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Breathing life into indoor spaces

Matthew Maleki, High Rise Residential and Hospitality Business Development Manager, CIAT, reviews the findings of the latest Defra report on IAQ and explains how recent developments in ventilation and air conditioning can help improve the indoor environment to support wellbeing and productivity

We think of our workplaces and homes as safe spaces, but most people have little idea of the significant impact indoor air pollutants can have on occupant mental and physical health.

The effects of poor indoor air quality (IAQ) are typically overshadowed by the effects of outdoor air pollution, even though we spend 80-90 per cent of our time indoors.(i) In fact, 3.2 million people die prematurely due to indoor air pollution each year, according to the World Health Organization.(ii)

The most recent report from the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) underscores that IAQ is not only a matter of comfort, but a crucial determinant of our health and productivity.(i)

The workplace sets limits on occupational exposure to a range of airborne chemicals. These limits assume time spent in these settings is limited and that those exposed are healthy adults.

Defra’s report reveals the ‘exceptional heterogeneity’ of chemicals found indoors, with far greater range of concentrations than encountered in typical ambient outdoor air in the UK.


Volatile organic compounds (VOCs), used to manufacture building products, can be a significant source of indoor air pollution in commercial buildings. Buildings or renovations can give off high concentrations, as well as paints and solvents, adhesives, wallpaper, carpeting and vinyl flooring, disinfectants, furniture and electronic devices such as copiers, printers and printer ink.

Carbon monoxide from cooking, mould and bacteria can also affect the quality of the air we breathe indoors, as can particulate matter (PM). These particles can be made up of hundreds of different chemicals, emitted directly from a source such as a fire, or because of complex reactions of chemicals in the air.

Defra’s report revealed that peak indoor reported concentrations of PM2.5 can often be higher than those experienced outdoors; while indoor concentrations of biological aerosols, carbon monoxide, and many VOCs are often significantly higher than outside. People can also be a source of emissions through carbon dioxide (CO2) and biological aerosols such as viruses.


Health charity Asthma + Lung UK has linked poor IAQ to increased incidences of asthma, lung cancer and increased risk of heart attack and strokes.(iii) Conversely, research has found that healthy buildings with enhanced ventilation can improve the cognitive function and health of occupants.

COGfx Study 3: Global Buildings, a recent study led by researchers from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and supported by Carrier, examined the impact of IAQ and cognitive function.(iv) Lab tests revealed that cognitive function scores were 61 per cent higher in green buildings with low VOCs compared to conventional buildings – and 101 per cent higher in green buildings with low VOCs and enhanced ventilation.

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