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Sick Building Syndrome & COVID-19: What Does the Future Hold?

One of the few positives we emerge from a global pandemic in possession of is that knowledge acquired from spending expansive periods indoors will better equip those with the power to improve building regulations, and will see new technologies introduced that protects our indoor air from general pollution, as well as virus contamination.
In a post-Covid world, how we choose to work - and more prudently, how we assess the suitability of our workplaces - has undergone a substantial ground shift. The crisis provided an opportunity for movers and shakers to reflect on the impact their buildings have on employees and acted as a stark reminder as to the responsibilities we have to protect one another from infection and illness.

How the Legacies of Covid-19 Can Help Teach Us How to Exist More Healthily Indoors

As the global pandemic, which ensued in the form of the coronavirus proved, as its presence raged through societies across all four corners of the planet, being indoors certainly fueled its rapid proliferation far and wide. Largely contracted via the aerosols which hang on our every word and breath when deposited by our respiratory system, four walls and a roof was always destined to be the perfect incubatory storm for the spread of Covid-19.

Especially so in more domestic settings as summer turned to autumn, followed in turn by the onset of winter as increasing numbers of us spent prolonged time inside. A common occurrence which led to further national lockdown measures being introduced by the government to curb the disease and ultimately divide us to conquer the virus.

The potential for noxious and/or unwelcome bacteria to run riot within enclosed spaces where people congregated for long passages of time was nothing new though, after all. It should not really have surprised anyone to learn that our homes, offices, factories, shops and public buildings served as the perfect petri dishes for coronavirus. Given the absence of clean air circulating during winter, as doors and windows remain firmly closed and the central heating gets cranked up to the max.
These stifling interior conditions proving the ideal host for any virus intent on reproducing and continuing its steely grip on humanity.

'Were you aware that indoor air is predicted to be between 2 and 5 times more polluted than outdoor air?'

After all, so-called 'sick building syndrome' has been with us for years now. Something, which has the nerve and propensity to strike at the very heart of commerce and industry as much, if not more, than in familiar domestic environs.

Let's Remind Ourselves of What Sick Building Syndrome is and How it Makes its Presence Felt, Before We Share Parallels with Covid-19

An established and omnipresent threat in some quarters, sick building syndrome is the catch all name given to a range of health-impacting conditions which tend to manifest when various bacterial components converge indoors that go undetected.
Occupants of buildings where anything from dust, mould, fungi and a range of other microbial volatile organic matter become airborne - courtesy of being disrupted by ventilation systems - will find themselves at risk of contracting sick building syndrome in its various recognised guises.

Symptoms can include mucosal and skin varieties such as headache, fatigue and irritation in the upper respiratory tract, to irritations of the throat, eyes, nose, hands and/or facial skin. Other forms of sick building syndrome can materialise courtesy of sound, lighting and odour pollution getting a foothold in a building populated by people.

Essentially, when a significant number of otherwise healthy building occupants complain of uncomfortable symptoms like fatigue, headaches, throat irritation, concentration problems, dry coughs, etc, then suspicions concerning sick building syndrome are flagged.

<Want to learn more about the water-borne pathogens that can inhabit domestic  water systems? Check out our infographic>

Covid-19 and Its Impact on Sick Building Syndrome

As you can already see, a number of possible issues can arise and threaten our health and well-being a long time before the business of a global pandemic added to the noxious mix.

Unfortunately, the emergence of the coronavirus - and its ramifications in indoor scenarios - wasn't something to be taken lightly. Not that the aforementioned are, but by contrast Covid-19 had the potential to be lethal.

And it was for so many, tragically.

Sadly, the policy of quarantining ourselves at home - while actively avoiding potentially fatal social interactions with those outside of our immediate home hub - may have perversely led to an increase in indoor air pollution. Think about it. A sudden prevalence of more activity courtesy of remote-working, including Sparta levels of cooking and cleaning.
During this time the use of various disinfectants (especially chlorine-based compounds) increased dramatically in indoor spaces. The disinfection overuse - and subsequent evaporation in the absence of proper ventilation - can lead to an upsurge in indoor chemical air pollution.

