How Indoor Air Pollution Became a Risk During the Pandemic 

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By Johnpaul Pearson

Although there has been little reason to celebrate, one of the few but positive outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic was the new focus it brought on the role and relevance of public (not just private) health. Of course, the national response from frontline health workers was commendable and fierce, but the pandemic, for many, has been a lesson on the harsh realities of pathogens. Gradually, the end goal of a clean, healthy environment has become an urgent priority for employers and employees. This means that, without sensible ventilation in the workplace and at home, we could be exposing ourselves to toxic and contagious pathogens. Without a greater care for air quality, pollution and pathogens could develop into more sever illnesses. 

Moreover, as the push for air quality becomes a key principle in the office, especially when it comes to fighting off COVID-19 and its many variants, businesses are increasingly under greater pressure to react. As both a safety precaution and a policy, air quality could be the different between unsustainable rates of absenteeism and a truly healthy office or home. 

Ventilation Betters Health Outcomes  

COVID-19 is highly contagious and, without the proper policies and procedures, it could be putting the safety of your office, and its workers, at grave risk. Growing numbers of absenteeism are alarming, primarily because it poses a threat to operation stability. Keeping offices active and open is mission critical, which is how many across the country came to rely on creative health and safety solutions to control and limit the rate of infection. 

Much of the pandemic can easily feel like a mystery. But, confirmed by research, COVID-19 has been found to largely be transmitted through droplets in the air we regularly breathe. With the support of medical professionals, the UK government has released clear, often updated, advice and guidance on ‘securing’ places against the flu, cold and other contagious pathogens. The virus, importantly, can be prevented when employees use face masks and the office is equipped with proper and sufficient ventilation. 

Even though air quality has become a key part of this story, it’s been found that many facilities lack even the basic ventilation system. Infrastructure isn’t optimised to support and enable cleaner air initiatives for indoor air quality. What became clear is that many buildings were not even testing or regulating air quality with the correct ventilation systems. 

Whilst remote working remains a possibility for some, others are being gently rephased into the office, which are more often operated on a limited capacity. Offices could, then, become quickly troubled if they struggle to keep up with, or even support, the demand for air quality through regulation and ventilation. 

Many businesses are actively contributing to helping fight off the virus, but is air quality an overseen objective here? Your employees, clients and other building users will have expectations that your space is well regulated, clean and healthy – and a focus on air quality could help you achieve this. 

Why Does Air Quality Even Matter? 

The global pandemic has one clear side-effect on the public: there’s a growing anxiety about airborne illness and the methods we have our disposal to limit how they spread. In truth, a closer look at air quality is more about broader health outcomes. The pandemic has been challenging, but it forced many to rekindle a lost bond with their health and wellbeing. Airborne illnesses are a well-established risk, but why is air quality not being more routinely regulated? Food and drink, a part of our everyday diet, have been for so long tightly regulated for quality. But air quality has for too long been missed out. 

Ventilation is not a programme that ends with the pandemic. Air quality will continue to remain relevant in our everyday lives as pathogens, toxins, and allergens can create exposure to different colds and flus. 

Ventilation is not even simply about limiting our exposure to different pathogens. Environmental pollution is thought to be responsible for as many as 40,000 early deaths every year. A greater part of this problem has to do with the perception of pollution: many associated it with a busy street, emissions, and causal fumes that are emitted into the atmosphere daily. Sources of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can be located almost anywhere, including perfumes, cleaning products, and discarded building materials, such as waste. Long term exposure to VOCs can develop into more severe health issues and problems – a list of which includes memory loss, various disorders and visual impairment. 

But the problem with air pollution thickens beyond the scenarios of health risks. Poor air quality is what, according to the NHS, is most often associated with sick building syndrome. In its simplest form, this describes where someone only develops symptoms when they come into contact with a specific building, such as their daily office. It’s not only, as the condition infers, a simple case that the building is ‘sick’. Instead, it spreads into the building users, causing mild symptoms like fatigue, headache, or blurred vision. These can, if the exposure is long term, develop into something more severe. When a building becomes ‘sick’, it can contribute to a high rate of absenteeism. 

That’s why air quality is the front line of defence against illnesses because it actually stands for an opportunity to improve health outcomes. Healthy buildings demonstrate a commitment to reducing airborne pathogens; this, in turn, reduces the panic and anxiety of those returning to use your building. But this is only effectively achieved when carefully planned and delivered under building maintenance programmes, such as facilities management cleaning

Towards Better Building Health 

Air quality could likely be subject to review with regulations that could even impose stricter rules on how well we nurture the ‘health’ of our offices and homes. In fact, the UK government even went as far as to declare that every classroom in England will receive air monitors. Ventilation, in the meantime, has become seen as a major investment. A balance of ventilation and better cleaning programmes will enable employees to feel more confident about working from an office – because a building’s ‘health’ is just as important as those who use it. 

The race for healthier, cleaner settings starts now. Many employers want to use this perception of their office to help ease returning employees back into the office. What’s behind this change is a better vision of the workplace. But this is not something easily achieved without professional guidance and input. The success of these have been helped in no short measure by corporate office specialists, who help to get a building operating at its healthiest through ventilation and deep, effective cleaning programmes. 

Seeing Beyond Air Quality 

Targets are set for a ‘greener’ country in the UK, and one of the largest focusses of this effort looks at how we can collectively lower carbon emissions. The ambitious net zero goal is set at 2050, which will only impact how we think about air ventilation – amongst the other factors involved in operating a building. The question of supplying quality air falls short of understanding what waits ahead for us. It’s more about building sustainable buildings where the ‘health’ of an office is closely related to the wellbeing of its users. 

About the Author

Author - John PaulJohnpaul Pearson is the Business Support Director at Anabas. He has extensive experience in the Facilities Management and Building Maintenance industries, and is responsible for the procurement of all goods and services to deliver Anabas’ outstanding facilities management services.

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