Organisations should strive for high indoor air quality to ensure employee well-being, says Ryan Sit.
01 July 2019 | Ryan Sit
In May 2019, the British Safety Council published a white paper stating that up to 40,000 premature deaths each year are attributable to ambient air quality. If air quality is having such a direct impact on health and well-being it is prudent for employers and building owners to invest in high indoor air quality (IAQ) for occupants.
Pollutants such as particulate matter, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) - even carbon dioxide (CO2) - have a wide range of negative health effects that vary in severity depending on exposure concentrations and duration. For example, particulate matter is known to cause emphysema or lung cancer, high VOC levels can cause irritation to eyes and respiratory tract, and even seemingly benign compounds like CO2 accumulating in a space can negatively affect our cognitive functioning and make it difficult to concentrate.
Improved IAQ, therefore, delivers improved health outcomes, gains in productivity, less absenteeism, and better retention. Because much of a business's value is rooted in its employees, this invites the next obvious question: what can be done to improve IAQ?
What can we do to improve IAQ?
- Adequate and effective ventilation: For indoors, adequate ventilation is necessary to dilute the pollutants generated by occupants and building furnishings. So the amount of ventilation that is required depends on several factors, including the number of expected occupants and their activities. CIBSE Guide A provides guidance on appropriate ventilation rates for specific space types.
To ensure that minimum ventilation rates are being provided to the space, good practice is that mechanical ventilation systems are tested and balanced by a specialist contractor every three years.
- Adequate filtration and maintenance protocol: Buildings with fresh air supplied by mechanical ventilation must have adequate air filtration installed to minimise exposure to outdoor air pollution, including particulate matter. Additionally, once installed, it is crucial that filters are regularly maintained so that they continue to operate as intended. As filters become fully loaded with trapped particles, they reduce in efficacy and become less energy-efficient to operate. It is recommended that the filters should be replaced when pressure drops across the filter approaches manufacturer specifications. Best practice is to replace filters every quarter.
There are studies suggesting that some common indoor plants have an ability to purify the air by absorption of CO2 and removal of some VOCs. In addition to this IAQ benefit, plants in a building improve the biophilic nature of the space, which has been linked to increased productivity.
Empower tenants and occupants with knowledge of IAQ and its impact on human health. This can be as simple as distributing informational paper or digital flyers with tips on how to improve IAQ. For example, many common office products (such as cleaners, paints, and air fresheners) emit VOCs into the air, so tenants should be encouraged to avoid using toxic cleaning products or synthetic air fresheners.
Air quality monitoring and building certification
As the popular adage goes, what gets measured gets managed - and the same holds true for IAQ. Concentrations of pollutants are continually changing during the day so it is vital to buy sensors that continually measure the concentration of pollutants of concern, including particulate matter, VOCs, CO2 and carbon monoxide. Indoor air quality management is most effective when supported by data-driven actions to control pollutants found in a specific space.
RESET Air is a building certification scheme that has a focus on IAQ. It is a sensor-based and performance-driven IAQ certification. It provides a standard for continuous monitoring of pollutants, which must be below acceptable limits during hours of occupancy for three months before certification. Examples of high-quality IAQ monitors that are acceptable for RESET Air certification can be found in the following link.
Ryan Sit is senior sustainability consultant at EVORA Global