Some estimates place the cost of poor indoor air quality (IAQ) to the United States' economy at $200 Billion in today’s dollars. In the age of COVID-19, good IAQ as we have known it is no longer enough.
When giving a talk on Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) in 1991, I was discussing one of the consequences of poor IAQ – Sick Building Syndrome. A woman raised her hand and said, “I have that.” The room went silent. She continued, “I was teaching at school and they started painting. By the time I left that first day I had tingling in my fingers. The second day I had tingling all the way up to my elbows. On the third day I went home very sick. I went to several doctors in the area who weren’t able to diagnose it – they all said it was in my head. I finally found a holistic doctor who diagnosed it as Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS).”
With the proper diagnosis, she could finally start treatment. To this day she is still hyper-sensitive to the VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) such as the odors from fresh paint, carpet and glue found in many buildings.
VOCs. Viruses. Stale air. Mold
They spread through the air and can lead to Sick Building Syndrome. Left unchecked, they can cause serious health issues.
Sometimes the underlying source is easily seen, detected and mitigated. Sometimes exposure causes long-term health issues for those exposed.
Most often, especially in flu season or as a result of adverse events such as flooding or an epidemic like COVID 19, it pays to monitor Indoor Air Quality (IAQ).
Having worked in the HVAC optimization and wellness field for the last 15 years, I have never seen a better opportunity to have a long overdue discussion about how our mechanical systems direct and drive building wellness. The current worldwide focus on halting the spread of COVID-19 has brought this topic to a level of urgent action.
Note: Since this was article was originally posted, a budget passed Congress that does not significantly reduce EPA funding. So we believe the Energy Star Program is safe - for now. It’s good to know, however, what else is out there from the private sector, for example, ASHRAE bEQ as is discussed below. Our industry needs to be well-versed in all the options, not on a just-in-case basis, but on a what’s-best-for-the-customer basis. (updated 5/10/2017)
Since its inception in 1992, the Energy Star label has gained tremendous popularity, and today thousands of products (mostly small and medium home appliances) sport the Energy Star logo. Use of this program, run by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in partnership with the US Department of Energy (DOE), had saved $362 billion on energy bills and prevented nearly 2.5 billion tons of greenhouse gases from being released into the atmosphere. If this program goes away, as is being proposed by the current administration, we risk losing many of the gains that have been made.
In my seminars for facility managers and building engineers, I sometimes begin with this: “How are HVAC Systems like Facility Managers?” Then I pause, and say, “Nobody knows they’re there – and nobody cares – until there’s a problem!”
True, in a well-run and comfortable building, the employees, tenants and guests should not notice the HVAC system. They have their own work to do. But the minute they are uncomfortable – too hot, too cold, funny smell – the facility manager or the building engineer hears about it. Right?