Over 40 years ago, Congress passed The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) — a law to protect the quality of water consumed by people. This act was based on determining concentration thresholds of harmful compounds found in drinking water and cost/risk assessments for reducing exposure to these chemicals. U.S. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was then tasked with enforcing the SDWA by compelling owners and managers of public water systems to comply with health-related standards. With funding from over $1 trillion in grants, 700 billion pounds of pollution have been diverted from drinking water sources, resulting in a doubling of clean water measurements since the inception of the act.

Around the same time, the Clean Air Act (CAA) was passed to protect people and the environment from hazardous pollutants in the air. The CAA developed the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) and required states to take actionable steps to achieve safe outdoor air metrics. Enforcing the act was again the EPA’s responsibility. While the CAA has helped reduce many hazardous airborne pollutants, such as ground-level ozone, mercury, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, lead, and other chemicals, the CAA has not been as successful as the SWDA.

Why is harm from air pollutants still so prevalent? There are several reasons. First, because of the amorphous properties of air, it's hard to hold one enterprise or industrial site responsible for pollution emissions. While NAAQS set goals for states to achieve acceptable levels of ambient pollution, they do not prescribe the steps that should be taken to make sure that that level is achieved. Consequently, EPA enforcement of safe outdoor air is next to impossible. Secondly, the CAA only applies to outdoor air, yet, we spend the majority of our time and have the greatest exposure to airborne pollutants indoors. Despite clear data that poor IAQ is a major health risk and, after decades of demands by scientists for health standards, IAQ is not broadly regulated.

Protecting building occupants from diseases driven by poor IAQ should be achievable.
Image courtesy of Building4Health Inc.

Protecting building occupants from diseases driven by poor IAQ should be achievable. Creating and enforcing health-based IAQ thresholds requires both awareness of the problem and alignment of real estate profits with healthy occupants. How do we incentivise powerful building stakeholders to implement IAQ regulations to protect occupant health? Even engineers who design and operate systems to manage the indoor environment focus on thermal comfort and energy efficiency because of market demands. Application of IAQ guidelines will require action from policymakers, public health professionals, building industry members, researchers, and the public.

The COVID-19 pandemic was a reminder of the importance of managing IAQ to decrease viral illness, however, the need goes beyond containing infectious diseases. Exposure to indoor air pollutants also increases the risk of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, poor pregnancy outcomes, hastened cognitive decline, sleep and productivity disturbances, and more. In fact, a recent study on the global burden of disease found that household air pollution is the third highest cause of illness worldwide.

An IAQ health standard is within our reach

Measurement, evaluation, and management of IAQ to create a “healthy building” based on human physiology requires holistic analysis of the indoor parameters that impact immune system activity and overall human health. This includes understanding emissions from the interaction of indoor air and surface materials, changes in the microbiome of the built environment, and infiltration of outdoor contaminants as well as sources from building occupants.

Now is our time to act!