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air quality and climate change
Adobe Stock/ Valery Zayats

By Dr. Serene Almomen

As we approach spring and summer, high heat and pollutants will significantly impact local air quality—the air we breathe outside also makes its way in, where it can have detrimental effects. Over 12 million people worldwide die each year due to unhealthy work and living environments. For large facilities like office and apartment buildings, construction zones, and commercial properties, in which hundreds of people spend hours every week, outside pollution will negatively affect their indoor air quality. To protect their occupants from harm, building owners and operators need to be able to quickly and accurately monitor outside air quality (OAQ) so they can minimize and address the health risks that it can cause as the air moves indoors.

Issues With The Current AQI System

While the government currently utilizes the Air Quality Index (AQI) to monitor aggregate ozone levels, particulate pollution, and other common air pollutants, building owners and operators need more specificity and real-time localized data to be able to truly take steps to improve indoor air quality for their occupants. This may mean investing in air filtration or HVAC systems, or informing their occupants when OAQ reaches dangerous levels to allow for individual decision-making.

One of the most significant contributors to particulate matter (PM) is construction debris and electricity supply for residential and commercial buildings. While construction sites make changes to reduce site emissions, and as buildings slowly transition to solar energy, knowing what people are breathing is necessary now. Unfortunately, the government’s attempt to inform and protect people through the AQI system is insufficient.

Regulated by the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) establishes AQI for five major air pollutants under the national air quality standard. The five major air pollutants it monitors daily are ground-level ozone, particle pollution (also known as particulate matter, including PM2.5 and PM10), carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide.

The government’s current AQI systems are not in every community or region that may need them, leaving a gap in hyper-localized regions like around specific facilities. As a result, the AQIs don’t measure all the pollutants that can be dangerous if inhaled. If building owners and operators continue to depend on the broad air information from the AQI system, they are putting their occupants in jeopardy of the health risks associated with poor indoor pollution.

The Impacts Of Air Pollution

In 2020 alone, about 68 million tons of air pollution were emitted into the atmosphere in the United States. These statistics underscore just how vital it is that a building is equipped with the air filtration system necessary to mitigate the effects of outdoor air pollution—but doing so relies on good, accurate information.

Air pollution is a leading risk factor for chronic diseases and premature death worldwide. The global climate crisis links air quality to environmental pollutants, causing health problems like respiratory diseases, heart disease, and cancer. Long-term exposure to these pollutants can even result in death. For some, the locality of buildings close to power plants, industrial facilities, and vehicles has left vulnerable communities more susceptible to high levels of air pollution particles. Additionally, poorly maintained building ventilation and filtration systems only increase those risks.

Effective Air Quality Monitoring

For people unaware of what they’re inhaling, maintaining a healthy building is essential for maintaining the health of building occupants. A healthy structure includes ventilation and recycled air filtration working effectively together, and OAQ systems can alert operators when their systems aren’t functioning properly. Through real-time monitoring, residential and commercial buildings can function knowing they have the most up-to-date information on the unseen pollutants responsible for poor air quality.

An OAQ monitoring system provides instant real-time access to data around outdoor spaces, allowing for personalized decision-making based on the presence of CO2 and non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs) that community-based AQIs cannot detect. These devices give instant access to data around outdoor spaces and can be customized to fit an individual building’s needs. Adopting real-time monitoring is the first step buildings can take to promote a healthy breathing environment indoors.

The health of a building has a direct correlation to the health of its occupants, and we must remain proactive when it comes to monitoring. The current AQI system we have in place to track and notify of outdoor breathing conditions is beneficial but limiting as the global climate crisis persists. Because climate change is pushing pollution indoors, we must invest in real-time monitoring solutions to ensure the safety of people’s air quality. As we take steps towards bettering our environment, buildings must maintain proper ventilation and filtration systems with OAQ monitoring devices for people to know that what they are breathing is safe.

Almomen is the co-founder and CEO of the high-growth technology company Attune (formerly known as Senseware), which was founded to help underperforming buildings in desperate need of real-time data to diagnose the health of a space. Her company has been named one of Forbes’s top 50 women-led startups in the technology industry.

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Read the full article "Managing Air Quality Amidst Climate Change" on Facility Executive Magazine.

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