Can COVID and wildfires spark a revolution in indoor air safety?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

Photo illustration: Jack Forbes/Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images (4)
Photo illustration: Jack Forbes/Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images (4)

What’s happening

Gigantic plumes of smoke from Canadian wildfires that blanketed the northeastern United States last week provided a striking reminder of the dangers that toxic air can pose — not just in the atmosphere, but also indoors. As New York City dealt with the worst air quality in the world, millions of people scrambled to eliminate the potentially dangerous particles that had seeped into their homes.

But experts say it shouldn’t take such an unprecedented event for indoor air quality to be a key focus of health efforts. Scientists have known for many years that clean indoor air can reduce heart and lung disease, improve cognitive performance in adults and children, and prevent a long list of deadly pathogens from spreading. The World Health Organization estimates that household air pollution is responsible for 3.2 million deaths per year globally. There’s even a phenomenon known as sick building syndrome that’s been documented to reduce productivity and increase absences in schools and workplaces.

Americans spend roughly 90% of their time inside, but neither the public nor government health authorities have given indoor air quality the kind of attention provided to clean water, food safety and outdoor air pollution. That has started to change since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which provided undeniable evidence of the life-and-death difference things like air circulation and purification can make.

Late last year, the Biden administration held a summit on indoor air quality, bringing together experts in health, ventilation, business and education to discuss ways to improve indoor air quality to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. Then in May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published the first federal recommendations for how often air in a room should be circulated to stem the spread of disease — five times an hour.

Why there’s debate

Medical experts are hoping that the awareness created by the combined effects of the pandemic and increasingly frequent wildfires will help lead to an indoor air revolution in the same way diseases like cholera made clean drinking water an imperative for cities around the world nearly two centuries ago. As one epidemiologist elegantly put it: “Air is the new poop.”

But many clean air advocates say there is still a long way to go before there’s enough urgency to create the society-wide change they believe is necessary. They argue that only businesses and governments have the scope to effectively address a problem whose burden is usually placed on individual people.

At a small scale, improving indoor air can be as easy as opening a window. But the technologies needed to make a wider impact — including updated HVAC systems, air purifiers and disinfecting ultraviolet light — will be expensive to implement. A number of experts argue that the effort will ultimately save businesses and governments money by reducing health care spending and increasing productivity.

What’s next

Some scientists make the case for new laws to require better indoor air management. Others argue that the change will come only through a coordinated public pressure campaign that forces schools, businesses and lawmakers to make indoor air safety a core focus for public health.

With climate change leading to more wildfires and increased awareness of airborne viruses, the issue isn’t going away.


Plans need to be flexible to account for the needs of various climates

“One major challenge is reconciling a building’s energy efficiency and its indoor air quality. In places where outdoor air is very cold or very hot, pumping large amounts of it into indoor spaces could then require even more energy to heat or cool the building accordingly. … Different places also have drastically different built environments.” — Mary Hui, Quartz

Ventilation must be elevated to the same importance as plumbing

“A hundred years ago they developed codes and rules for water coming in and poop going out, and the plumber really did protect the health of the nation. Now it is time to rethink our HVAC systems and recognize their importance.” — Lloyd Alter, Treehugger

It’s a mistake to assume we can do for air what was done for water centuries ago

“Engineering solutions eliminated many waterborne pathogens from high income countries. It is not possible to achieve the same thing for airborne pathogens, due to the continuous processes of both ingestion and contamination. … Improving ventilation and air quality should be much higher up the priority list, and would help in reducing illness from airborne disease - but we must be realistic about what it can achieve. We cannot end the pandemic with improved ventilation.” — Alasdair Munro, infectious disease expert

A society-wide effort is needed to make such a massive change to how we live

“Ultimately, the issue is not only about particles and filters. It will be up to businesses, workers, students, parents, scientists and everyone else to demand change in the buildings in which they spend so much of their lives. Do you know the air exchanges per hour at your workplace or classroom? The CDC is now giving us a yardstick to measure by. Americans should use it.” — Editorial, Washington Post

We’ll need to prioritize energy efficiency when creating clean air systems

“Decarbonizing buildings affords an opportunity to rethink how indoor air quality can be managed and improved. Balancing the need to increase ventilation yet minimize energy loss through heating (in colder countries) or cooling (in hotter ones) is an important engineering challenge. Better insulation to reduce energy consumption needs to be set against adequate ventilation to avoid pollution collecting indoors.” — Alastair C. Lewis, Deborah Jenkins and Christopher J. M. Whitty, Nature

We must improve the air indoors and outside simultaneously

“There are two main ways to do to air what we did to water. One is to reduce concentrations of particulates and nitrogen dioxide by transitioning to using renewable energy quickly. The other is to improve the quality of indoor air by improving ventilation, both natural and mechanical.” — Geoff Hanmer, Conversation

It should be mandatory to inform the public about the air quality in crowded spaces

“The public should be notified of the air quality in buildings and public transit before entering, as well as of its potential health effects such as COVID risk. … Just as restaurants have health inspection reports with letter grades in their windows, shared indoor spaces should display their air quality ratings. These ratings can help people adjust their behavior appropriately.” — Abraar Karan, Devabhaktuni Srikrishna and Ranu Dhillon, Los Angeles Times

Citizens need to be empowered to ensure that the air they’re breathing indoors is safe

“People need a clear path for demanding better when buildings fail them. They deserve transparent standards for indoor air, with metrics they can easily understand and use to make their own decisions. And they require policymakers to provide enough support — and consequences — for building owners to ensure they meet those standards.” — Keren Landman, Vox

Every dollar spent improving indoor air quality will be more than recouped

“Healthy buildings are also associated with less worker absenteeism due to illness and better cognitive function, both of which mean that an investment in ventilation is an investment in a company’s bottom line.” — Joseph G. Allen, Stat

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Photo illustration: Jack Forbes/Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images (4)