in and poo out, and the plumber really protected the health of the nation. Now is the time to rethink our HVAC systems and recognize their importance.” -Lloyd Alter,

It is a mistake to assume that we can do for air what was done for water centuries ago.

“Engineered solutions have eliminated many waterborne pathogens from high-income countries. The same cannot be achieved for airborne pathogens, due to the continuous processes of ingestion and contamination.… Improving ventilation and air quality should be much higher on the priority list and would help reduce illnesses from airborne diseases – but we have to be realistic about that. What this can accomplish We can’t end the pandemic with improved ventilation — , infectious disease specialist

A society-wide effort is needed to make such a drastic change to our way of life

“At the end of the day, the problem is not just about particles and filters. It will be up to businesses, workers, students, parents, scientists and everyone else to demand change in the buildings in which they spend so much of their lives. Do you know the air exchanges per hour in your workplace or classroom? The CDC now gives us a yardstick. Americans should use it. — Editorial,

We will need to prioritize energy efficiency when creating clean air systems

“Decarbonizing buildings offers the opportunity to rethink how indoor air quality can be managed and improved. Balancing the need for increased ventilation while minimizing energy losses through heating (in colder countries) or cooling (in warmer countries) is a significant technical challenge. Better insulation to reduce energy consumption must be combined with adequate ventilation to prevent pollution from accumulating inside. —Alastair C. Lewis, Deborah Jenkins and Christopher JM Whitty,

Indoor and outdoor air must be improved simultaneously

“There are two main ways to aerate what we have done to water. One is to reduce particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide concentrations by rapidly switching to the use of renewable energy. The other is to improve indoor air quality by improving ventilation, both natural and mechanical. —Geoff Hanmer,

It should be mandatory to inform the public about air quality in crowded spaces

“The public should be made aware of the air quality in buildings and public transport before entering, as well as its potential health effects such as the risk of COVID. …Just as restaurants have health inspection reports with letter grades in their windows, shared indoor spaces should display their air quality ratings. These assessments can help people adjust their behavior appropriately. — Abraar Karan, Devabhaktuni Srikrishna and Ranu Dhillon,

Citizens must be empowered to ensure the air they breathe indoors is safe

“People need a clear path to demand better when buildings fail them. They deserve transparent indoor air standards, with metrics they can easily understand and use to make their own decisions. And they demand that policymakers provide enough support — and consequences — to building owners to ensure they meet those standards. —Keren Landman,

Every dollar spent on improving indoor air quality will be more than recouped

“Healthy buildings are also associated with less worker absenteeism due to illness and better cognitive function, meaning an investment in ventilation is an investment in a company’s bottom line.” —Joseph G. Allen,

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Photo illustration: Jack Forbes/Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images (4)

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