Healthy buildings: Building professionals have a role to play in improving public health

Indoor Air Cartoon Journal, August 2020, Volume 3, #109

Everyone wishes to be healthy, i.e., free from disease, injury, illness, or mental distress. Poor environmental conditions, poor lifestyle, poor working conditions, poor hereditary conditions, and poor socio-economic and political conditions make humans vulnerable to poor health conditions. Death may occur if poor health condition or its causes are not managed appropriately. The emotional, economic, and social burden of poor health can be significant at the individual or family level.

The occurrence of poor health becomes a public health issue when several people suffer from poor health at the community, country, regional, or global level. The emotional, economic, and social burdens of poor public health are major public policy challenges for authorities worldwide.

Exposure to air pollutants is an example of the causes of public health problems. Many of the human exposures to air pollutants occur in the indoor environment. Governments and other authorities usually consult medical professionals to formulate policies needed to reduce the public health burdens caused by air pollution.

Medical professionals are trained and well equipped to reduce human vulnerability to suffering from the effects of poor health. They also provide advice on how to reduce exposure to hazards causing poor health. Thus, medical professionals make interventions to reduce vulnerability due to physiological and psychological conditions and play an only advisory role in reducing vulnerability due to exposure, especially in indoor environments. An advisory role in indoor environments is not enough to reduce the public health problem associated with air pollution.

What makes the indoor environment a concern? There are many sources of air pollutants in indoor environments. Many air pollutants generated from the outdoor environment also find their way into indoor environments. Unfortunately, a low ventilation rate is associated with many buildings, especially air-conditioned buildings. Evidence suggests low ventilation rate increases concentration of indoor CO2, and indoor generated particulate matters and other air pollutants.

The practice of low ventilation rate is mostly driven by the need to save energy. High CO2, particulate matter, and other air pollutant concentrations caused by a low ventilation rate may cause occupants to experience a rise in blood pressure. Air pollutants may also make high blood pressure caused by other factors to be more pronounced. High ventilation rate, with clean outdoor air, will reduce the concentration of indoor air pollutants and lead to a reduction in blood pressure.

The problem associated with air-conditioned buildings is further compounded with the air temperature usually below 23 degrees Celsius. Evidence suggests that low air temperature may also increase the stress level in humans. High blood pressure is a risk factor for suffering from COVID-19 and other diseases, and anger. The moral of the story is to supply enough clean outdoor air and ensure the temperature is not, at least, below 23 degrees Celsius. 

Longer duration in a polluted indoor environment means more prolonged exposure. More prolonged exposure to air pollutants means a higher probability of inhaling and absorbing air pollutants into the body. The vulnerability of an exposed person and the risk of the air pollutants altering and damaging body cell structures and functions increases with more time spent in the indoor environment where the toxic air pollutants are present.

The more physiological conditions are altered, the lesser the defense mechanism of the body to protect against any toxic air pollutants that could cause significant damage. In a situation where an air pollutant is infectious and contagious like coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), the poor condition of an indoor environment, as a possible cause of pre-existing conditions like high blood pressure, becomes a public health concern.

The professionals in charge of helping in this instance are the building professionals. Architects, interior designers, building services engineers, contractors, and facility managers come to mind. They are involved in the design, construction, and maintenance and operations of healthy buildings.

Building professionals don’t just play an advisory role as medical professionals on how exposure to air pollutants should be reduced in the indoor environment; they also create and intervene for a healthy indoor environment. They reduce vulnerability due to exposure. If there is no exposure, there is no problem. Thus, the role of building professionals to good public health is very important.

Unfortunately, when public health problems related to air pollution exposure in the indoor environment occur, policymakers don’t usually involve building professionals as they typically involve medical professionals. Many building professionals also do not appreciate or know their essential role in preventing and making intervention to a public health problem like COVID-19 and other diseases, and anger, and associated burdens.

The purpose of this article and illustration is to use evidence in the literature to reinforce the role of building professionals in preventing public health problems and improving public health. Policymakers and building professionals should ensure that buildings, where we live, work, learn, and sleep, do not become a cause of pre-existing conditions to suffering from public health problems.

Do you want to learn more about this topic? Read Battisti-Charbonney et al. (2011), Choi et al. (2019), Gao et al. (2020), Rumchev et al. et al. (2018), Tham and Fadeyi (2015), and Zhang et al. (2017) papers to learn more about the topic.

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