Air quality and why we didn't (used to) care

Seeing is…breathing more easily?

In a pre-industrialised world, there were many things we didn’t need to worry about: food additives, sugary drinks, car accidents and – other than in exceptional cases – air quality. The human being comes equipped with an excellent array of safety warning features: visual aids to sense danger in advance, aural sensors alerting us to unusual sounds such as the approach of predators outside the cave, and a highly sensitive olfactory system which allows us to detect a range of toxic substances. Highly-evolved in our (natural) surroundings, the combination of these sensors was critical to our health and survival.

Like all animals, we evolved within a certain set of parameters in order to thrive within that environment. However, the speed of our creativity and inventions has far outstripped our evolution: we remain the same animal post-industrialisation as we were when we were hunter-gatherers, and yet our environment and life-style has changed dramatically. We have doubled our life expectancy and cured untold illnesses, harnessing technology to advance at often dizzying speeds; and as is often the case, we have also done this without fully understanding or considering the unintended consequences on the human animal.

This dichotomy is nowhere more apparent than in our understanding of our own health & wellbeing, particularly when it comes to air quality. It is unsurprising that the issue has become one of such concern globally, not least as it highlights the impact of heavy industry on our health. But I suspect the reason it has suddenly become so prevalent in the media is that air pollution has now reached a level where it is visible. 

In the same way that the introduction of smart-metering made resource consumption visible, air quality monitoring allows us to finally see the air quality around us. The medical community has been aware of the detrimental and dangerous impact of poor air quality for decades now, but it has only recently become a source of global concern as the data on both sources and impact become available across social media and the press.  The democratisation of data has enabled each and every one of us to understand the impact of the modern world around us: seeing is believing, and then, worrying.

Outdoor versus Indoor

The sources of air pollution are many and complex, and it is important to differentiate between outdoor and indoor air quality. 

  • Outdoor air quality is perhaps the most frustrating of the two, since there is little we can do as individuals to mitigate and improve it; instead, we must lobby and rely on our governments to act. 
  • Interior air quality, commonly referred to as IAQ, refers to the air within our buildings. Increasingly, this is where we are seeing buildings transitioning from passive receptacles to active protectors and enablers for their occupants.

Measure, measure and measure constantly

In our modern world, our new eyes, ears and noses have been extended into cameras, sensors and smart-technology monitors, all connected to enhanced ‘brains’ which allows us to view, analyse and react to the information in the same way that our natural bio-systems do. We cannot manage what we cannot see and measure.

The market for air quality testing and real-time monitoring is growing quickly, driven by the public awareness of the issues. As in all rapidly-growing markets, entrants are focusing products across the widest range of scope and cost, and it can often be difficult for the average consumer to know which way to turn. Frameworks such as RESET™ Air, the WELL Building Standard™ and Fitwel® – amongst others – have emerged in order to provide some structure and benchmarks against which to measure outcomes. Outcomes, in fact, are the key drivers: the goal is to ensure the optimum air quality for human health, and there are many paths to achieving this.

Where to start?

Just like going to the doctor with an unknown ailment, the first step is to diagnose the problem. An initial air quality analysis, the ‘blood test’ if you like, will reveal any underlying problems. The solutions to these may be simple or complex, depending on the results of the building’s blood test. From there, a plan of mitigation and improvement can be created, and real-time monitoring established to ensure that air quality is maintained for as long as people are breathing in the space.  Just as our visits to the doctor are necessary, occasional, in-depth testing is sometimes necessary, but constant monitoring of health impacts is critical.

In the simplest of terms, breathing is not something we should have to worry about; it is the most fundamental of all elements, since we cannot live for more than a few minutes without air, making it one of the key problems for future space travel and moving off-planet not to mention living well on our current planet.