The White House announcement Thursday that it promises “clean air in buildings” as a key pillar of the national Covid-19 response is nothing short of a landmark shift in response.
How? The country has achieved huge gains in its Covid battle 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 missing more than two years inside the pandemic: ventilation and filtration. That has now changed.
Biden White House had been on something of a listening and engagement tour on this topic and reached out to many experts (including me) to gather evidence on why better buildings were the key and what needed to be done to raise this topic. 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 realization that the virus is spreading through the air, which means buildings matter. It may seem simple and obvious, but remember that it took more than a year to get the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others to recognize airborne transmission. And sound construction strategies like ventilation and filtration only mean if the airborne nature of viral spread is first recognized. If it’s surfaces, then cleaning means something. If it’s drops, then distance matters. The two got too much attention and led to a lot of hygiene theater – wasted effort and money focusing on cleaning elevator buttons and sticking stickers on the floor.
Once ventilation and filtration are recognized as important components in the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, then recommendations flow naturally.
I have been studying the relationship between buildings and health for almost two decades. Throughout the pandemic, I’ve 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 makes “what to do” clear.
A major step forward is precisely the fact that the administration is raising this issue with its signal – coming from the top of the government and a major statement – that buildings are important for health.
The administration did not stop there, but defines what it means. Clean Air in Buildings Challenge is a set of guiding principles and best practices that should be followed to make buildings safer. The administration has adopted a priority, as many colleagues, and I have been advocating since February 2020, before Covid-19 was declared a public health emergency. Examine your existing systems and give your building a “tune up” as you do for your car, bring in more outdoor air, upgrade air filters to MERV13 or higher, and supplement air filtration with portable air purifiers. This is good guidance because it is clear, easy to do and based on sound science.
The administration signaled that it would not stop with this first set of instructions. Another key element of the plan focuses on recognizing buildings where air quality has been improved because the country should recognize and reward such efforts. The new White House push includes an ongoing plan to create a price-like system for buildings that meet specified goals, as well as the success achieved with the Green Building movement and the LEED classification system with plaques that have graced buildings for 20 years as a signal about their energy efficiency efforts.
As part of its education and outreach mission on healthy buildings, the administration is also lifting the Environmental Protection Agency’s Indoor Environments Division, a group that has been sidelined during the pandemic.
Could the administration have done something better with its Clean Air in Buildings Challenge? I would have liked to have seen more emphasis on real-time indoor air quality monitoring. It’s one thing for managers to say that we’ve improved ventilation for one school or workplace, it is a completely different way of displaying data in real time, every day showing that the air is clean.
The administration could also have combined this effort to improve ventilation and filtration in buildings with a strong message about the need to do this while improving the energy efficiency of buildings. Our climate and healthy construction 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 doing better on reading and math tests and being out of school less often. Healthy buildings are also associated with less sick leave and better cognitive function, both of which mean that an investment in ventilation is an investment in the company’s bottom line.
There are no disadvantages to pursuing healthy buildings. The White House acknowledges this and says it loud and clear, has implications for Covid-19, but also for other respiratory diseases, future pandemic responses, and the daily lives of Americans.
Joseph G. Allen is an Associate Professor of Exposure Assessment Science at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health; founder and director of the school’s Healthy Buildings Program; Chairman of The Lancet COVID-19 Commission Task Force on Safe Work, Safe School, and Safe Travel; and co-author with John D. Macomber for “Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity” (Harvard University Press, April 2020).