The growing importance of Indoor Air Quality (IAQ)

May 7, 2020

In the UK, air pollution has become a major issue, with a growing range of voices calling for national legislation in the form of a new Clean Air Act.

Concern over poor air quality has been backed by evidence in the form of a publication by Britain’s leading medics pointing out the links between pollution and a worrying range of health issues. Every breath we take: The lifelong impact of air pollution from the Royal College of Physicians notes that both outdoor and indoor pollutants can create many health risks, including cancer, asthma, stroke, heart disease, diabetes, obesity and changes linked to dementia.

While much of the current focus in the UK is around reducing pollution from diesel vehicles, one of the key conclusions of the report is the need to ‘strengthen our understanding of the key risk factors and effects of poor air quality in our homes, schools and workplaces.’ The report notes that therefore it is essential to better measure and monitor Indoor Air Quality.

The report also notes that

“beyond better-known indoor pollutants such as second-hand tobacco smoke, there are other risks that occupants can be exposed, ranging from NO2 from gas cooking to solvents that slowly seep from plastics, paints and furnishings to, ironically air fresheners which can react chemically to generate air pollutants”

Fortunately, ventilation technology in a variety of forms – from MVHR (Mechanical Ventilation with Heat Recovery) to Positive input Ventilation - can provide a healthy air supply, filtering out pollutants, while also performing another key air quality role in preventing the build-up of condensation, which can in turn create lung-damaging mould spores.

On top of this, HVAC representative bodies believe that buildings can provide a necessary defence against outdoor air pollution too – in the words of one: ‘stopping air pollution at the door’. In this context, the age-old method of simply opening windows for ventilation will only serve to bring the pollution into the building.

‘By contrast, the Building Engineering Services Association claims that a well-sealed building envelope combined with effective filtration of incoming air can reduce particle penetration by 78%.‘

As campaigners in the UK continue to call for new legislation to reduce outdoor pollution, the HVAC bodies are calling for improved air quality standards in buildings too, such as using Building Regulations to mandate use of mechanical ventilation.

There is also recent research evidence that good air quality in offices can improve the thinking of workers too. A study by three universities – Harvard’s TH Chan School of Public Health, State University of New York’s Upstate Medical University and Syracuse University last year concluded that improved indoor environmental quality significantly improved cognitive function. The study found that employees’ cognitive performance scores averaged 101 per cent higher in green building environments with enhanced ventilation compared to a conventional building environment.

This study suggests that

‘indoor environments can have a profound impact on the decision-making performance of workers, which is a primary indicator of worker productivity’

says Dr Joseph Allen of TH Chan the Principal Investigator for the study.

So mechanical ventilation and air conditioning systems that are fitted with appropriate filters (drop-in NOx filters to defend against the effects of outdoor diesel can now be purchased alongside conventional filters) should increasingly be seen as an essential specification to ensure better air quality to improve the health - and productivity - of occupants.