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Air Quality Guide for Buildings: Strategies to Fight COVID-19 During Reopening

After weeks of closures due to the coronavirus pandemic, many locations are beginning to implement their reopening plans.

With the reopening of the economy dependent on the effective management of COVID-19, many employers and building owners are looking for ways to minimize the threat of the new coronavirus.

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Luckily, there is no need to reinvent the wheel; many of the same techniques used to secure a healthy building certification can be applied to the coronavirus pandemic. In particular, the WELL Building Standard recently released a series of eight strategies that you can apply to combat COVID-19 in your building. These strategies include the following:

  1. Promote clean contact
  2. Improve air quality
  3. Maintain water quality
  4. Manage risk and create organizational resilience
  5. Support movement and comfort, including work from home
  6. Strengthen immune systems
  7. Foster mental resilience
  8. Champion community resilience and recovery

 

All of these strategies are tied to the WELL Building Standard, a framework backed by research and designed to make the built environment safe and healthy for everyone. Even without a certification, implementing some or all of the above strategies can protect building occupants from COVID-19. 

Because of our focus on air quality, we are going to focus on the second strategy offered by the WELL Building Standard. We’d like to offer some further insights into air quality, the coronavirus, and actionable tips for combatting COVID-19.

How Improving Air Quality Reduces the Risk of COVID-19

Improving air quality will return a double dividend: building occupants will be less likely to catch COVID-19 in the building, and if they do, they will be less likely to contract a serious case. We will discuss the first benefit in the next section, so let’s focus on the wellness impacts of air quality first.

Air quality and wellness have long been tied together, as the air we breathe is crucial for all of our bodily systems. Not only is good air quality necessary for our lungs and heart, but it is also essential for cognitive skills like concentration, memory, and even creativity.

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When our bodies are exposed to poor air quality for long periods of time, we can become more susceptible to diseases like COVID-19. Research on the coronavirus outbreak in areas like the USA, China, and northern Italy indicate that air pollution increases the likelihood of contracting a serious case of COVID-19. 

When we improve our indoor air quality, we reduce our own exposure to harmful indoor air pollutants and reduce the harms that these pollutants can have on our bodies. We can face COVID-19 with a stronger, healthier body that is more equipped to handle an infection.

Coronavirus Transmission & Air Quality

To identify COVID-19 risk reductions through air quality improvements, we must begin by discussing the difference between droplet transmission and “airborne” transmission. 

Often used interchangeably, droplet and airborne transmission are actually quite different. SARS-CoV-2 spreads through droplets expelled from infected individuals when they breathe, sneeze, or cough, usually settling on surfaces within a few hours. Airborne spread occurs when the liquid in the expelled droplets evaporates, leaving contagious, viral particles from the droplet nuclei in the air. With airborne transmission, the virus remains in the air longer and can travel much further. 

At this time, airborne transmission has not been reported by the World Health Organization, which is certainly a relief. Because COVID-19 transmitted through droplets, not airborne viral particles, measures like social distancing, required mask-wearing, and surface disinfection will go a long way in limiting the spread of the coronavirus.

Actionable Indoor Air Quality Improvement Strategies

Respiratory spread is trickier to solve, but there are some effective ways to tamp down on floating droplets. Ventilation is key in combating COVID-19 in buildings. Many modern buildings are designed to limit ventilation to save cost and energy, but this can trap air pollutants like VOCs, microbes, and even coronavirus-laden droplets. Outdoor air is free of respiratory droplets, so building occupants will be safer with increased outdoor ventilation. Manual ventilation through windows is also an option.

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Opening windows when outdoor air quality permits is a cost-saving way to ventilate.

Increasing ventilation is not the only factor to consider. Humidity plays a role in transmission, as viruses can travel easier in dry air. Because low humidity conditions dry out our airways, we are more susceptible to infection with dry air. For the best protection from COVID-19, maintain between 40% and 60% humidity levels inside the building. 

Many HVAC systems have air filters installed to catch floating particles, but what happens to viral particles caught in the filter? Some coronavirus particles will inactivate over time, but a UV light purifier can take care of the rest through germicidal irradiation. Eliminating viral particles trapped in the filter will ensure that no viral particles will reenter the air and infect others, and a UV purifier will have the added benefit of killing other microbes, including molds and bacteria.


Utilizing the above strategies will help you reopen your building safely during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. To learn more about the strategies to prepare your building for reopening, watch this webinar where we share the real life data examples and indoor air quality monitoring tactics you can leverage to fight against COVID-19:

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Kaiterra is a global company on a mission to end air pollution. We make air monitors that empower people to make small changes in their everyday lives and help with researchers, NGOs, and governments around the world to end air pollution at the source.