Wildfire smoke and infectious droplets might be the most popular consequences of bad air quality, but many of us are losing good waking hours to more subtle indoor pollutants. The Biden Administration has pledged to address these concerns by putting the Clean Air in Buildings Challenge to managers of indoor spaces and everyone who is impacted by indoor air quality. This month they are shining a spotlight on air quality in schools and calling for air quality assessment and action plans. Protecting the air our children breathe can help to prevent respiratory complications like asthma.
At Molekule we’re participating by encouraging other organizations to meet this challenge by learning about their current indoor air conditions, ensuring ventilation is at its best, putting a plan in place to maintain clean indoor air, and engaging with communities on the topic of air quality. Not only will cleaner air draw customers, the health of workers that spend long hours in buildings and the businesses they work for directly benefit from investing in air quality improvements.
A healthy business plan has a plan for healthy air
Joseph Allen, professor of public health at Harvard University and one of the leading voices in indoor air quality awareness, once estimated that as much as $6,500 in productivity per worker could be recovered by just doubling ventilation in a building. It’s not as easy as turning up the fan because we have to balance indoor air quality with energy efficiency and carbon footprint. The Clean Air in Buildings Challenge is about equipping everyone with the tools to make the right choices for what they breathe. The first stage of the challenge is to learn about the unique conditions in your building and make a plan to address them while considering the impact on utilities.
Inspection with the help of a professional is the very first step in meeting the Clean Air in Buildings challenge. At the bare minimum the EPA recommends at least one full exchange of indoor air with outdoor air about every three hours. In the real world the best rate of air exchange varies with who is occupying the room, what materials are in the room, temperature, humidity, HVAC configuration, and countless other factors.
Monitoring indoor air quality is the next step to track these countless factors. Soon building occupants will expect to know as much about the particle and carbon dioxide levels in their working spaces as they do about the temperature. Air quality monitoring devices have become quite mature, from inexpensive sensors hanging like wall clocks to complex web-based dashboards that automatically summarize sensor information. Building managers should offer this information on demand and act on it quickly.
At a minimum, occupants should know about the levels of fine particles (PM2.5), carbon dioxide (CO2), and the total volatile organic compounds (TVOC). Each of these classes of pollutants are linked to short-term impacts like productivity, focus, and scholastic performance but no federal agency has indoor air quality as part of their primary mission.
Assessing indoor air quality needs is next, after learning about the existing conditions in the previous steps. Problem areas where pollutants build up frequently or where large amounts of people congregate may need more ventilation or even signage indicating the potential health impacts.
Finally, make a plan to address the issues uncovered with the next phase of the challenge- bring in as much outdoor air as possible.
Outdoor air is healthy air
What we have been discovering is that outside of wildfire, inversion layers, or other extreme air quality events, outdoor air is healthier to breathe than indoor air. The second stage of the challenge is to maximize fresh outdoor air while keeping energy usage in mind.
Natural ventilation comes from windows, doors, unpowered vents, and other ways of letting outdoor air waft into the room of its own accord. There are limits to its effectiveness for rooms that are in the interior of a building, but research has shown that even opening the door to an indoor hallway reduces the CO2 concentration.
Mechanical ventilation involves fans, blowers, or any other powered air-moving technology that pumps an outdoor air supply into indoor spaces. Because it’s actively handled, mechanical ventilation can be combined with re-capturing heat from the return air to minimize the impact on environmental controls. There is no practical limit to how far mechanical ventilation can bring outside air into a building.
Building maintenance includes air
Traditionally filters in HVAC systems were in place to protect sensitive mechanics from dust and debris, but today we have been trying to use HVAC filters to improve air quality.
Optimize the HVAC system for indoor air quality. As the Biden Administration shines a spotlight on air quality in schools, they have made MERV 13 filters the national standard. More efficient filters can reduce airflow, so air quality has to be balanced against what the existing systems can handle.
Portable air purifiers are a good supplement to any clean air plan. HVAC systems are generally designed for temperature control, not air quality. Portable air purifiers can reduce particles, pathogens, allergens, and chemicals in the air while having zero impact on utility costs for climate control. The EPA recommends a purifier with a HEPA filter.
Focus on areas with greater risk. Gyms where people breathe heavily or lunch rooms with a lot of open mouths talking might be places where infectious particles need better filtration. Occupied rooms near facilities that use paint, lacquer, or other products rich in volatile chemicals might require a solution that addresses the chemicals specifically. And in any older buildings where HVAC improvement may not be economically or physically possible, CO2 should be carefully monitored so occupants know not to spend long amounts of time in areas where contaminants build up.
Share, show, and listen
The last stage of the Clean Air in Buildings Challenge is to engage with people outside your organization. Post signs about indoor air quality awareness in the workplace, share sensor information on social media, and most importantly listen to anyone who is negatively impacted by mold, allergies, consistent fatigue, or any other possible symptom of bad air quality. The Denver school system is looking to build out an indoor air quality dashboard to share with parents and for administrators to compare IAQ from school to school. By sharing this information, thousands of students, parents, and staff are empowered to know when bad air quality is causing problems in the classroom.
90% of our lives are spent inside, so bad indoor air has an outsized impact on our lives. At Molekule our goal is to clean the air in the most complete way, so we have recently released our PECO-HEPA TriPower filter to combine destruction of viruses, allergens, and organic chemicals with the EPA-recommended rate of fine particle capture.
We also recently launched the Molekule Air Platform, where managers and occupants can take the pulse of their building. Users can see weekly or monthly air quality summaries from all of their Molekule purifiers that are detecting different pollutants in the air. This type of insight into how much what we are breathing is affecting our jobs should be the standard for any healthy work environment.
As makers of decisions that impact what hundreds or thousands of people breathe, company leaders have the unique opportunity to set a new code of conduct to prevent their employees from losing productivity due to poor air quality. Until the Clean Air Act extends to indoor spaces, Molekule is calling on these leaders to execute the four stages outlined in the Clean Air in Buildings Challenge.