Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) @ workplaces: backdrop, current challenges and new imperatives

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Indoor air is crucial for good health, especially at workplaces.

On average, we spend over 30% of our lives at workplaces, and hence the quality of indoor air we breathe in the office has a significant impact on one’s life, health, and wellness.

The importance of maintaining healthy indoor air has grabbed significant attention with the outbreak of COVID-19 and has changed the way most organizations and their employees are now thinking about it.

Scale and magnitude of the concern are reflected by the fact that 82% of millennials are likely to feel safer in returning to offices if they have transparency on the real-time indoor air quality levels being maintained in their offices. (Source: Carbon Lighthouse)

Millennials feel safer returning to offices with real-time indoor air quality transparency[/et_pb_text][et_pb_image src=”https://caleedo.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/iaq-1.png” alt=”millennials feel safer to return to work” title_text=”Carbon Lighthouse Survey” show_bottom_space=”off” _builder_version=”4.8.1″ _module_preset=”default”][/et_pb_image][et_pb_text _builder_version=”4.8.1″ _module_preset=”default”]Current challenges

The concern of employees and employers for IAQ levels is accentuated given the fact that World Health Organization (WHO) has confirmed that the spread of COVID-19 can take place via airborne transmissions.

In a workplace, virus-transmission is caused when occupants sneeze, cough or talk loudly. This releases droplets with infected virus/es. The droplets disintegrate into aerosols that can remain suspended in the air for a significant amount of time. This can be the potential source of indoor air led infection transmission for the employees at workplace.
These aerosols can travel a distance of more than 6 feet and in certain cases in excess of 30 feet especially in ill-ventilated indoor spaces.

Various indoor air pollutants like PM 2.5, PM 10, high concentration of CO2, and VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) cause indoor air quality standards to deteriorate.
These pollutants are more harmful than their outdoor equivalents and prolonged exposure of these pollutants at workplaces can lead to periodic illness and progressively into life threating diseases. (Source: HealthWorld from Economic Times) [/et_pb_text][et_pb_image src=”https://caleedo.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/IAQ-2.png” alt=”Indoor air pollutants are more harmful than outdoor pollutants” title_text=”Economic times article” _builder_version=”4.8.1″ _module_preset=”default”][/et_pb_image][et_pb_text _builder_version=”4.8.1″ _module_preset=”default”]The term PM stands for particulate matter (also known as particle pollution), is used for a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the environment. High PM level in the indoor air at workplaces is caused majorly due to environmental pollution (synonymous if large cities) and poor air filtration provisions or maintenance in HVAC air distribution system.

These PM particles are so small that they cannot be seen with a naked eye and long-term exposure to these particles may lead to cardiovascular infection and diseases in the lungs. In the current context, as per latest WHO guidance and studies by leading universities like University of Colorado US and University of Technology Clausthal, Germany, PM is one of the most potent causes for aerosol and droplet transmission in indoor environment.

Other indoor air pollutants like CO2 and VOCs are produced during respiration and office renovation, use of paints and other chemical solvents respectively.
The concentration of CO2 within a building is used to indicate whether fresh air is being supplied to the building occupants or not. High concentrations can cause headaches, fatigue, nausea, and vomiting. [/et_pb_text][et_pb_image src=”https://caleedo.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/iaq-3-1.png” alt=”Carbon dioxide side effects” title_text=”Carbon dioxide side effects” _builder_version=”4.8.1″ _module_preset=”default”][/et_pb_image][et_pb_text _builder_version=”4.8.1″ _module_preset=”default”]

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are emitted as gases from human-made chemicals like paints, lacquers, cleaning chemicals and supplies, refrigerants, etc. VOCs include a variety of chemicals, some of which are carcinogenic can have an adverse effect on employee health and wellbeing through long-term exposure.
Concentrations of VOCs indoor are 10 times higher than their concentration outdoors. This is mainly because these particles are produced by paints, varnishes, and wax that are used during interior upgrades.

Ways to manage and maintain IAQ – new imperatives
While organizations can’t really stop indoor air pollutants build up, periodic measurement and monitoring IAQ parameters can help create a healthy indoor environment for employees and occupants.
Organizations can periodically measure parameters like PM 2.5, PM 10, CO2, and VOCs at common areas like lifts, receptions, staircases, and washrooms. Subsequent to the measurement, if levels of these pollutants are found to be in harmful range, organizations can take remedial measures like:

• Improve ventilation levels
• Readjust and reset the air distribution level of the HVAC system
• Review and readjust the fresh air changes (for air-conditioned space)
• Upgrade and enhance the air filtration levels (like introducing MERV/HEPA filters)

Some of these measures like MERV/HEPA filters can filter up to 1-micron level particle size and even some pathogens. However, this may need careful design review by HVAC engineers especially if it needs to be introduced in existing comfort air-conditioning systems.

Another way could be to use nano-filter sheets/elements to existing air conditioners as a stop-gap measure; however, this is not backed up by leading associations like ASHRAE or other organizations who set IAQ standards.

While, these are some fundamental measures that could be taken up by facility administrators of buildings, a more advanced and smart way to tackle poor indoor air quality would be to use tech-driven IAQ solutions like indoor air quality meters or sensors that could detect abnormal concentrations of CO2, VOCs, presence of harmful particles like PM 2.5 and PM 10.

Such solutions also serve as a key function for smart green buildings that are safe, healthy, and efficient and adhere to various smart building standards like IGBC, well buildings, ASHRAE, ISHRAE, etc.

In conclusion

In a nutshell, while there are multiple fundamental and cost-effective ways to maintain safe & healthy levels of indoor air quality, organizations are gradually shifting towards more tech-driven, smart, and efficient IAQ solutions that can provide cognitive insights to create a safe indoor environment for occupants and employees.

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