How We Can Work to Better Protect Our Indoor Spaces in The Wake of Coronavirus and Far Beyond

As we touched on at the top, what a global pandemic has done is highlight the fact that health concerns in a building's design and infrastructure is a necessity as opposed to a luxury. In light of this, companies - and new homebuilders, we suspect - far and wide have since been asking how they can ensure their buildings are safer for everyone going forward.

Like sick building syndrome before it, Covid-19 prospered in poorly ventilated indoor settings. Hence the governmental instructions for households not to mix during lockdowns, to at least cauterize this path of otherwise least resistance for the virus.
For the most part, learned lessons regarding building hygiene can realistically envelop both domestic and employment settings. Advice such as paying extra attention to the cleaning of surfaces and more generalist recommendations relating to controlling other risk factors (such as odour, biological, chemical and sound pollution) can all play instrumental roles in the prevention of any number of bacterial and airborne viruses entering our public and personal domains.

Addressing Surface Matter

Examining surface cleaning briefly, and what's become common knowledge during the past 12 months or so is that we can be exposed indirectly to COVID-19 via a fomite. Which is essentially a contaminated surface or object. If we then, subsequently touch our eyes, nose or mouth inadvertently, then this serves as a conduit for the virus to spread by.

With this in mind, it's therefore important to be aware of the lifetime of the coronavirus on fomites. Research has shown that this tends to vary from hours to days. Interestingly, with copper and brass, COVID-19 was not detected after four hours. While with plastic and stainless steel, viable virus was still detected on surface areas after 72 hours.

Looking Ahead to The Future....

Above and beyond this more base level reckoning, the following sage suggestions bear a lot of practical credence, yet require a more collective thinking, systematic and decidedly future and pandemic-proof approach and application:

Introduction of air purifying/particle filtration for ventilation systems - In the case of outdoor virus contamination (building's air vents, etc) this can help capture percentage of the virus (depending on capture efficiency of the filters) and prevent it travelling indoors. For example, the Dyson Pure Cool™ involves advanced filtration, enabling it to capture 99.95% of particle pollution as small as 0.1. Microns² . The caveat being, viruses will be captured but not destroyed by presence.

Further research into UV-C lighting - In a previous blog we discussed elementary research that found some viruses were susceptible to UV-C light. As yet unconfirmed re: effect on Covid-19 specifically, however this revelation has gained traction and needs exploring.

Assess/revise pressure regimes - To actively safeguard against transmission from perceivable high-risk to low-risk (as found in healthcare buildings) or through doors ‘pumping’ air from toilets to ‘clean’ areas.

Consider touch-free access points in buildings - Where feasible, (especially offices and buildings where public interaction most prevalent), companies need to re-evaluate benefits of touch-free points of contact. Specifically, routes to and from wash facilities to the canteen.

Self-closing toilet lids - It has been widely documented that there's a latent threat involving the transmission of Covid-19 in toilets. Ergo the introduction of self-closing toilet lids would prevent droplets becoming airborne during flushing.

Consider replacing materials which support the virus longer - Namely, usurping plastic and stainless steel-manufactured surface materials with copper or brass.

Be mindful of humidity levels - Research suggests that keeping humidity between 40 – 60% will reduce most respiratory and viral transmission issues. Not only does humidity levels have ramifications for lifetime of aerosols/respiratory droplets in the air and on surfaces, but also human sensitivity to infections.

Droplets expelled from people in low humidity environments will diminish quickly as they dry out, yet can remain airborne for a number of hours. Pathogens within these droplets will possess an increased infectivity at a humidity below 40% and in excess of 60%. Existing - and dangerously low humidity levels discovered in hospitals, offices and schools during winter - are recognised as potential breeding grounds for airborne contaminants.

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