Love is in the air: How environmental monitoring can improve health and well-being in buildings

Health and Safety July 13, 2020

Air quality may have improved while people have stayed at home, walked more and travelled less during the coronavirus pandemic, but, as the world gets ready to restart, harmful levels of pollution in our towns and cities will begin to rise again. But have you ever thought about how this air can permeate through to the indoor environment and affect the health and well-being of those inside?

On average, we spend almost 8000 hours per year indoors, but most of us have no idea of the air quality in our homes and workspaces. External monitoring has revealed that harmful levels of pollutants are now prevalent. All the major cities in the UK, for example, consistently exceed World Health Organization standards for airborne pollutants. As our cities become more populated, cars get back on the road and people return to work after lockdown, this trend is forecast to increase.

Poor air quality, however, is at the root of many health conditions. Overexposure to atmospheric pollutants can cause respiratory diseases and heart problems and particulate matter in the air causes 3% of cardiopulmonary and 5% of lung cancer deaths worldwide. Poor air quality is also linked to depression and a deterioration in mental health.

But, how does this air permeate through to the indoor environment and affect occupant’s health? How does the buildup of indoor pollutants, such as carbon dioxide (CO2), affect cognitive function, decision making and productivity?

RSK company ZED, an air quality consultancy, has undertaken significant research and development work in this field and has a team of experts helping to facilitate change within the built environment by enabling buildings to establish, track and improve their air quality.

“Polluted outdoor air is what we use as the basis for ventilating our indoor spaces,” explains ZED Director Will Procter. “Mixing external contaminants with ‘human-generated’ pollution in the form of CO₂ brings about a double negative that affects not only our health, but also our levels of concentration, decision making and productivity. However, we now have the capacity to measure our exposure to polluted air and act on the data.”

CO₂ levels in occupied spaces can build up throughout the day, even with functioning ventilation systems, and cause loss of concentration and increased likelihood of poor cognition. Studies on CO₂ levels and their effects on cognition have found that even small increases in concentrations (from 600 to 1000 ppm, the ‘design target’ for many ventilation systems) can affect decision making performance by up to 15%. At 2500 ppm, the previously accepted ‘maximum level’, decision making metrics drop through the floor, ‘taking the initiative’ and ‘strategic thinking’ being classed as dysfunctional. The symptoms of a building with poor air quality will also include increased levels of absenteeism, presenteeism and unhappy, unproductive people.

ZED can provide a wide range of high-quality building performance advice and evaluation, sustainability and well-being consultancy services focusing on

  • Improving health and wellness
  • Improving productivity
  • Continuous data monitoring
  • Heating, ventilation and air conditioning system optimisation analysis
  • Improvement change reporting
  • Impact feedback and guidance
  • Air filtration maintenance
  • Healthy Building Certification and maintenance (WELL, fitwel, RESET).

In whatever setting, from businesses in the heart of the city to classrooms, shopping centres, gyms and health care spaces, when air quality exceeds the target parameters, it opens opportunities to optimise ventilation systems. For example, the alignment of operation and occupation times can deliver fresh air where and when needed. This can unlock incredible energy and carbon savings, and improve health and well-being.

ZED works across all construction sectors in the UK, Europe and worldwide. For more information on ZED’s air quality consultancy services, please see their brochure or contact hello@zed-uk.com.