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Is air quality on your radar?

The general public ‘gets’ the issue of temperature and even, to a certain extent, relative humidity and its importance for health and comfort, but often the air quality argument remains elusive!

A September 2020 BBC News report recently advised returning workers to avoid entering “stuffy” offices as they were highly likely to spread the Covid-19 virus. It also said the best defence was to open all the windows. Meanwhile, I watched on as CIBSE Technical Director Hywel Davies bravely tried to explain the difference between ‘fresh’ and ‘outside’ air to the watching public, but this is often too subtle a distinction for a mainstream audience.

People expect a building to cool them on a hot day and warm them on a cold one – and will hold their facilities manager to account if it doesn’t. How can we get them to have similar expectations for clean air? Healthy eating and drinking campaigns get wall-to-wall media coverage, but very little is said about the quality of what we breathe – despite our air intake being many times greater than the amount of food and drink we consume.

The average adult, when resting, inhales and exhales about 7 or 8 litres of air per minute. That adds up to around 11,000 litres of air being processed by our lungs every day. In comparison, most humans eat between one to two kilograms of food daily and the recommended fluid intake for adults is somewhere in the region of three to four litres per day.

Risky breathing

So, we breathe a lot, but it is not too surprising that most people are largely unaware of what is entering their lungs as they can’t see it. Now, however, millions of people are wearing face masks. People may not fully understand the scientific reasons, but most are willing to go along with it and are suddenly, therefore, more aware that the act of breathing involves some level of risk.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates there are 360,000 premature deaths in the EU every year as a result of worsening air pollution – around 40,000 of which are in the UK. It also calculates that between 11 and 14% of children aged 5 years and older display asthma symptoms and an estimated 44% of these are related to environmental exposures including air pollution, second-hand tobacco smoke, and indoor mould and dampness. In some parts of Europe, 20% of people live in a home with some level of mould.

Parents are, not surprisingly, highly motivated about protecting their children from any potential health threat and there is currently huge attention being paid to the risk of Covid-19 in schools.

Garry Ratcliffe, CEO of Kent-based Galaxy Trust, a federation of three primary schools, believes there was a growing appetite among school leaders to start taking a longer-term, strategic approach to air quality in schools before the pandemic, ironically, knocked it off the agenda.

I attended a webinar hosted by BESA during the summer, where Garry explained to attendees that the main focus for all schools during the pandemic had been on hand-washing and ‘catch it/kill it/bin it’. Many had been forced to spend precious budget on, among other things, new bins because they must all be fitted with lids, social distancing signage and on buying thousands of boxes of tissues. There was no money left for managing the air despite the growth in awareness that the virus could remain airborne for many hours and would circulate in poorly ventilated spaces – like classrooms.

The Department for Education guidance on schools re-opening gave detailed direction on handwashing, social distancing, direction and spacing of desks etc., but had only one short paragraph on ventilation. This simply advised schools to keep systems running as normal and switch any mechanical ventilation from recirculation mode to full fresh air ‘if possible’. Alternatively, they should simply open all their windows – even in heavily polluted urban areas!

This still poses a problem however, according to Ratcliffe, who pointed out that at least a quarter of the windows in one of the three schools he manages could not be opened and one approach to improving ventilation in his classrooms involved propping open doors.

‘Opening windows might be OK for September, but not in November,’ he told the BESA webinar. ‘Also, how do we measure air quality? If there is a problem with the lighting or the heating, we notice, but there is nothing prompting me to put anything into my budget to address air quality even if we know it is bad. We don’t even monitor it.’

Measure and Monitor

So, there’s the first step: measure and monitor. If we can explain the nature and extent of a problem, then there is more chance that it will be addressed. We recognise that only a handful of schools have the kind of finance to fit sophisticated ventilation systems, but there are other ways to tackle the IAQ problem, but the threat must be made obvious if we expect a non-technical management to act.

There are a number of national programmes underway measuring the level of contaminants in classrooms, including one being led by Lancaster University’s National Air Quality Testing Services. They are using CO2 levels as a ‘canary in the cage’ to demonstrate whether students are receiving adequate air change rates. The answer being, of course, ‘no’ in most cases with some experiencing less than one air change per hour.

Schools already have a duty of care to their pupils and air quality has a direct impact on their health and wellbeing – it is just not widely measured at the moment.

Perhaps, we as building services professionals, can help to engage with parents and get them to consider what their children are being exposed to everyday in school – they will then look at the air quality at home, offices, schools and so on, considering what kind of impact the air they breathe will have on them when Covid-19 is just a memory - remembering good ventilation is not only for pandemics, but a key part of improving health, comfort and wellbeing of the population.

The current visibility of the issue is a chance to ensure air quality is on the agenda in all building types...  after all, we should all be able to "feel good inside!"