Sensing a change in the air

Air quality is rapidly becoming one of the biggest environmental concerns of our time, spanning geographies and affecting the spaces in which we live, work, and learn, says Parag Rastogi

Though modern working and studying conditions might be the most luxurious they have ever been, there is still progress to be made to ensure that individuals are as happy, healthy, and productive as possible in the built environment. 

Seemingly minor, or often imperceptible, issues with air quality can have profound effects. Indoor concentrations of CO2 above 1000ppm are linked to a drop in productivity, and a concentration of above 2500ppm sees productivity sink further. Low ventilation rates have been shown to deliver up to a 9% dip in performance, as well as unpleasant symptoms like headaches. For employers with a large workforce, the combined impact of these effects could be enormous.

Opening windows would seem to be a sensible solution to deal with CO2, but doing so exposes occupants to vehicular pollution, and limits the ability to control air humidity and temperature. This is of particular concern to parents and educators, given the increased susceptibility of children to air pollution-related health problems.

Increasingly, troubling data is emerging on the impact that poor air quality can have on long-term health. A 2019 study published in The Lancet Planetary Health linked 13% of global asthma cases directly to pollution and asthma deaths have increased by a staggering 25% over the last decade according to the ONS.  

A frequently-reported phenomenon is ‘sick building syndrome’ (SBS), symptoms experienced only when in a certain building, usually an office. Research has isolated several factors that can cause SBS symptoms – most often headaches, nausea, dizziness, and fatigue. These include CO2 concentration, VOC concentration, and particulate matter. 

The necessity for property managers to monitor these levels is therefore obvious, particularly given that many buildings were never designed with these factors in mind. Of course, some of these factors have historically been very difficult to measure on a human level, and this has led to a rise in sensor technology designed for this purpose. 

Designing buildings to maximise environmental quality is one thing, but consistency can only be achieved with continuous monitoring, allowing property managers to adapt to changes quickly. High-quality sensors can monitor constantly indoor environmental parameters. When deployed throughout a building, they can account for the likelihood of variations across one or multiple floors, making them an invaluable tool for environmental analysis. 

Ideally, this form of high-quality data collection can be combined with personal feedback from occupants through a digital platform such as an app, allowing for a powerful fusion of qualitative and quantitative data. Smart technologies have the capacity to learn, through occupant feedback, the optimum parameters for performance within a given space. Ultimately, they can eventually learn how to make adjustments in real time, preventing conditions becoming uncomfortable for humans and before any complaints are logged. 

The financial benefits for workplaces are significant; not only do these technologies ensure that workers can be as content and productive as possible, they can also help to reduce absence rates. More importantly, however, sensor technology assists in protecting the long-term health of adults and children alike, potentially alleviating strain on healthcare systems, and ensuring that people can spend their time indoors free from concern about any resulting impact on their health. 

Parag Rastogi is manager of health, wellbeing, and climate products at building performance technology company arbnco.

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