Why Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) & Indoor Environmental Health Matter

The past ten days have brought exciting and potentially revolutionary changes to national health. The U.S Environmental Protection Agency released the Clean Air in Buildings Challenge, a set of guiding principles and call to action to reduce risks from airborne viruses and other contaminants indoors for better indoor air quality. This initiative, which is part of President Biden’s National COVID-19 Preparedness Plan, marks the first time a standard for clean air has been shared nationally. “Protecting our public health means improving our indoor air quality,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regna. “Today, EPA is following through on President Biden’s plan to move our nation forward in a healthy, sustainable way as we fight COVID-19.” 

This push to proactively enable a higher standard of indoor air quality (IAQ) is gaining momentum quickly because it ties to a broader conversation about corporate and societal responsibilities to optimize and protect the indoor environments and spaces we share. Over a decade of sustained focus on environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) principles has driven substantial change. Today, most of the world’s largest companies make their ecological impact known. The latest conversation around IAQ demonstrates that it’s time to add public health to that focus. This blog post will explore recent thought leadership around IAQ and indoor environmental health and the significance these ideas hold for the future of shared spaces. 

The Significance of IAQ and Indoor Health

As President Biden announced, striving for better air quality in shared indoor spaces is the logical next step in taking responsibility for our health as a society. Studies show that air quality is the top concern for most employees returning to work in person. The good news is that today’s technology allows for a comprehensive approach to IAQ, including HEPA filters, advanced sensors for air quality monitoring, and continuous, autonomous disinfection ecosystems. Furthermore, experts agree that now is the time to prioritize air quality.

The shift toward the acknowledgment that cleaning the air can help mitigate COVID is “overdue,” says Virginia Tech engineering professor Linsey Marr. “We take the clean water flowing from our taps and government oversight of the outdoor air we breathe for granted. Having experienced two years of COVID-19, we should have learned enough to demand better air quality.” Anisa Heming, director of the Center for Green Schools, says that the Biden administration’s new preparedness plan is a step in the right direction, explicitly highlighting schools’ needs to upgrade their ventilation systems for the long term. Joseph Allen, director of the Healthy Buildings program at Harvard University, says that understanding the long-term benefits of upgrading ventilation is vital because it will result in decades of health benefits beyond reductions in infectious disease transmission. 

The Future of Public Health: Tech-Enabled IAQ and Indoor Environmental Health

The recent buzz around indoor environmental health coincides with thought leadership shared in a recent SXSW session facilitated by R-Zero, “Public Health: Tech is Coming for You.” The session featured public health and sustainability industry leaders who discussed how COVID-19 accelerated the technology and innovation to deliver healthier buildings. Session participants dove into current solutions for the delivery of more equitable, effective, and sustainable human and planetary health. 

Moderated by R-Zero Co-founder and CEO, Grant Morgan, the session featured Joanna Frank, CEO of the Center for Active Design, Joseph Allen (previously mentioned in this blog and director of the Healthy Buildings Program at Harvard University), and Dr. Elie F. Berbari, Infectious Disease Consultant at the Mayo Clinic. Morgan opened the session by citing indoor air quality as “the most pressing and important public health challenge of our generation.” He noted that while the world won’t be the same after COVID, the pandemic has raised society’s awareness of the relationship between indoor spaces and human health. A recent study conducted by R-Zero showed that 31% of indoor air samples returned positive for potentially harmful microorganisms, with a 6000% higher skin cell concentration and 530% higher fungal spore concentration in indoor air than outdoor air. Dr. Allen commented that currently in the average indoor environment, the air we breathe functions as the respiratory equivalent of backwash, or “the equivalent of locking lips with the person next to you for one out of every 20 breaths. We’re constantly sharing our air, and it’s a recipe for disaster.” 

Joanna Frank discussed the enormous shift society has made in viewing humans who enter buildings as the important factor, instead of the buildings themselves. “It’s important that we don’t just demand buildings that protect our health, but that we actually begin to create environments where we can thrive. That’s a discussion that we weren’t having at scale before COVID. But we can demand it now.” Frank shared some research from Fitwel, the world’s leading certification system committed to building health for all. “In a large survey of global institutional investors, we showed that the investors themselves shifted to thinking, ‘When I invest in a building, I need to be thinking about the individuals that are entering that building every day because if they choose not to go to that building, that will have massive financial consequences.’” Frank said. Society must begin thinking about building occupants, not just buildings.

