Prioritising Health through the Air You Breathe: A Data-Driven Approach to Healthy Buildings
People, buildings and the planet are inextricably linked in a complex relationship that can either be a virtuous cycle where sustainable places in our cities support healthy lifestyles which begets a healthy planet; or an unsustainable path towards planetary malaise, as we are on today. Changing societal norms and human behaviors takes time, such as giving up creature comforts such as cars and air-conditioning, buying less clothes and moving towards a plant-based diet; and redefining what a good life means.
Cue the mindfulness movement and its tidying offshoot, the Konmari Method™ and the spark joy movement. There are two messages embedded within (I will not be addressing their criticisms, such as how it is a first world problem due to consumerism, and how it seems to promote wastefulness). Firstly, what are we consuming (eating, breathing and using) on a daily basis; and secondly, how do we do it in a mindful manner?
While we cannot hold air like we hold a piece of clothing and ask ourselves, “Does it spark joy?” we can definitely find out the nutritional value of our air, very much like food labels. The underlying belief is that by taking care of your environment (whether immediate or the larger environment), we are in fact, taking care of ourselves.
Does it smell fresh?
Imagine the smell of the countryside, after a spring shower. Doesn’t it draw you in and make you want to breathe a little more deeply? I sure hope so! However, this is not an option for most of us today, where 91% of global population live in places where air quality exceeds World Health Organization guideline limits. While we cannot always choose where we live, we can make some progress in terms of the indoor environment, where we spend 90% of our lives.
Research in the past by the Environmental Protection Agency shows that indoor air has as much as 2 to 5 times more volatile organic compounds (“VOCs”) than outdoor air due to the chemicals found in buildings, which can impact health ranging from eye and throat irritation to respiratory diseases and cancer. Some sources include building materials used during the construction and renovation process such as paints, wallpaper adhesives and carpets; others are due to use of chemicals in our daily lives for cleaning and odour control, such as laundry detergents, mothballs and burning candles.
Common VOCs include:
- Benzene (a known carcinogen), acetone, toluene and formaldehyde found in paints, glue, polish and lacquers
- Butanal, from burning candles and cigarettes
- Terpenes and diclorobenzene, found in fragrant products
- Benzene (again) and xylene from idling cars and emissions.
These are those that are known to us today, but as experts term it “regrettable substitution”, manufacturers are playing a toxic chemical whack-a-mole game as new chemicals substitute those that have been banned. We, the consumers, essentially need a fundamental rethink about consumption habits.
Knowing what it contains to make it better
The first step to recovery is being honest to ourselves, and discovering what is in our air through IAQ (indoor air quality) data. Newer buildings are measuring it at some level, since they would be fitted with modern building management systems to control heating, ventilation and air conditioning. There are commonly 3 key metrics used to measure indoor air quality. Firstly, PM2.5 which measures the presence of fine particles small enough to enter your bloodstream; secondly, carbon dioxide (“CO2”) and lastly, total VOCs from other chemicals off-gassing, such as those that were mentioned above.
Building standards are evolving. Many green building certifications measure as-built, but equally importantly is getting real-time data, particularly when it relates to health. At MANN + HUMMEL, we work with RESET™, a performance-based standard to support data transparency and helping people understand what the state of IAQ today. The question is, if you’re already wearing a fitbit to measure your current state of health, and now knowing that air has such a big impact on your health, why wouldn’t you want a fitbit for your building?
What can you do?
Individuals have a lot more influence and power than they give themselves credit for. You, as an individual, can take action through the following steps. Firstly, by prioritising your health and committing to it. Armed with that perspective, ask the right questions to the facilities team in your building such as:
What is the IAQ in your building?
- WHO guideline recommends PM2.5 level of <10 ug/m3
- RESET™ recommends TVOC level of 0.4 mg/m3
- Various standards recommends between CO2 of 600 to 1000 ppm
- Set temperatures in indoor spaces to between 23-25°C (in summer months) and 20-23°C (in winter months). This not only prevents sick building syndrome, but also reduces energy consumption.
In addition, you can also improve your IAQ through simple, practical steps, whether at home or work through these steps:
- Using interior plants to purify the air
- Segregating the photocopier in a utility room, or better still, go completely paperless!
- Going out for lunch rather than eating at your desk – a hotbed of germs, which is also an opportunity to go out for a walk
- Lastly, be aware of the chemical that you introduce to your space, whether its perfumes, scented candles or air fresheners. Some are natural, some not, so do read the labels!
Joelle Chen is Director, Global Partnerships & Marketing at MANN + HUMMEL, a sponsor of WorldGBC's Better Places for People global project.
To find about more about the link between air quality and the built environment, click here.