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Something In The (Indoor) Air: A Paradigm Shift


At the Early Care and Education Center at the University of Wyoming, there's a lot of what one would expect to see at a daycare - toys, books, and cubbies for tiny shoes. And that's not all.

"We've got air purifiers, we've got CO2 detectors," said Mark Bittner, the director of the daycare. He said those machines were added during the pandemic as they were looking for ways to keep both children and staff.

The daycare's HVAC system also got a boost to recirculate air more frequently, and each classroom now has an air purifier.

As for the CO2 detector, it's not measuring for the novel coronavirus or anything else besides carbon dioxide. But here is why it's useful -CO2 is what we breathe out, so if there's a lot of it in a room, the air isn't fresh. You're more likely to breathe in the same air someone else just breathed out.

But if the detector shows numbers on the higher end, Bittner said "It's not a panic...It's just, find ways to move the air a little bit better," like opening a window, or turning on a fan.

These kinds of mitigation efforts happened all over the country as people were thinking critically about indoor air. Much of those efforts were funded with CARES Act dollars. Specifically, over $54 billion was allocated for K-12 schools, including for facility repairs and improvements in ventilation systems. Similarly, almost $23 billion was provided to colleges and universities.

For many, this kind of consideration for indoor air was something entirely new.

"As a result, most of us in this field have been working nonstop," said Shelly Miller, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder. Over the last year or so, Miller said almost all of her time has been dedicated to getting the word out on indoor air quality, whether it's talking to the press, writing and publishing scientific articles or posting on Twitter.

A lot of it has been about catching up. Miller said, historically, people have paid way more attention to the air outside. But even that's a recent phenomena.

"We only realized in the 1950s, that air pollution could kill you because of the London outbreak," she said in reference to the Great Smog of 1952, which was five days of disastrous air pollution.

That smog was caused by unusually frigid and windless weather, combined with pollution from burning coal. It shut down the city and caused thousands of deaths. And it spurred the UK's Clean Air Act of 1956.

People realized that if we want clean air, the government needs to regulate that. And just as importantly, Miller said it gave way to thinking about outdoor air as a public good -something that we all share. But, she said, we haven't come around to that kind of thinking for indoor air.

"What's happened with indoor air is that it's become a private good. This is your home, this is your space. The government is not going to invade your space or your home or your office building," she said.

But better air quality at home can keep you healthy in a number of ways -filtering allergens, dust, as well as pathogens that make you sick.

It's possible the COVID-19 pandemic could trigger change the way the Great Smog did. It could be a paradigm shift for indoor air. In fact, 39 scientists are calling for just that in a report published in the journal Science earlier this month.

Miller and her CU Boulder colleague and aerosol expert, Jose-Luis Jimenez, are two of those researchers.

"So our society has been very successful at removing pathogens from water or from food, and they are very, you know, complex, sophisticated systems that work very, very well," he said.

We've come to expect our drinking water to be clean and the food we buy at the grocery store to be safe, but Jimenez said we're not there yet with indoor air.

"It's something our society just hasn't done," he said.

Jimenez and others said it's time for that change. In the report, the group of researchers demands that every country develop, promulgate and enforce standards for indoor air quality that include airborne pathogens. They also call on professional engineering bodies to develop comprehensive ventilation standards.

Notably, the group asks that monitors displaying the state of indoor air quality be mandated -like the CO2 detector. They wrote, "Visible displays will help keep building operators accountable for IAQ (Indoor Air Quality) and will advance public awareness, leading to increased demand for a safe environment."

The demands are bold, but it doesn't all have to be complicated, or extremely expensive. It can be as simple as plugging in a hundred-dollar CO2 detector, and if need be, opening a window.

Copyright 2021 Wyoming Public Radio. To see more, visit Wyoming Public Radio.

Maggie Mullen is a fifth generation Wyomingite, born and raised in Casper. She is currently a Masters candidate in American Studies and will defend her thesis on female body hair in contemporary American culture this May. Before graduate school, she earned her BA in English and French from the University of Wyoming. Maggie enjoys writing, cooking, her bicycle, swimming in rivers and lakes, and most any dog.
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