The White House announcement on Thursday that it is elevating “clean air in buildings” as a key pillar in the national Covid-19 response is nothing short of a landmark shift in the response.
How so? The country has made enormous gains in its Covid fight along several axes — vaccines and boosters, rapid tests and treatments, and the recent release of N95 masks to the public. But there was one element that was still lacking more than two years into the pandemic: ventilation and filtration. That has now changed.
The Biden White House had been on something of a listening and engagement tour on this topic, reaching out to many experts (including me) to gather evidence on why better buildings were key, and what should be done to elevate this topic. The listening paid off, because its Clean Air in Buildings Challenge is excellent.
There are a few key components that are worth highlighting, but none more so than the recognition that the virus is spread through the air, which means buildings matter. That might seem simple and obvious, but recall that getting the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others to recognize airborne transmission took more than a year. And healthy building strategies like ventilation and filtration matter only if the airborne nature of viral spread is first recognized. If it’s surfaces, then cleaning matters. If it’s droplets, then distance matters. Those two got too much attention and led to a lot of hygiene theater — wasted efforts and dollars focusing on cleaning elevator buttons and pasting stickers on the floor.
Once ventilation and filtration are recognized as important components in spreading SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, then recommendations flow naturally.
I’ve been studying the connection between buildings and health for nearly two decades. Throughout the pandemic, I have heard many comments that start with, “I know air quality matters,” but then end with, “but I’m not sure what to do.”
The Biden administration is making “what to do” clear.
A big advance is just the fact that the administration is elevating this issue with its signal — coming from the top of the government and a major statement — that buildings matter for health.
The administration didn’t stop there, but defines what that means. The Clean Air in Buildings Challenge is a set of guiding principles and best practices that should be pursued to make buildings safer. The administration has adopted a prioritization many colleagues and I have been espousing since February 2020, before Covid-19 was declared a public health emergency. Inspect your existing systems and give your building a “tune up” like you do for your car, bring in more outdoor air, upgrade air filters to MERV13 or higher, and supplement air filtration with portable air cleaners. This is good guidance because it’s clear, easy to do, and grounded in sound science.
The administration signaled that it is not stopping with this first set of guidance. Another key element of the plan focuses on recognizing buildings in which air quality has been improved because the country should be acknowledging and rewarding such efforts. The new push by The White House includes an ongoing plan to create an award-like system for buildings that meet specified targets, much like the success achieved with the Green Building movement and the LEED rating system with plaques that have adorned buildings for 20 years as a signal of their energy-efficiency efforts.
As part of its education and outreach mission on healthy buildings, the administration is also elevating the Environmental Protection Agency’s Indoor Environments Division, a group that has been somewhat sidelined during the pandemic.
Could the administration have done anything better with its Clean Air in Buildings Challenge? I would have liked to see more emphasis on real-time monitoring of indoor air quality. It’s one thing for leaders to say we’ve improved ventilation for a school or workplace, it’s another altogether to show the data in real time, every day, that demonstrates the air is clean.
The administration also could have paired this effort at improving ventilation and filtration in buildings with a strong message on the imperative to do this while simultaneously improving energy efficiency in buildings. Our climate and healthy building goals do not have to be in conflict; it is possible to have energy efficient buildings that provide healthy indoor air.
The case for healthy buildings extends beyond Covid-19. Improved ventilation is associated with students performing better on reading and math tests and with being out of school less often. Healthy buildings are also associated with less worker absenteeism due to illness and better cognitive function, both of which mean that an investment in ventilation is an investment in a company’s bottom line.
There are no downsides to pursuing healthy buildings. The White House recognizing this and saying it loud and clear has implications for Covid-19, but also for other respiratory diseases, future pandemics responses, and daily life for Americans.
Joseph G. Allen is an associate professor of exposure assessment science at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health; founder and director of the school’s Healthy Buildings Program; chair of The Lancet COVID-19 Commission Task Force on Safe Work, Safe School, and Safe Travel; and coauthor with John D. Macomber of “Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity” (Harvard University Press, April 2020).
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