October is National Indoor Air Quality Awareness Month and the Biden administration is working to ensure that IAQ remains in the spotlight as the pandemic fades into America’s rearview mirror. On October 11, the White House hosted a Summit on Indoor Air Quality, bringing together experts in public health, education, and the private sector for input on the future of IAQ investment.
The summit opened with remarks from Ashish Jha, M.D., the White House COVID-19 response coordinator, and Joseph Allen, M.D., director of Harvard University’s Healthy Buildings program and associate professor at Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health. The two stressed that the role of IAQ goes beyond preventing disease — healthy buildings are necessary across all income levels for a healthy, productive society, from kids in schools to workers in offices.
“This once-in-a-century pandemic has given us a moment where we can drive significant structural changes in the air that we all breathe,” said Ashish Jha, M.D., the White House COVID-19 response coordinator. “We can’t emerge from this pandemic not having done this, not having tackled this topic.”
Clean Air in Buildings Challenge: The Next Step
COVID may not be the threat it was two years ago, but it is not going away. Neither are other respiratory diseases like influenza — meaning the decision now becomes how to deal with both. Massive investment into IAQ is the best answer, Jha argued; the alternative would be building thousands of hospitals, training millions of doctors and nurses, and accepting hundreds of thousands of deaths every year.
“We have to bring the burden of respiratory pathogens down,” he said. “And the single biggest structural change that we can make as a society is to do for indoor air what we’ve done for water quality. … We need healthy buildings because we need healthy communities.”
Earlier this year, the Biden administration launched the Clean Air in Buildings Challenge, a call to action for U.S. buildings owners and operators to make improvements to ventilation and filtration systems to improve IAQ. At the summit, Jha announced the launch of a new website, whitehouse.gov/cleanindoorair, with information for schools and businesses to learn more about the Clean Air in Buildings Challenge, sign up to pledge their commitment, and receive a digital “badge” to share and display on storefronts, websites, and social media.
The summit also included two panel discussions: one on IAQ in schools and one focused on building owners and operators.
Nearly half of school districts in the country plan to use American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds to improve ventilation, according to the White House press release on the summit. Represented on the panel were two school districts that made large-scale investments in IAQ through Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds: Denver Public Schools (Denver, Colorado) and Clark County School District (Las Vegas).
Denver Public Schools put $25 million into air quality interventions with a focus on filtration, air quality monitoring, and upgrading existing systems. Dr. Alex Marrero, Denver’s superintendent, called the funding “an incredible shot in the arm,” but said the challenge is what happens to IAQ a few years down the road, when the funding has expired and schools face other budgeting priorities — teacher pay, bus drivers, etc. Making school IAQ as important as school water quality, he said, will require federal action.
“If that’s going to be the minimum expectation, I’m asking respectfully to allow us to say ‘This is a non-negotiable,’ whether through some continual funding or through policy,” Marrero said.
Absent federal dollars or a federal mandate, it’s up to school boards to prioritize IAQ as they see fit.
“Locally, it’s a value statement for a Board of Trustees to say, ‘OK, this is important to us,’” Marrero said.
The Denver Public Schools board has taken such a step. Nationwide, however, less than half of school districts have committed to funding IAQ even with federal money available, and the most common ventilation strategies over the past year remain lower-cost options.
Jha said he reminds people often that “people who run school districts, they’re education experts. They’re not building experts. They’re not indoor air experts. … They need help with these things.”
He said later in October, the DOE will announce “a set a criteria for recognizing schools that are making indoor air quality improvements as part of its Efficient and Healthy Schools campaign.”
Calling on ASHRAE
Joseph Allen, M.D., director of Harvard University’s Healthy Buildings program and an associate professor at Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health, argued that better ventilation is necessary in U.S. buildings, from schools to offices and in all income areas. He also said ASHRAE’s current standards should be raised.
“We’ve had standards that target bare minimum ventilation rates,” he said. “These standards have led us to seal up our buildings, choke off the air supply, despite decades of science showing us that current ventilation rates are too low.
“Not only are the ventilation standards too low, but performance drops over time,” he continued. “A school might be designed for three air changes per hour, but on average, schools get about half of that. Healthy buildings are the nexus of current health equity, climate, and business. … It’s imperative we think of buildings as central to our fight.”
Allen reviewed a report from this summer called the First Four Healthy Building Strategies that Every Building Should Pursue; the strategies include regular maintenance and upgrading to MERV 13 filters. He suggested upgrading ventilation targets to 4-6 air changes/hour and 37 cfm/person.
“A future of healthy buildings that is confined to a select few would be a gross failing,” he said. “Standard-setting organizations like ASHRAE, CDC, and others must develop health-based ventilation targets and IAQ standards for our buildings rather than these bare minimums.”
He also touched on the IAQ/energy efficiency paradox, mentioning solutions like energy recovery, heat pumps, renewables, and air quality sensors.
“Energy efficiency at the expense of indoor health is a false choice. We can and must have both.”
Investing in healthy buildings, he concluded, is “just good business.”
“Why spend dollars recruiting talent and then putting them in a place with poor IAQ where they can’t think, concentrate, do their work, and they get sick more often?” he said. “It doesn’t make sense. Healthy buildings are really about protecting your people, your business, and your assets. Businesses must … move past performative, check-the-box IAQ and incorporate healthy buildings into their ESG plans.”