The current illnesses from the new coronavirus outbreak, and the associated human fear, has renewed people’s interest in the potential of the indoor environment to contain disease transmission. This means HVAC engineers and building managers are now public health professionals with the capability to aid in disease prevention.

This is an amazing opportunity for building professionals to manage buildings to improve the health of occupants. Unfortunately, in our profit-driven society, building performance is often defined by marketplace performance as reflected in real estate values, rapid returns on building investments, and low professional liability risks — goals quite separate from optimizing occupant health. Too often, choices in building design and installed equipment are not motivated by the well-being of the users. Too often, safety factors are eliminated or equipment is chosen to promote underlining sales agendas. 

Even in traditional public health work, managing the indoor environment to decrease diseases receives much less attention than medical treatments, which can be advertised and sold to patients. Because the pharmaceutical industry has finally run out of new chronic diseases to develop drugs for, its focus is now on advertising and selling “lifestyle drugs.” Americans who watch television might be surprised to know that not all of the male population has erectile dysfunction! Because of these commercial interests, truly managing the indoor environment for disease prevention has been overlooked for way too long.

One of the first things taught in public health schools is the importance of looking for fundamental determinants of health. Investigating and addressing correlations between occupant illnesses and the building, however, require continuity of communication and priorities that can be difficult to establish when the goals of the building owner, manager, and user are vastly different.

Even though it is clear that buildings have an important role in controlling disease and preventing injuries, there are examples throughout history of commercial interests driving blatant dishonesty in writing policies for occupant safety. In the 1980s, concerns about possible associations between secondhand smoke exposure and lung diseases were hotly debated. The tobacco industry, afraid of decreased profits if indoor smoking was banned, formed a research committee to publish studies on secondhand exposure. Not surprisingly, their findings were skewed to state there were minimal dangers associated with indoor smoking. Their resulting recommendation was to allow indoor smoking and simply increase ventilation rates.

Now that COVID-19 is helping us recognize the importance in indoor air management and surface cleaning in occupant health, we need to be certain that those of us who design buildings and HVAC systems, or oversee facility operation and management, do not fall into capitalistic pitfalls. To maintain an ethical path, we need to remain aware of biases caused by profit-seeking models and exercise  ongoing vigilance about our choices of HVAC components and the operation of occupied buildings. 

How can you avoid possible conflicts between profits and best practices?

If you are selling a product, do your homework. Do not simply look for outcomes that promote sales of your solution. Read the research literature and be aware of possible unintended consequences of your solution.

The following checklist, a modified version of the pledge for mechanical engineers, will help you “do the right thing” in protecting the safety and health of your building occupants.

  1. Avoid conflicts of interest and disclose them when they do exist;
  2. Use available data to create realistic claims or estimates;  
  3. Educate others about the capabilities and societal implications of conventional and emerging technologies, including intelligent systems;  
  4. Maintain your technical competence and only undertake tasks you are qualified to execute. Give full disclosure of pertinent limitations;  
  5. Accept honest feedback on your work, acknowledge and correct errors, and give proper credit for the contributions of others; and
  6. Assist colleagues and coworkers in professional development

Despite the immediate allure of putting more money in the bank, this pandemic reminds us that we cannot take life for granted. Above all, we must protect the health of our fellow humans.