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How clean is the air you breathe?

With indoor hospitality, leisure venues and many offices now re-open, how covid-safe is the indoor air we are breathing? We’ve all heard the Government guidelines regarding ventilation and how opening a window to allow the fresh air to circulate is paramount, but what if we can’t?

Traditionally we’ve always been concerned with the outside air pollution and the particles that may be entering our bodies and causing harm. Ironically, Covid has helped to reduce that risk as during last year’s lockdowns traffic fumes have reduced. A global study which was published in May 2021 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that the drop in toxic nitrogen dioxide gas from UK traffic fumes prevented the premature deaths of 1,200 people in the UK.

Attention has now turned to the air we breathe inside buildings. We are all fully aware that opening a window is one of the best forms of ventilation as the virus cannot thrive so well in fresh, moving air, but there are millions of offices, hospitality and leisure venues across the UK where that isn’t an option. Ventilation systems, particularly older ones, were designed to efficiently circulate air inside buildings and maintaining a comfortable temperature. Infection control was never appropriately considered and now as we are so aware, can be the source of a mass viral outbreak.

A global group of 39 leading scientists, have issued an urgent call to improve indoor air quality to help protect against the spread of contagious infections such as coronavirus. Writing in the journal Science, the report calls for the introduction of monitors that display the indoor air quality “because the general public currently have no way of knowing the condition of the indoor spaces that they occupy and share with others”.

Catherine Noakes, a Professor of Environmental Engineering for Buildings at Leeds University and co-authored the global paper, in a recent interview with The Times said: “Many buildings in the UK don’t comply with current standards. Part of the reason is the buildings are old and that ventilation is actually hard to measure. It is also partly because the systems for ensuring compliance aren’t there properly. I hope that reform is on the government’s agenda.

“Pubs, gyms and restaurants are really tricky,” she says. “We have very little information on how well ventilated these places are. Some will be very good, others not. In some modern venues you can clearly see the ventilation ducts, while others have nothing whatsoever.”

Noakes continues: “There’s a little bit of a feel test you can do. If you have noticeable odours in spaces, it indicates bad ventilation, although that doesn’t work, of course, in restaurants.”

Many older air-conditioning systems don’t bring in fresh air, they simply recirculate it around the building. These, Noakes says, “are potentially a risk because the cooled recirculated air they pump feels fresh, creating a false sense of safety. But they are not ventilating the room with clean air.”

The requirement for two metre distance is completely sensible whilst in offices and venues. However, as the World Health Organisation has acknowledged, it does not guarantee protection. Noakes explains “Spacing has its benefits, but airborne Covid transmission can occur over longer distances than two metres.”

So what can you do if you can’t open windows?

Earlier this year, SAGE, the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies suggested that the application of air cleaning devices should be utilised where ventilation is poor. The group is clear that the installation of air cleaning devices is not a replacement for ventilation; all occupied spaces must have some level of ventilation to allow people to inhabit the area and also to comply with building and workplace regulations.

Many of the technologies highlighted will not solve all of the problems, especially if there is no proper ventilation present in the first place.

It is likely that we will see widespread efforts to modernise ventilation systems in offices and hospitality venues. “Larger organisations will have to perform risk assessments on their working environments. They will have no excuses for inaction,” Noakes says. “It is difficult to retrofit ventilation systems into some buildings, but for many others you can.”

There are other health benefits to improving the air we breathe, especially in offices. How many times have you felt a little drowsy in a meeting room? That’s a strong sign of poor ventilation according to Noakes. She says “It’s because the levels of CO2 that people are exhaling are rising in the room. This actually lowers your cognitive performance. CO2 levels are 460ppm outdoors. Once you get up to 2,000ppm, as happens in plenty of offices, you start to feel the effects. Research shows that the environment is then lowering people’s positivity.”

Conversely, she says: “Fresh air from good ventilation could be a corporate cost saving. Some studies suggest it could save 5 per cent in enhanced productivity. Evidence from schools in the US found that better ventilated classrooms had lower rates of sickness absence and higher test scores.”

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