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How Decarbonization Efforts and IAQ Efforts can be Aligned

Updated: Oct 10, 2023

Evolving IAQ standards needed to address health, economic and environmental trends.

woman in indoor office with green plants

Building managers have a responsibility to ensure indoor air quality (IAQ) meets the necessary IAQ standards, but a knowledge gap still exists in how IAQ impacts health. In the 1970s, during the oil embargo, buildings reduced energy use by decreasing ventilation rates. This resulted in sick building syndrome (SBS) as air change rates were decreased without taking other factors into consideration. However, when energy conservation became part of the broader concept of sustainability, occupant complaints of SBS reduced as ventilation restrictions eased.

In recent years, severe climate events like rain, snow, heat waves, earthquakes, floods, and wildfires have threatened buildings worldwide. This has led to a focus on building resiliency, meaning that buildings must be able to remain structurally intact in extreme outdoor conditions.Global warming caused by fossil fuels has also been recognized as a significant factor in severe weather conditions. As a result, building and IAQ regulations now focus on decarbonization, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from burning carbon-based fuels. Decarbonization is challenging because of the extensive use of oil products for energy, but it has the potential to address multiple problems like harm to our health from carbon-based air pollutants, pandemics caused by viruses that mutate and move into human hosts more rapidly with warming temperatures, health inequity across socioeconomic groups, and the economic burden of healthcare costs in many countries.

What is Decarbonization and How Does It Impact IAQ?

Decarbonization refers to removing or reducing the number of carbon molecules emitted in the air. This can be done by using non-carbon-based, renewable energy sources that reduce carbon combustion byproducts from building and transportation exhaust systems. Other steps to achieve decarbonization involve minimizing buildings' energy consumption by decreasing ventilation rates and reducing heat loss by tightening up the building envelope. However, making building envelopes tighter without reducing indoor emission of pollutants and appropriate natural or mechanical ventilation can result in an increase in indoor pollutants, occupant disease, and health costs associated with these illnesses.

Building managers must understand the downstream health consequences of decarbonization measures. Recent studies have shown that tightened envelopes without adequate ventilation can increase indoor pollutants and exacerbate asthma. In contrast, decarbonization coupled with adequate ventilation and indoor pollutant source control can reduce asthma attacks in children and corresponding medical expenses for families. Building managers must balance decarbonization goals with the provision of healthy indoor conditions for occupants, especially those with underlying immune systems or other health problems.

Achieving Building Efficiency and A Healthy Indoor Environment

Bottom line, building managers must balance mitigating climate change with creating indoor conditions that support occupant health. Investing in a comprehensive IAQ Solution such as Building4Health that reveals the health impact of indoor air metrics as well as the most energy-efficient and remediation strategy can align decarbonization retrofits with good health. This alignment is critical to avoid deepening health disparities across diverse building and socioeconomic conditions while simultaneously decreasing energy consumption. Balancing climate change mitigation in concert with measurement and remediation to support healthy indoor conditions is possible, but must become a priority for building and legislative decision-makers.

Note: This article was adapted from the original article published in Engineered Systems, November 4, 2022 by Stephanie Taylor, MD.


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