Most of us can control (at least, to some extent) the quality and safety of the water we drink, the food that we eat. These days, we are even forced to exert greater control over what surfaces we do or do not touch, and the physical distance we must keep between ourselves and our friends, colleagues, and even loved ones.
But all too often what we still don’t–often can’t, totally–control what we inhale into our lungs, each and every time we inhale. All 17,000 to 23,000 times that we do it each day.
The connection between green and sustainable building, and our own health, in the wake of this COVID-19 crisis, becomes even more critically important than ever before. Both the quality of the indoor air, and the quality of the outdoor air.
Building science is the study of how building systems affect the environment and the occupants of the building. Building scientists are notably not health scientists or doctors. But human health and the physics and chemistry of building systems have always intersected in the study of indoor air quality, and the building systems and methods that might improve it, or harm it. Indoor air quality has always been an important topic in green building, but I don’t think Deltec is alone in this industry in seeing a renewed interest in this aspect of sustainability among our clients.
Although I am not a doctor, and the coronavirus in particular is still so novel that health scientists will no doubt be studying how it interacts with our indoor environments for years to come—I am reminded, as a building scientist, of the importance of helping homeowners understand the basics what we do currently know of air quality. Prior to COVID, Americans already spent an average of 90% of our lives indoors. Many homes already deal with a host of common air quality concerns; concerns that, while perhaps less acute and dramatic than COVID-19, can nonetheless contribute to a poorer quality of life and poorer health state overall. Consider:
- A growing number of studies are finding that exposure to elevated levels of carbon dioxide, which can build up when many people share the same space with poor ventilation, can contribute to many health effects, especially reduced cognitive function and poorer quality sleep.
- Homes with unvented gas appliances, including gas ranges, can contain greater levels of nitrogen dioxide than ambient outdoor levels. Nitrogen dioxide causes respiratory irritation, and with prolonged exposure, can even lead to bronchitis.
- Radon is still the 2nd leading cause of lung cancer in the US after smoking. Even my own father, an engineer who had the benefit of a building scientist for a daughter, didn’t get around to testing his home for radon until he sold it. Only to find he’d been living in a home with radon levels off the charts for 10 years!
Many of these issues can be to some degree alleviated by applying common strategies. As people now spend even more time in their homes, many turn to dreaming on how to make those homes better. Taking change of air quality, to the best of your ability, is one great way to start. Tomorrow evening (Thursday, June 4th at 5pm) join me in an indoor air quality webinar, where I go over the basics of home indoor air quality, including common pollutants and common strategies for reducing your exposure to them within your own home.
The Larger Picture of Outdoor Air
This time of crisis not the time to forget the important fight for outdoor air quality, as well, one that environmentalists have been waging for decades. COVID-19 is a disease that targets lung function. Those with underlying breathing conditions, such as asthma and COPD, are among those who are especially vulnerable to complications from the disease, and most as risk when faced with a dearth of ventilators. And while the causes of asthma and COPD are a complex and varied set of environmental, behavioral, and genetic factors, we’ve long known that outdoor air pollution is not at benign actor upon either. Before anyone had ever heard of SARS-COV-2, the world has regularly accepted 4.6 million deaths per year due to air pollution, as estimated by the WHO. That should be completely unacceptable, just as we should find 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 unacceptable.
In the wake of a disease that targets those with vulnerable lungs, efforts to sustainably reduce our dependence on air-pollution-causing mechanisms should be critical, and the built environment has always had a role to play in this. The energy consumed by residences, whether it be from electricity, propane, natural gas, heating oil, and wood, accounts for 20% of total US energy use, with all of the nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and other unhealthy air pollutants that come when we get this energy from fossil fuel sources. The imperative to re-designing our buildings to use dramatically less energy should not be ignored, nor should the continued efforts to decarbonize our economy that is part of what green building is about. These efforts are about more than just climate change. The link between environmental sustainability and human health has never been more important to highlight.
True sustainability is about understanding the interconnections of many seemingly unrelated issues. We have felt more strongly than ever in these times how interconnected the world is, and all crises and challenges in our modern world are no less interconnected. Building science is in many ways about how buildings affect our health, and environmental sustainability is at its heart about protecting the people who live in our environment. Which is all of us.