Opinion: With 90% of our time spent indoors, we need better indoor air quality standards

Jun 16 2022, 5:41 pm

Written for Daily Hive Urbanized by Michael Driedger, the founder and CEO of Airsset Technologies.

We have had clean water quality standards since the 1970s and outdoor air standards since the 1990s, so why don’t we have clean indoor air quality standards in Vancouver or across Canada?

Especially in the shadow of the COVID 19 pandemic and as Health Canada estimates that we spend 90% of our time indoors, the quality of the air in our public buildings and workplaces must become a priority. Indoor air quality has a measurable effect on a person’s health and overall well-being including instant effects such as fatigue, headaches, and lack of focus and longer-term effects such as allergies and disease.

For years we’ve had sensors that indicate core safety issues such as the presence of carbon monoxide in the air, or if there is fire and smoke in a building. We now have access to small and flexible commercial-grade indoor air quality sensors, allowing us to detect and measure the following vital details.

How much dust is in the air? Dust and other particulate matter are produced by human activities like cooking, burning fuel, and candles, as well as hobbies, like woodworking. It also comes from biological sources like mold, mildew spores, or pollen.

How many chemicals are in the air? New carpets, paint, cabinets, printers, cleaning products, and perfumes are sources of chemicals that can be damaging.

How well ventilated is the space? (We measure this with CO2 data). Everyone breathes out CO2 so the #1 source of CO2 in indoor spaces is people. You become sleepy and can get headaches at low levels of CO2. Harvard studies suggest that a 15% reduction in cognitive function results from moderately low levels of CO2, making those meetings and project deadlines harder to complete when air quality is poor.

What is your indoor cold, flu, and COVID risk? The risk of getting an airborne virus is a combination of temperature, humidity, CO2, and particulate matter levels. These factors contribute to how well a virus survives in the air or how much of it is likely to be in the air.

With an understanding of what’s in the air, why it matters, and that we can easily measure this, why isn’t there a Vancouver indoor air quality policy? We were working to be one of the ‘“greenest cities in the world,” although our net-zero building commitments now lag global leaders.

The building industry has been focused on saving energy and meeting municipal climate codes. The problem with lowering the amount of outside air flowing into buildings, a strategy we have been using since the 1980s to save energy, is that you then increase the chances that whatever comes inside of a space, like CO2 building up, will stay for a long period of time. Whether it’s chemicals or a virus in the air, that’s something we clearly shouldn’t be sacrificing for building energy savings.

There are ways to save energy and improve indoor air quality. Most developers of building codes, and builders, haven’t been focused or educated on balancing the tradeoffs between saving energy and the health risks associated with poor indoor air quality. Nor are most aware of the lower productivity associated with it.

For over 100 years, the medical world believed that viruses don’t spread via air. For example, it took twelve months for the BC Centre for Disease Control to accept that COVID-19 is airborne. China was well aware due to the 2002 SARS pandemic and it currently has the highest indoor air quality standards in the world.

Because indoor air quality exists in such a variety of spaces, with different requirements and factors, it’s harder to standardize and get everyone on board to create change. With outdoor air, a local authority simply needs to set standardized rules that affect all industries equally. With buildings, you can’t apply the same air quality requirements to a hospital, where air quality must be superior due to those with compromised immune systems, compared to an industrial facility where health and comfort are key, but standards are not as extreme.

The Vancouver private sector is starting to take notice. Airsset, which has clients like Ronald McDonald House, is an organization that’s taking a leading role in monitoring the indoor air quality in the public spaces of their Vancouver facility. Several Vancouver companies are also working with us to gather data on their indoor air.

The solutions to poor indoor air quality are often simple and inexpensive such as more airflow, bringing more humidifiers into the space, and reducing the dust and chemical levels.

Vancouver has yet to act through a policy that requires better indoor air quality, although it’s a health, comfort, and productivity win for everyone. Ideally, all buildings would consider indoor air quality a vital part of their health and safety requirements.

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