A Brief History on Our Relationship to Air Quality
Sustainable building factors in the health of the inhabitants, the impact on the community, and the impact on the earth. The definition of sustainability on dictionary.com specifically states “avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance.” Being mindful of sustainability goals is being mindful of the health of our environment and ourselves.
Health has been a considerably hot topic as of late due to the Coronavirus pandemic. We’ve never faced a viral outbreak of this magnitude, nor any of the consequences (like having two-thirds of the workforce working remotely) in our lifetimes, so all of this is new to us. While we may feel grateful to be able to work from the safety of our homes, there are a few important topics to keep in mind—specifically regarding our health.
The Evolution of Air Quality Awareness
Our health is intricately linked to our environment—our outdoor as well as the indoor environment. Humans initially evolved in warmer climates and were only able to expand their reach across the globe because of the invention of necessities like clothing, shelters, and fire (Sundell, 2004). As the advent of modern building techniques became commonplace, the issues that came from these techniques slowly became more relevant. For instance, the consequences of having a fire (for heating and cooking) within enclosed spaces can cause serious issues with Indoor Air Quality (e.g., regular exposure to higher levels of Carbon Monoxide), which in turn can affect our health. The very things that enhance our quality of life can actually end up being detrimental to our health.
Historically, many cultures across various regions have been aware of the adverse effects of polluted air. Specifically, “bad air” was thought to be responsible for the spread of disease and the adverse reactions (i.e., headaches, nausea) that occur in badly ventilated rooms (Sundell, 2004). Though prior generations weren’t necessarily privy to all the scientific information behind the adverse reactions to air quality, they did have a general understanding that “bad air” was linked to “bad health.” Indoor Air Quality is quite simply what it states—the quality of the air in and around the building itself.
The Modern Era and “The Sleeping Giant”
Unfortunately, modern buildings can contain various substances that are potentially hazardous to our health. John Bower, the Founder of the Healthy House Institute explains, “Walking into a modern building can sometimes be compared to placing your head inside a plastic bag that is filled with toxic fumes” (CDC, 2009). These substances can range from typical dust to major irritants—but importantly, all are invisible to the human eye. Within the building industry, indoor air quality is often referred to as the “sleeping giant” because it can be ten times worse than outdoor air on a particularly smoggy day in a big city (greenbuilding.com). The smaller the space, the more potential contaminants can repeatedly circulate, causing lasting problems. As the production of more “modern” (i.e., synthetic) building materials increases, so too does the potential adverse risks to human health.
Biological Air Contaminants
Air contaminants can be either biological or chemical. Biological contaminants are things like dust mites, animal dander, and mold. Mold is the most complex because it produces both spores (particles) and gases (volatile compounds that produce the telltale “musty” odor; greenbuilding.com). Throughout a lifetime, humans are exposed to more than 200 species of fungi indoors and outdoors, including moldlike fungi (CDC, 2009). The terms “mold” or “mildew” are nontechnical terms that are used to describe any type of fungus that is growing in an indoor environment. Moldlike fungi come in a wide variety of textures (e.g., “cottony” vs. “leathery”) and colors (e.g., white, black, green). Specific types of molds can cause various health effects ranging in severity from allergic reactions and immune responses (i.e., asthma), to infectious disease and even cancer (CDC, 2009).
Chemical Air Contaminants
Chemical contaminants come from multiple sources, but one of the most common sources is combustion by-products (like carbon monoxide) from furnaces, boilers and/or water heaters (greenbuilding.com). Carbon monoxide (CO) is an odorless colorless gas that can cause sudden illness and death. Some of the most frequent symptoms of CO poisoning include headaches, dizziness, nausea, and confusion. Breathing in high levels of carbon monoxide can cause flu-like symptoms in otherwise healthy people while inhaling extremely high levels can result in loss of consciousness and death (CDC, 2009). Any fuel-burning appliance that is not adequately vented and/or regularly maintained can be a potential source of CO.
Ailments Associated With Indoor Air Quality (IAQ)
- Allergic Rhinitis
- Cardiovascular stress
- Coughing, throat and nose irritation
- Eye irritation
- Digestive problems
- Dry, chapped, irritated skin
- Impaired lung function, shortness of breath
- Impaired vision
- Impaired coordination
- Learning impairment
- Liver and kidney damage
- Loss of bone calcium
- Nervous system depression
- Nose bleeds
- Respiratory Distress
- Sinus congestion
Indoor Air Quality Solutions
So, what are some solutions? You can take immediate action by making sure you have adequate ventilation in your building. To prevent mold it’s important to get regular maintenance to your HVAC systems, keep gutters clean to avoid the potential of moisture getting in the house, and making sure that if you find mold, the surface is either thoroughly cleaned or removed (in extreme cases; CDC, 2009).
Additionally, by simply being mindful of the products you use (cleaning products for example) and making sure there is a constant airflow of fresh air, it ensures the reduction of possible contaminants in the air. To reduce Carbon monoxide, the first step is always to install a CO monitor. It’s important to keep in mind that you should never use gas-powered equipment (e.g. charcoal grills, lanterns) indoors, and to make sure that when purchasing appliances for your house, to only buy certified and tested combustion appliances (CDC, 2009).
Long Term Solutions
For long term solutions, building green is the way to go. This can apply to new buildings or renovations in a current building. Though some may assume that it is best to start from scratch, there are multitudes of solutions that can be implemented for existing structures that can substantially improve the Indoor Air Quality of your building.
Now more than ever it’s important to be mindful of your surroundings due to the extended amount of time we are spending indoors. Our schedules have changed substantially, resulting in us spending the majority of our workdays (and our free time) indoors.
A fantastic way to increase our productivity and reduce the harmful effects of IAQ is to consider possible contaminants in your immediate environment and increase ventilation.
If you’re curious how to improve the IAQ in your house and/or other buildings with long-term solutions, please don’t hesitate to contact us at Alfandre Architecture so we can work together to find a lasting solution.
Graphic from: https://www.epa.gov
Sundell, J. (2004). On the history of indoor air quality and health. Indoor Air, 14, 51-58.
Links for more information
Exposure assessment tools:
An in-depth scientific look at IAQ: