The many unknowns of COVID-19, including the degree to which different transmission routes are used by the virus, have made us focus on the day-to-day protective steps we can control. One of these is managing IAQ with a focus on our safety. To address IAQ, and SARS-CoV-2 specifically, ASHRAE formed an Epidemic Task Force in the winter of 2020, when the magnitude of COVID-19 infections became clear. This committee has moved quickly to establish design and reoccupation guidelines for IAQ management for almost every building type. When the heating season arrives, our safety indoors will become an even bigger concern.
Once we have an effective vaccine, will we forget about the importance of IAQ in protecting us from infectious respiratory viruses? While strict protocols about social distancing and wearing masks will eventually diminish with declining COVID-19 numbers, there are other illnesses that are clearly related to the indoor environment. The understanding that indoor air should be managed to reduce diseases and, furthermore, actually improve our health, is an attitude I hope is here to stay.
What other illnesses are related to the indoor environment? A few examples of diseases that are directly exacerbated or relieved by our indoor exposures are respiratory viral and bacterial infections; inflammatory related problems, such as cardiovascular disease and inflammatory bowel disease; allergies; and events related to blood clotting, such as deep vein thrombosis, heart attack, and stroke.
Given the importance of IAQ on our health, you might wonder how the two topics — public health and indoor exposures — ever became as disconnected as they are today. One reason is that building occupancy is commonly categorized within the term “comfort.”
A closely related concept — the term “well-being” — is evaluated by asking occupants to answer the following yes/no questions about their state of mind after being in a building: I felt cheerful and in good spirits, calm and relaxed, and active and vigorous. I woke up feeling fresh and rested, and my daily life has been filled with things that interest me.
While we would all like to answer “yes” to these questions, requiring that buildings provide such experiences is out of scope for most operating budgets, even in the best of times. While building interventions for sustainability are mandated in many sectors, occupant wellness or comfort is not.
COVID-19 has dramatically increased our motivation to manage the indoor environment to protect us from viral respiratory diseases. Let’s not lose this motivation and return to comfort regarding occupant safety when a vaccine is available.