The first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions air quality is the air outside and the level of pollution present, particularly particulate matter (PM2.5), which are inhalable particles that have serious effects on public health. Indoor Air Quality, which does not usually receive the same level of attention, is as, if not more, consequential to people’s health. People spend 90% of their time indoors, where pollutants are between 2-5 times higher than the air outside, and a large amount of that time is in the workplace. Additionally, workspaces may not be using the right technology and processes to monitor and upkeep indoor air quality. Regulating air quality indoors is a pillar of creating a healthy, human-centric workplace experience that promotes employee wellbeing.
Sick Building Syndrome
Without a system to monitor, improve and maintain Indoor Air Quality (IAQ), occupant health suffers and overall employee wellbeing declines. The most direct consequence is the effect on the respiratory system of building occupants. Most commonly, people will experience flu-like symptoms. However, prolonged exposure to poor indoor air quality can lead to more serious diseases like asthma and COPD.
Physical health-related issues are the most obvious result of poor air quality. They can also significantly impact mental faculties – leading to a phenomenon known as “sick building syndrome.” In 2021, a Harvard research report found that the air quality in the office significantly affects cognitive functioning, including reaction time and concentration. The study followed 302 office workers in six countries (China, India, Mexico, Thailand, the United States, and the United Kingdom) for one year to see the effects of indoor air quality on their health over time. The researchers installed environmental sensors at their workplaces to monitor fine particulate matter (PM2.5), carbon dioxide, temperature, and relative humidity in real-time.
The subjects took two cognitive ability tests to assess their cognitive speed and working memory. The results of the study showed that an increase of ten micrograms of PM2.5 per cubic meter slowed the reaction speed and accuracy of the subjects by 1% in both tests. For every increase in carbon dioxide concentration by 500ppm, a common level of variation, subjects completed both sets of tests 1% slower and more than 2% less accurate.
Prolonged exposure to PM2.5 was already well known to inflame the central nervous system and cross the blood-brain barrier leading to long-term neurodegenerative disease. What this study demonstrated is that there are serious short-term effects as well.
Measuring and monitoring indoor air quality
Indoor Air Quality involved the monitoring and measuring of various substances (pollution) contained in the air that reach a constant detection value within a certain period and certain area. There are four main categories of indoor air pollution usually measured:
- Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs): carbonaceous substances that evaporate at room temperature or higher. This could be something like radon, which occurs naturally, but can become trapped in a building with poor ventilation and filtration. Exposure to VOCs can cause irritation, dizziness, or worsening asthma. Long-term exposure may damage the lungs, liver, kidneys, or nervous system.
- Biological pollutants: contaminants produced by living things, such as dust mites, mold, pollen, dust as well as bacteria and viruses. Unvented, moist environments such as bathroom areas are where these pollutants usually appear.
- Combustion byproducts: this includes carbon emissions, nitrogen dioxide and other byproducts of burning that can accumulate in buildings that do not have a proper filtration and ventilation system in place to refresh the air supply.
- Legacy pollutants: come from the breakdown of certain building materials or other products that accumulate over time in a building. This includes substances like asbestos, formaldehyde, as well as lead and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) that come from sources like industrial glue or chemical cleaners
Keeping pollutants out of the circulating air in a building requires air filters with the necessary Minimum Efficiency Reporting Values, or MERV, rating. The type of filter, which ranges in ratings from 1-16 (the higher the level, the smaller the particle filtration), will vary from building to building. For example, working in an office space might not need as high-rated a filter as an industrial workplace. MERV-rated filters work to remove particles from all four categories of pollutants from entering the air circulation.
Besides pollution, relative humidity is also an important environmental factor to control. First, occupants are most comfortable with a relative humidity between 40-60%. Second, controlling humidity is also necessary for containing mold, mildew and other biological pollutants.
Maintaining and improving indoor air quality
Like any good action plan, managing indoor air quality needs to start with the right data. Obtaining an accurate, real-time data stream of indoor air pollution and humidity is impossible without the right system of sensors. Placing sensors throughout the building to collect data in a centralized platform is the first step for building managers to properly monitor and act on IAQ.
Action plans might look different from workplace to workplace, but often it begins with keeping air filtration and ventilation equipment at peak operating conditions. Like any piece of equipment in a building, air filters need to be properly maintained to keep them performing at the right capacity. Well-maintained filters ensure a suitable IAQ and protect occupant health and employee wellbeing. It also helps reduce the pollution created by building operations – with poorly maintained systems consuming 15-20% more energy.
With smart building management systems, many of these processes can be streamlined and automated. After installing IAQ sensors, building managers can choose to install IoT devices on equipment and controllers that monitor and automatically adjust ventilation and temperature to optimize indoor air quality more effectively.
Supplementing a data-driven, tech-backed hard service action plan with other soft operations can also help improve IAQ. For example, opening windows is an easy and effective way to improve ventilation. However, in situations where windows do not open or outdoor air quality is not good, ensuring cleaning regimens are thorough enough to remove potential air polluters and cleaning products do not add VOCs to the air is even more important.
Improving indoor air quality in the workplace is not an option in the post-pandemic world
Putting more focus on the air quality in offices and workplaces (“small environments”) is just as important to public health as the outdoor “big environment.” Poor IAQ impacts respiratory health and mental well-being. Post-pandemic, the last thing any employee or building occupant wants is to face those challenges again due to poor indoor air quality, and it is essential for businesses that wish for employees to return to the office to keep air quality high.
Indoor air quality is just one part of Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ), which includes lighting, sound, temperature comfort and other factors. Improving and maintaining IAQ is important, but it is even more effective when paired with a comprehensive approach toward IEQ. Creating more comfortable, health and human-centric environments is needed for businesses to succeed in the face of changing expectations and demands by employees, management and investors.