Indoor Air Quality, IAQ

All forms of pollution can be detrimental to human health, and the quality of indoor air is particularly important in spaces where we spend a considerable amount of time (such as in the workplace). Amongst the issues that can be caused by poor indoor air quality is an adverse effect on our lungs and heart, which highlights the need to take the issue very seriously and take appropriate measures.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, around 80% of our time was spent indoors. Now, as we all slowly return to our workplaces, the importance and relevance of indoor air quality is even greater than before. As the covid-19 virus is airborne, huge attention should be given to providing good Indoor Air Quality to all employees, students, patients and shoppers.

Indoor Air Quality, IAQ

Which factors reduce Indoor Air Quality?

What exactly do we categorise as indoor air quality? - It’s the quality of air inside our places of work, our homes, and any structure that has a closed environment. Once we are aware of any pollutants that reduce air quality, we can take proper preventive measures. Indoor air pollutants include:

  • A concoction of pollutants that arise from building materials, paints, varnishes, cleaning products, air fresheners, etc.
  • Pollutants emanating from an outside source, entering through opened windows and ventilation systems. This includes industrial processes, traffic emissions etc.
  • Suspended allergens such as fungi, spores, pollen and dust mites.
  • Gases including carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides from faulty appliances, and radon from the ground.

In addition to the above pollutants, the air quality can also be reduced due to :

  • Humidity levels that have an impact on our health and well-being.
  • Airtight or sealed buildings can save energy but can also lead to inadequate air circulation.
  • Inadequate ventilation.

Observed effects of poor indoor air quality

Poor air quality inside the workplace can have an immediate negative impact, but also commutative effects that pose additional threats over time. Some of these ill-effects include :
Health impact - Pollutants can irritate the eyes, nose, throat, causing headaches, cough, dizziness, fatigue and some long term allergic reactions such as asthma and bronchitis. Studies have shown that long term exposure to pollutants causes respiratory problems, even leading to heart disease and lung cancer.
Performance - Good quality air in the workplace that’s achieved with proper ventilation will keep employees alert, active and productive. On the other hand, bad air quality can impair concentration and cognitive functioning, affecting performance and comfort levels.
'Sick Building Syndrome' - This term is used to describe a condition experienced by some individuals which include symptoms such as headaches, eye straining and lung irritation.
Proactive measures to take that improve Indoor Air Quality
There are many measures that we can (and do) take to reduce outdoor air pollution, however, indoor air pollution is often overlooked. For the most part, we consider ourselves safe from pollution when inside a building, but this isn’t always the case. Below are some of the measures that can be taken to bring about a change in awareness of our indoor environments :

  • Measure air quality - Employers should take responsibility and include indoor air quality checks in their risk assessments. Regular monitoring should be introduced and conducted.
  • Risk assessment - Assessments should include building surveys for potential internal emissions, with air quality sampling, measurement of pollutant concentrations, installation of sensors to monitor and alert increases in emissions, and the regular assessment of ventilation systems for faults.
  • Specialist advice - Employ specialist air quality contractors / consultants and prepare a report based on the survey of the premises, advising appropriate actions.
  • Satisfaction survey - A workplace satisfaction survey in the form of a questionnaire needs to be carried out by all employees. Any complaints or concerns raised should be addressed and taken seriously.
  • Good ventilation - Proper ventilation, through open windows, ensures the introduction of external fresh air and the removal of stale internal air.
  • Correct temperature - Limited access to windows and poor ventilation lead to an increase in humidity levels, making rooms feel hot and stuffy. Maintaining a comfortable temperature level is necessary for a healthy working atmosphere.
  • Eliminating contamination - Pollutants can be reduced and eliminated by using cleaning products with a low VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) content. Products that are eco-friendly and hypoallergenic should be used, and office equipment should not produce high emissions.

Indoor air quality & the factors affecting CO₂ levels

The build-up of carbon dioxide inside of a workspace is mainly due to poor ventilation. Carbon dioxide is in the air we exhale and is one of the many air pollutants affecting air quality. Though harmless in small quantities, above a certain level CO₂ can harm our health.

Factors affecting the levels of CO₂ in the workplace include :

  • Quantity of external fresh air that’s introduced.
  • By-products of combustion from vehicles, tobacco smoke, furnaces etc.
  • Number of people in the workplace
  • Size of the workspace
  • How long space is occupied for
  • Outdoor air concentration

Why is it important to monitor the level of CO₂?

Since the Industrial Revolution, atmospheric CO₂ concentration has increased by 47%. There is much media coverage given to the issue and concerns have been consistently raised, however, little of this focus is given to indoor air pollution. The alarming rate at which CO₂ level are increasing in our indoor environments should raise concern for the following reasons :

  • Occupancy rates are increasing - In 2016, around 54.5% of the world's population lived in urban settlements. But by 2020, that number increased by 60%, and now one in three people live in cities. Offices and schools are becoming increasingly populated, at the same time, space for new buildings is scant. Office workers, students, and anyone working indoors can feel drowsy due to the many hours spent indoors.
  • Energy-efficient buildings - To save energy, commercial and residential buildings are installing doors and windows that are air-tight, offering very little ventilation. As a combination of the used air that we expel, raised outdoor CO₂ levels and poor ventilation, CO₂ levels have reached concerning levels and are resulting in poor air quality.

Effects of high levels of CO₂ for those who work in commercial buildings

Maintaining good air quality is vitally important, not only for health reasons, but also to reduce costs. Some of the negative effects associated with high CO₂ levels in indoor environments include :

  • Poor cognitive performance - High levels of CO₂ in indoor environments reduces brain activity and impairs higher cognitive functions. Increased ventilation in schools helps increase performance during testing.
  • Low productivity & high dissatisfaction - Poor indoor air quality in offices and schools decreases productivity and increases dissatisfaction. Conversely, reducing CO₂ levels increases performance by up to 60%.
  • Higher absenteeism - Increased CO₂ levels in indoor air can lead to more absentees. Increasing ventilation can reduce sick days at schools and offices. Monitoring CO₂ levels can help reduce costs due to lost man-hours.
  • Asthma - The likelihood of asthma attacks affecting individuals increases by 18% with an increase in CO₂ levels. Monitoring CO₂ levels and maintaining them at a healthy level is beneficial to those who suffer from respiratory conditions.
How is monitoring CO₂ useful for understanding the efficiency of an HVAC system?

52% of indoor air quality issues are related to poor ventilation. If ventilation is sufficient, the flow of air into and out of a building increases. To check the efficiency of your HVAC system, you only need to keep a check on the levels of CO₂ in the indoor air. The greater the volume of fresh air entering the building, the lower the level of CO₂ indoors.

Managing spaces and improving ventilation can help reduce CO₂ and its effects. Proper monitoring of CO₂ levels provides accurate data required to inform us of the changes that need to be made to ensure safe and productive indoor environments.