Dr. Berbari, a leading expert on infectious disease, shared the heartbreaking story of having to shut down the Mayo Clinic in early 2020. Even the Mayo Clinic, one of the most sophisticated medical practices in the world, did not have the tools they needed to prevent the transmission of COVID in a healthcare setting. “It was a very hard decision, and we didn’t have the tools then, but now we do,” Dr. Berbari explained. “We didn’t have a way of monitoring air quality in real time and then integrating that information in a way that’s useful with technologies to help.” 

As the SXSW session continued, Dr. Allen shifted the discussion to research related to healthy buildings. He cited a cognitive effects study that demonstrated how people in buildings with minor tweaks to air quality saw better performance in crisis response, strategic thinking, and information seeking. Dr. Allen noted that pre-pandemic, the key stakeholders in indoor environmental health conversations were facilities managers. Thanks to COVID, these conversations now include CEOs. He then noted, “But the biggest stakeholder group is all of us. Employees are now interviewing their buildings. They want to know what the air quality is, and if it’s being measured.” 

Increasing Corporate Responsibility around IAQ and Indoor Environmental Health

As the panelists in the SXSW session illustrated, actionable and reliable ways to achieve better indoor environmental health are top of mind. Furthermore, increasing expectations regarding corporate responsibility around IAQ are leading to new standards. The Clean Air in Buildings Challenge outlines key actions including creating a clean indoor air action plan, optimizing fresh air ventilation, enhancing air filtration and cleaning, and conducting community engagement, communication, and education. 

Building owners are under pressure to address the paradox of making indoor air quality better and attempting to lower energy use to meet ambitious emission targets actively. Up to 40% of the total energy usage of typical commercial buildings is from HVAC systems. As mentioned in the introduction of this blog, society has found success in increasing responsibility around environmental, social, and governance principles. It’s time to add health to that list of responsibilities, and better health related to indoor air quality–our “natural habitat”, as R-Zero CEO Grant Morgan mentioned in the SXSW session–is the most important responsibility to tackle in the immediate future. 

A recent study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that building managers could dramatically improve indoor ventilation rates for less than $40 per person in any climate zone in the U.S. This improved air quality would boost productivity by the equivalent of $6,500 per employee per year. Future-proofing spaces through measures that focus on indoor environmental health will directly contribute to the peace of mind and productivity that employees experience in those shared spaces. Companies engaging in these efforts will set themselves apart and get a leg up on attracting and retaining talent in more differentiated ways. 

Increasing Societal Attention to IAQ and Indoor Environmental Health

Beyond corporate spaces, schools present environments significant to society that are equally deserving of attention. School budgets, in particular, are limited, and indoor improvement efforts haven’t always proceeded as planned. Products like plasma sterilizers and ionizing purifiers made lofty, unsubstantiated claims. Some classrooms even went all-in on plexiglass dividers, which have been shown to hinder ventilation in most situations. 

Tracy Enger of the EPA’s Indoor Environments Division says the call for better indoor air quality “is such a hallelujah moment, absolutely,” after working for 25 years to improve the air quality inside schools. She explained to NPR that getting school districts to prioritize air quality has been difficult, and often took some kind of crisis to get the school on board. Such catalyzing events have included finding a mold problem or seeing escalating asthma rates. These issues have existed before COVID and will persist after the pandemic ends. As mentioned in the SXSW session, COVID has taught us that we can enact layered strategies focused on shared spaces to facilitate biosafety now and in the future, whatever risks that future may hold. 

As demonstrated by our partnership with thought leaders such as Dr. Allen, Joanna Frank, and others, we at R-Zero believe we can make a difference in this movement towards a future of safer shared spaces. If you are interested in becoming a part of the movement toward a cleaner, brighter future for indoor environments, contact us today. 

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