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The impact of indoor air quality on health and well-being

We spend a large proportion of our lives indoors at home, work and school or in shops and restaurants, breathing air that has been polluted by a wide range of substances from natural and man-made sources. Air pollution, both indoors and out, is the largest environmental risk to public health, producing both short term and long-term illness and potentially reducing life expectancy.

Architects, designers, employers, building owners and governments worldwide are responding to the large amount of evidence that the work environment has a profound effect on health and well-being.

What is the difference between health and well-being?

There are many definitions of well-being, but all have a common theme of feeling good and functioning well. The Well-being Institute at Cambridge University defines well-being as “‘positive and sustainable characteristics which enable individuals and organisations to thrive and flourish”. It’s a subjective measure of how comfortable we are in our present situation and with our life in general. The broad definition of health includes well-being, but in this context refers to diseases and conditions that make us physically unwell, such as infections, allergies, tiredness, headaches, and respiratory, skin or vision problems.

Sick buildings

Since the 1980s there has been increasing awareness of the effect of the office environment on people’s health and well-being. Various terms have been used to denote the negative impacts that people have reported from being in buildings, including Sick Building Syndrome (SBS), multiple chemical sensitivity and building related illness. Some cases can be linked to specific causes such as identified microorganisms or low levels of chemicals found in modern buildings. The symptoms of SBS vary widely and they often can’t be linked to any specific cause, but disappear when the person leaves the building. Typical complaints include:

  • Headaches
  • Eye, nose and throat complaints
  • Lethargy
  • Mental fatigue

What causes poor indoor air quality?

Air quality is determined by the environmental conditions and the amount of particles and polluting gases that it contains. These can be biological and non- biological and natural and human in origin. Industrial countries have a large number of products for use in the home and businesses that emit volatile chemicals and particles into the air and are present in every indoor environment.

Common sources of contaminants in indoor air include the following.

  • Biological contamination: fungi and bacteria caused by condensation and damp materials, dust mites and pollen from outdoor air
  • Biological contamination from humans and animals: human-derived microbes, for example, from sneezing and coughing; droppings and detritus from birds, rodents and cockroaches
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from building components:plywood and fibreboard, insulation materials, vinyl and plastic wall andfloor coverings, carpets and upholstered furniture, adhesives
  • VOCs, Ozone (O3) and particles from industrial and household products: paints, solvents, waxes and polishes, air fresheners, drain cleaners, printers and copiers, perfumes, soaps, writing and drawing materials, paper products, cooked food, tobacco and vaping products
  • Biological contamination and VOCs from HVAC systems: contaminated liners and filters, dirty drain pans, lubricants, refrigerants, leaking boilers and furnaces
  • Traffic and industrial pollutants from outdoors: particles from vehicle exhausts and factories, and gaseous pollution such as nitrous oxide (NO2), carbon monoxide (CO), sulphur dioxide (SO2)
  • Radon: this radioactive gas occurs naturally in rocks and seeps through the ground into buildings where it can accumulate and increase the risk of lung cancer

The indoor climate is related to the temperature, relative humidity and airflow. These are affected by the indoor sources of heat and cooling, the outdoor environmental conditions, the amount of sunlight and the design of the building and the HVAC system (heating, ventilation and air conditioning).

The impact of poor air quality on health

Poor air quality causes a wide range of negative effects on the people in a building, including medical symptoms, reduced feeling of well-being and drop in performance in work and learning environments. The effect of any pollutant depends on multiple factors, including concentration of the pollutant, duration of exposure, age, gender, sensitivity and health of the people exposed. The impacts of some of the typical indoor pollutants are given below:

  •  Particulate matter: respiratory illnesses, including asthma and bronchitis in the short term and heart disease and lung disease in the long term, and also anxiety and hypertensive disorders.
  • Ozone: asthma, irritation of eyes, nose and airways and damage to airways from long-term exposure
  • VOCs such as formaldehyde: eye, nose and throat irritation, headache and allergic skin reaction, cancer
  • Carbon monoxide: headache, dizziness, nausea and death
  • NO2: inflammation of the airways, respiratory illness

How to improve air quality

These pollutants can be kept to a minimum, first by using good practices in building design and maintenance to control the quantity emitted by building materials. The majority of buildings, however, were built before the modern standards were developed so they are still potential sources of the air pollutants described earlier. HVAC systems can clean the air to some extent, but this will vary depending on their age and how well they are maintained.

There are also portable devices that can be placed in rooms to process the air to remove pollutants. These air purifiers suck air through multi-layer filters that capture air-borne particulates such as pollen, bacteria, viruses and fungal spores, and absorb VOCs using active carbon. Air purifiers are an efficient way to improve the air quality in a room.

The benefits of a well building

There are several building rating systems used to measure the wellness of buildings, including BREEAM and the WELL Building Standard. The WELL certification system focuses on the factors that affect human health and well-being, not just on environmental assessment, and includes 29 air quality measures and standards.

There have been over 2000 building projects in 52 countries that have used the WELL certification and are seeing the impact that good building design and indoor air quality can have on the health, well-being and productivity of employees. The World Green Building Council has compiled evidence from 11 green building projects around the world. The top three benefits of the green buildings were:

  • Improvements to occupant well-being, satisfaction and productivity
  • Reductions in energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions and indoor air pollutants
  • Strong financial returns for the companies owning or occupying the buildings

The key findings of the projects were that companies can save money, employees prefer green buildings that make them feel healthier and a building’s asset value increases when it becomes greener. It is clear that implementing measures to improve health and well-being results in significant economic benefit.

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