Nearly 90% of South Africans rate the quality of indoor air as important to their health, while 84% say it is important for employers to prioritise the creation of a safe workplace. This is according to a global hygiene survey by British business services group, Rentokil Initial.

Of the 20 000 global respondents to the survey, 68% expressed increased concern about the number of pollutants in a public venue’s indoor air. Similarly, 71% are more concerned now (compared to before the pandemic) about the impact on their health of poor indoor air quality (IAQ) in a public venue.

Not just viruses and bacteria

The Coronavirus highlighted shortcomings in our IAQ, but the renewed interest has meant that air pollution issues of all kinds — not just airborne viruses and bacteria — are now the focus of public attention, including the kinds of health issues exacerbated by volatile organic compounds (VOCs), traffic pollution, particulate matter, dust, and pollen, as well as the consequences of breathing recirculated air.

Indoor air quality in winter

Indoor air quality is determined by a mix of temperature, humidity, oxygen levels, and the concentration of airborne contaminants.

While keeping windows and doors closed in winter months gives us better control over temperature, it usually comes at a price. Humidity drops below ideal levels, while oxygen levels decrease leading to excessive carbon dioxide in the air we breathe. Even worse, a lack of ventilation concentrates airborne contaminants. This allows indoor sources of air pollution (such as harmful emissions from furnishings, electronic devices, and different kinds of human activity) to persist.

Whenever we seek to increase comfort for occupants of indoor areas, we should also be seeking measures to mitigate indoor air pollution.

Office heaters and air conditioners

Air conditioners should not negatively affect indoor air quality, provided they are routinely serviced. As one might imagine, this is rarely the case; the maintenance of these systems is labour-intensive, disruptive, and expensive. Electric heaters are not of significant concern, but gas heaters can quickly increase airborne particulates.

Improving air quality in buildings

The first step to reducing air pollution is, of course, prevention. Activities that actively pollute the air – cooking, smoking, and painting, for example – should be performed in separate and well-ventilated spaces. If possible, printers and electronic devices associated with emissions should be used in separate rooms. It also goes without saying that occupants should be discouraged from entering a space when they’re feeling unwell.

Even very low concentrations of indoor air pollution inhaled over long periods of time have the potential to severely impact health. In the same way that we have the highest standards for the cleanliness of the water we drink, so too should we raise the bar for what we consider acceptable IAQ.

In highly trafficked spaces, the number one challenge is the potential for viruses and bacteria to spread. When people gather in public indoor spaces, the opportunity to inhale expelled and recirculated air is that much higher.

Actively cleaning the air on an ongoing basis requires dedicated technology. Spaces should be equipped with high-performance filtration and active decontamination devices to ensure high-quality air with minimal disruption to how people use the space on a day-to-day basis.

Conventional filtration can help in all cases, particularly against pollen, dust, VOCs, and other pollutants, but active decontamination is needed to help reduce lingering airborne microorganisms that can more easily accumulate. Careful application of air cleaning devices like VIRUSKILLER Air Purifiers, which are able to decontaminate the air, will likely become an expectation we increasingly place on our busy spaces.

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