John McPherson, managing director, ABM UK, explains why the absence of a consensus global standard for Indoor Air Quality presents difficulties for facility managers, and the measures his company is taking to preventing sick building syndrome (SBS) in client locations.
The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically disrupted life around the world, and most profoundly, our interactions outside the home. Where surface disinfection has been the focus in the fight against the virus, good indoor air quality (IAQ) is now in the forefront of minds with all restrictions having been lifted in the UK.
A pre-pandemic study by the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) cited inadequate ventilation as the single biggest probable cause of Sick Building Syndrome; a condition thought to be caused by being in an enclosed space with poor indoor air quality. Knowing what we now know about the airborne nature of COVID-19, business owners cannot risk sick buildings, for both commercial and moral reasons; and clearly IAQ is key.
The challenge for the facility management industry is that the definition of good IAQ is evolving
The challenge for the facility management industry is that the definition of good IAQ is evolving, and there is no universally accepted definition nor a single measurement yet. What we do know, based on increasing data on the ability of COVID-19 droplets to stay suspended in the air for extended periods of time, is that we need to improve IAQ if we are to keep workforces safe, and businesses open and functioning.
IAQ reflects the complex interplay of a facility’s systems and structures, the conditions outside and the people inside. These factors and their interactions naturally vary by facility. The first step in improving IAQ is to measure the current quality of the air and then create a system to improve it based on the unique characteristics of that particular space.
However, herein lies a further challenge. While a building manager may know, for example, that IAQ sensors are needed to assess the current state of play; there are countless different pieces of equipment on the market. Therefore, not only do we, as a facilities solutions provider, need to help customers assess where improvements need to be made, but we also need to guide them on the best suppliers and equipment to achieve success.
So how do we overcome these challenges? ABM established its Expert Advisory Council in partnership with leading infectious disease experts and industrial hygienists at the height of the COVID-19 crisis. The council consists of experts with backgrounds in industrial hygiene, air testing and balancing, building commissioning and engineering. Working alongside the council, we have explored three widely accepted ways to manage IAQ through our newly launched EnhancedFacility™ programme: ventilation to reduce the concentration of airborne contaminants inside; air cleaning and disinfection to remove or destroy these contaminants; and source control through filtration to prevent contaminants from getting into the facility in the first place. In combination, these approaches help mitigate or minimise the factors that can impact IAQ.
The challenge of selecting the right technology is also remedied through the help of the Expert Advisory Council, which proactively vets existing, new and emerging products and technologies, allowing us to recommend suppliers based on our own tried and tested vetting process.
Existing technology which is vetted and provided through the EnhancedFacility™ programme includes IAQ sensors and Ultra-Violet C lighting, which is among the most recognised and effective technologies for air and surface disinfection. It also includes Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) systems capable of supporting highly efficient particle filtration (HEPA) filters; these provide even greater protection to building occupants by capturing more types of airborne substances.
Emerging technologies also in the EnhancedFacility™ portfolio include Needlepoint Bipolar Ionization; an exciting technology which uses electrically charged oxygen ions. When generated inside the HVAC system, these ions group fine particles into filterable clusters, break down harmful volatile organic compounds, and inactivate microorganisms. This technique has demonstrated effectiveness on a broad range of airborne contaminants as well as unpleasant odours and is just one example of emerging technology we are using.
Of course, surface disinfection cannot now be forgotten as our focus turns to IAQ which is why our EnhancedFacility™ programme compliments the EnhancedClean™ offering; a three-step certified disinfection process. Working together to eliminate potential risks of viral transmission on surfaces and in the air, the two programmes provide a holistic approach to keeping buildings and occupants better protected against threats such as COVID-19 variants and other airborne pathogens such as influenza.
SARS-CoV-2 is just one pathogen amongst countless viruses, bacteria, particulates, volatile organic compounds, gases, and other contaminants that can impact human health.
And therein lies the real silver lining. Yes, it is true that COVID-19 has heightened the general public’s awareness of airborne pathogens, but SARS-CoV-2 is just one pathogen amongst countless viruses, bacteria, particulates, volatile organic compounds, gases, and other contaminants that can impact human health. These things also jeopardise productivity and general quality of life and so, with improved systems in place to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission, we will create a halo effect of improved general health for building occupants.
The threat to human life and our economy by the spread of COVID-19 has pushed forward changes and created new requirements for a higher standard of facility health, which should give occupants more confidence as we continue our journey back into public spaces and the built environment.