The case for investing in the air we breathe

By Brian Fleck


Here we are, 16 months after the world recognized that the SARS-CoV2 virus is a pandemic and we are still struggling to believe it and react. We are still hoping that vaccines will quickly eradicate this, and we will return to normal. There is a reluctance to admit that COVID-19 spreads through the air in microscopic drops that may stay aloft for hours and that a small amount of the virus landing in your lungs is all that is needed to cause infection.

Like it or not, SARS-CoV2 is a rapidly mutating virus like other coronaviruses for which we have not found a permanent definitive vaccine. It seems likely it is going to be a pesky endemic problem that will challenge us for quite some time. The good news is that we have a lot of tools we can employ to combat transmission. If we make an effort to combat COVID-19 by improving indoor air quality (IAQ), we will reap many other benefits along the way. We have an amazing opportunity to invest in our future health right now.

Given that SARS-Cov2 is here to stay and is likely aerosol, indoor air in our built environment should be a priority. Discussions of the economic benefits of improving IAQ are numerous and not just a recent fad. In richer countries, people are spending around 90 per cent of their time indoors breathing air supplied by their built surroundings. This means we must find a way to reduce the rising problem of any kind of inhaled matter that is not good for us, which includes allergens, plastic particles, fossil fuel emissions, wildfire smoke, mould spores, viruses and bacteria.

But as is the case in the field of public health, stakeholders in building infrastructure are somehow reluctant to accept the strong evidence that spending on improved IAQ is more of an investment than a cost. This could well be because the global benefits of improved IAQ are not returned directly to whoever bears the cost of infrastructure investment. Infrastructure owners are often different than the people occupying buildings and are hesitant to make an additional investment, especially when they have fiduciary duties to minimize cost and maximize return.

This is where I believe a change in the market is coming. We have been shocked by the unpleasant effects COVID-19 has on our lives, our economies, and our sense of security. Meanwhile infrastructure owners are seeing risk to the value of their infrastructure and urgently need their investments to hold value. Finally, legal liability looms. History has shown if proof arises that people of influence ignored the evidence and failed to do the right thing, as was their duty, legal penalties could be disastrous.

What’s more, the cost of doing nothing could have a chain reaction through our economy and slow down our ability to remain competitive in the global economy. We have seen that the failure to take this crisis seriously has put many Western countries behind, weighing on our economy and our reputations as advanced scientific nations.

Our collective future may not be the one we were imagining before March 2020, but it doesn’t have to be filled with anxiety. Confidence, health and a strong economy are ours to achieve and enjoy if we avoid the error of procrastinating any longer in taking action to improve IAQ. Long-term investment reaps rewards for the wise and ethical.



In Canada alone, additional costs of sick leave attributed to poor IAQ is estimated at between $1.4 billion and $2.8 billion to Canadian business and drastically affects employee health and productivity. Employers lose valuable resources as a result of absenteeism, presenteeism (coming to work sick), decreased productivity and disability. In turn, the government and taxpayers pay for this poor workplace air quality through increased health-care costs from sick employees and disability payments.

It has been estimated that improving IAQ in commercial buildings could increase labour productivity by $7.5 billion (Standards Council of Canada, 2017), not to mention what it means for quality of life. Then there is the powerful trend to building automation and Internet of Things sensing. Soon indoor air instrumentation will make it impossible to hide poor IAQ and individuals will have their own ways to measure air quality and become more discerning “breathers” of the air supplied to them. There is a rush on now to be the software and information platform that allows individuals to have agency and control over what they breathe.



Clean air relies primarily on providing a good rate of clean air delivery to all the spaces in the built environment. This is what mechanical engineers and air handling experts know well. Filters have a well-established rating system; MERV being the minimum efficiency rating value or HEPA being the high-efficiency particulate air. Having clean air can be as easy as ensuring all fresh and recycled air passes through a MERV-13 filter with no leaks or bypasses. Increasing fresh air can be inexpensive if heat recovery systems are used in air handling. Effective killing of viruses and bacteria is possible with ultraviolet light, which does not produce dangerous ozone when narrow band light is used.

The trickier problems arise in areas where the air changes per hour (ACH) designed for heating, humidity and comfort is not enough to clean the air fast enough when there is crowding, high risk emissions (large numbers of infected individuals) or a preponderance of highly sensitive people. This could be quite challenging in buildings with heating systems that do not provide ventilation air. Air purifying systems can provide a solution with highly filtered or UV purified air at a high flow rate. This market is taking off and is highly unregulated. Investors in these technologies should be opting for systems supported by scientific evidence and regulated professionals. Facility managers need to look for information written by experts in the field and find the solution that works for their space.