Indoor Air Quality Amid Wildfires: The Imperative of Real-time Monitoring
As wildfires become more frequent and severe, it’s time to reconsider how to handle indoor air quality.
- By Dr. Serene Almomen
- Oct 31, 2023
This summer’s Canadian wildfire smoke crises left cities along the East Coast blanketed in a hazy smog, putting more than 100 million people at risk of overexposure to dangerous air quality. Though organizations like the Red Cross suggest staying indoors is the safest place to be during air quality crises, outdated infrastructure recently earned the U.S. a D+ rating on building efficiency. This raises the question: are we really safe inside?
The combined effect of ambient and indoor air pollution is associated with 7 million premature deaths annually, according to the World Health Organization. Understanding what particulate matter (PM) is and how to combat the health risks it poses will be imperative to maintaining public health as climate change continues to disrupt air quality.
Overexposure to PM2.5 in particular can lead to respiratory issues with symptoms such as coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath as well as cardiovascular difficulties. These issues can in turn cause decreased cognitive functioning when PM2.5 particles enter the bloodstream through the lungs and exacerbate other health issues, sometimes causing long-term damage.
Air quality is strongly correlated with the overall health of an indoor environment, but in order to gain a comprehensive awareness of a building’s health—and thus the health of its occupants—proactive solutions to monitor air quality must be put in place.
More can be done to ensure clean, breathable air for everyone, and the first step is monitoring. Waiting until wildfire smoke engulfs the surrounding area is too late. This technology must be present before the event arises.
The systems that maintain and verify indoor air quality (IAQ) in buildings are crucial if we are to maintain healthy buildings in every climate and environment. Filtration and air distribution equipment, controls and management practices have often been taken for granted or ignored – but as more people seek to reduce the risk of airborne pathogen transmission, IAQ control strategies are creeping into the public consciousness.
For example, a prominent developer, owner and manager of premier workplaces in the United States implemented an IAQ management strategy that includes providing indoor condition information in real time to its building engineers. To gain a better understanding of the value of IAQ monitoring in real-time, this company conducted a case study on the effectiveness of IAQ monitors during this summer’s initial Canadian wildfires.
Utilizing a network of IAQ monitors strategically located at air intakes, supply and return points, the operational teams validated the effectiveness of ventilation and filtration systems in controlling sensible indicators of air quality—PM2.5, carbon dioxide and total volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—in three facilities in Washington D.C., New York City and Boston. This enabled the company to assess whether base building mechanical systems were responding to and maintaining levels below recommended limits.
Overall, during a period of historically poor outside air quality in Boston, New York City and Washington D.C., real-time IAQ controls effectively removed more than 90 percent of PM2.5. Without active IAQ monitors, there would have been no way to know that the IAQ strategy is working and working well and, if not, alert those with power to make the necessary changes.
We can’t control what happens outside, but we do have control over what makes its way indoors. Like the pandemic, the wildfires reinforced how valuable IAQ monitors are in protecting building occupants from potential PM2.5 health risks. Though IAQ monitoring enables real-time measurement and understanding of air filtration and distribution system effectiveness, these systems need to be in place before air quality events arise to maintain clean, breathable air for occupants.
Case studies demonstrate how much of a difference IAQ monitors can make, but they must be widely utilized to be widely effective. As climate change continues to impact the U.S., monitors must be in place to alert building leaders when air quality becomes unhealthy and arm them with information to make decisions quickly and keep their occupants safe.
Serene Almomen, PhD, is the co-founder and CEO of the high-growth technology company Attune. Attune is a first-of-its-kind, sensor-based technology platform with 55 patents for its technology innovations. It provides real-time assurance into critical areas such as indoor air quality, energy consumption, risk of water leaks, critical equipment status and more. Attune is the only customizable indoor air quality monitoring solution on the market and is UL 2905 and SOC2 certified and GBAC Star Registered. For more information on Attune’s case study with Boston Properties (BXP), visit attuneiot.com.