Ralph Marston, the publisher of The Daily Motivator, once inspiringly advised readers to “breathe in the sweet air of limitless possibility and make life as rich as you know it can be.” It is just one example of a multitude of inspirational words written over the years based on a simple analogy about the air we take in. It is universally understood to be one thing we cannot live without.
When it comes to fighting COVID and airborne disease prevention practices in general, because the air around us is invisible and less tangible than other measures, its importance is often overlooked. Yet, as reported by CNN’s Amanda Sealy back in April, “two-plus years into the Covid-19 pandemic … one of the most powerful tools against the coronavirus is one that experts believe is just starting to get the attention it deserves: ventilation.”
Because of the way airborne diseases travel, they are hard to control. “When you breathe in airborne pathogenic organisms, they take up residence inside you,” says a Healthline article on disease prevention. It is the unseen enemy that makes epidemics like this one so frightening.
While COVID remains the most vivid reminder of this transmission process, it is but one of many such diseases that operate this way. The common cold, influenza, chickenpox, mumps and measles are some contagious viral diseases that spread through the air. “You can catch a disease like measles by entering a room after someone with measles has departed,” says Healthline.
While the risks of contracting many of the diseases mentioned have been greatly minimized over the years, Healthline reminds us that while diseases such as diphtheria are now rare in the United States, it was once a major cause of sickness and death in children. Another trait these diseases share is that they tend to spread easily in close quarters and crowded conditions — especially when there is poor ventilation, which is something that is fixable.
I understand these are reminders that we don’t want to hear. As The Wall Street Journal recently pointed out, “two years of dealing with Covid-19 have made people tired of taking precautions, getting tested and asking about other people’s status.” A rollback of standards and regulations and a return to a semblance of normalcy has been long-awaited and needed. It is now the risk-taking we are seeing that is becoming a major concern. What is happening on our roadways is one example that comes to mind.
Shelly Miller is a professor of mechanical engineering at University of Colorado, Boulder whose work focuses on how to control the transmission of airborne infectious diseases indoors. In a 2020 post during the outset of the pandemic on theconversation.com, she writes that “by paying attention to air circulation and filtration, improving them where you can and staying away from places where you can’t, you can add another powerful tool to your anti-coronavirus toolkit.”
Beyond COVID, it remains a good public health strategy.
“We spend 90% of our time indoors,” says Joseph Allen, director of the Healthy Buildings Program at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “The air we breathe indoors has a huge impact on our health,” says Allen, “but just has escaped public consciousness for a long time.”
In an interview with ABC News, Allen says we should take this time while Americans are enjoying relaxed coronavirus measures as a reprieve. “We’re certainly going to get another curveball in the future,” he says. “When, where or what that looks like is undetermined, but we should be ready. These are improvements we could be making — getting our buildings ready.”
According to Kaiser Health News, industry ventilation standards are formulated by a professional group called the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers. The standards are voluntary and have generally been written to limit odors and dust rather than control viruses. At present, it is unclear how many office buildings, warehouses and other places of work have been retooled to meet ASHRAE’s recommended upgrades. No official body has conducted a national survey. According to the Kaiser report, as of March, no new federal funding had been set aside to encourage buildings to upgrade ventilation where needed.
“In the first year of the pandemic, it felt like we were the only ones talking about ventilation, and it was falling on deaf ears,” says Allen. “But there are definitely, without a doubt, many companies that have taken airborne spread seriously. It’s no longer just a handful of people.”
Among those stepping up have been various local governments. As reported by Facilitate Magazine, the Institute of Workplace and Facilities Management, a body for workplace and facilities professionals, indicated that “changes to building regulations will guarantee that the need for better ventilation is not compromised.”
“As society plows forward seeking normalcy … schools’ ability to stay open depends upon their ability to stop outbreaks,” says ABC’s Eli Cahan. “That’s where school infrastructure — namely, ventilation and filtration systems — come in.”
Improved ventilation goes beyond keeping students safe from COVID. Experts point out that it can also improve their performance in school.
With good ventilation, “They’re going to learn better; they’re going to be awake more; they’re going to be more receptive. They’re going to be healthier if they’ve got good indoor air quality,” Max Sherman, a leader on the Epidemic Task Force for the ASHRAE, explains to CNN.
Even though many school districts around the country have taken advantage of the opportunity for ventilation upgrades made possible by an influx of federal funding, “expensive ventilation upgrades have remained low on the priority list for many schools with tight budgets,” says ABC News.
The report goes on to say that the Environmental Protection Agency has shown that the average American school building in this country is over 50 years old. As of June 2020, the Government Accountability Office reports that more than 40% of schools (about 36,000 nationally) had “deficient ventilation systems.” The report further states that as of June 2020, 38 of 49 states “had not conducted a state-level facilities condition assessment in the past 10 years.”