When the lockdowns and quarantines occurred with the pandemic, few recognized just how important fresh air was. For those in warmer climates, going outdoors to escape the confines of home was an option. But for many, especially during the colder seasons, the only choice was to stay inside. Of course, as we now know, being in spaces with poor ventilation posed their own set of risks for COVID. The virus spread much more rapidly in such confines, which raised new indoor air quality issues. Now that pandemic restrictions have been removed, there’s a real question as to whether these issues are still being addressed.
Throughout the years, America has approached indoor air quality and access to fresh air in contrasting ways. At times, fresh air was viewed as healthy and a necessity by public health officials. But in other instances, there has been fewer concerns about indoor air quality issues. Ventilation solutions for indoor spaces have thus come and gone over the decades depending on the broader perspectives of society. But by all accounts, the current quality of indoor air is just as important as fighting urban smog and outdoor pollution. This remains true even in the face of the recent Canadian wildfires that plagued the Eastern U.S. Coast with smoke. Both issues need attention, but one cannot be sacrificed for the other.
“Sometimes, just staying indoors and closing windows—if you’re in a housing situation that doesn’t have healthy indoor air quality or good ventilation—could actually be worse for you.” – Ana Baptista, Associate Professor of Environmental Policy at the New School
Historical Shifts on Indoor Air Quality Perspectives
In the 19th century, industrial pollution was certainly a threat. However, the bigger menaces at the time were actually infectious diseases. Conditions like tuberculosis, typhoid, yellow fever and smallpox affected millions of people. Likewise, let’s not forget about the Spanish Flu of 1918 that affected global populations as well. It was these diseases that encouraged Americans and others across the world to focus on indoor air quality issues. Not only were many indoor spaces dark, damp, and stagnant, but they also had extremely limited access to outside air. Ventilation solutions were needed, and at least at the time, they were imposed to address these concerns.
The ventilation solutions devised took an infrastructural approach. Buildings were revamped to include large passageways, patios, courtyards, and even rooftop spaces. These additions combined with revised zoning laws encouraged greater airflow from outside to within. And as a result, indoor air quality issues were effectively addressed. Alongside improvements in water treatment, sanitation, and other hygiene practices, these measures significantly reduced disease. Unfortunately, however, these changes were not lasting as different concerns became a higher priority for the public in time.
Air conditioning was introduced in 1902 for residential homes and apartments. However, it was not until after World War II that AC units were prevalent throughout the U.S. Being energy aware, this began a shift toward indoor spaces that were increasingly sealed and reduced fresh air access. Urban smog and air pollution as well as the energy crises of the 1970s also encouraged less outdoor air ventilation in homes. This is when indoor air quality issues started to rise as the public health illnesses of the past were less concerning. Combined with germ theory and the increased use of vaccines and antibiotics, ventilation solutions were no longer as important. That is until COVID came along and made us once again realize the importance of ventilation and indoor air quality.
“There’s a real history of forgetting, especially in the United States. I think we’re on the verge of forgetting the importance of fresh air again.” – Sara Jensen Carr, Architect Researcher at Northeastern University
Indoor Air Quality Issues Now
Whether you realize it or not, we spend about 90% of our time indoors. This is why nearly half of Americans believe their health and wellbeing are significantly affected by indoor air quality issues. Unfortunately, most buildings today are designed to be energy efficient with little attention being paid to ventilation solutions. Poor indoor air quality is linked to a number of health problems as well besides spreading airborne infections. Common symptoms include headache, fatigue, respiratory tract irritation, and dizziness. Not only can this affect overall wellness, but it can affect learning and productivity also. These are pressing reasons why ventilation solutions are needed currently.
At the same time, outdoor air quality issues pose threats. Climate change has brought about increased numbers of wildfires, including the recent ones in Canada. In an effort to prevent outdoor smoke from entering homes, residents shut windows and hunkered down inside. The same has been true in the past with urban smog. China and India still continue to deal with these issues, which worsen with rising temperatures. Addressing indoor air quality issues doesn’t mean these aspects need to be ignored. But they cannot be neglected in the process.
In past years, there has been increased awareness of indoor air quality issues. However, most of the focus has been on particulate matter and not on the spread of disease. To support this statement, the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) release annual standards. These standards define what is acceptable in terms of particulate matter and contaminants. But only recently have they begun to include ventilation solutions and indoor air quality standards related to infectious particles. Of course, without regulatory enforcement at a government level, it’s not likely these standards will be met. Building infrastructures will still need to be redesigned and changed to make these standards a reality.
“[The current standard] says nothing about, ‘Does this level of air quality protect you from risk of infection when the seasonal flu is going around, or when there’s a novel epidemic disease, like Covid?’” – William Bahnfleth, Architectural Engineer at Penn State University and Chairman of the ASHRAE Epidemic Task Force
Ventilation Solutions to Consider
On average, indoor air quality issues outweigh outdoor pollution concerns at any given time. This is because various appliances, furniture materials, building materials, and mold emit chemicals and substances within. At the same time, infectious particles thrive in such environments, much more so than in fresh air. It is for these reasons that indoor air quality needs to be better addressed, and innovative solutions are needed. Better appliances and HEPA filters are good strategies as are low emission standards. However, the most notable change that is needed involves a larger focus on architectural designs and building infrastructures. Access to fresh air is needed at a societal level, as shown by the risks exposed to us during the pandemic. Businesses should play a major role in defining these types of solutions by introducing key innovations. This is what is needed for us to keep the pendulum moving in a proactive direction. Energy efficiency is important, but so is human and public health.