Experts Urge Strict Workplace Air Quality Standards, in Wake of Pandemic
Clean water in 1842, food safety in 1906, a ban on lead-based paint in 1971. These sweeping public health reforms transformed not just our environment but expectations for what governments can do.
Now it is time to do the same for indoor air quality, according to a group of 39 scientists. In a manifesto of sorts published in the journal Science, the researchers called for a “paradigm shift” in how citizens and government officials think about the quality of the air we breathe indoors.
The timing of the scientists’ call to action coincides with the nation’s large-scale reopening as coronavirus cases steeply decline: Americans are anxiously facing a return to offices, schools, restaurants and theaters — exactly the type of crowded indoor spaces in which the coronavirus is thought to thrive.
There is little doubt now that the coronavirus can linger in the air indoors, floating far beyond the recommended 6 feet of distance, the experts declared. The accumulating research puts the onus on policymakers and building engineers to provide clean air in public buildings and to minimize the risk of respiratory infections, they said.
“We expect to have clean water from the taps,” said Lidia Morawska, the group’s leader and an aerosol physicist at Queensland University of Technology in Australia. “We expect to have clean, safe food when we buy it in the supermarket. In the same way, we should expect clean air in our buildings and any shared spaces.”
Meeting the group’s recommendations would require new workplace standards for air quality, but the scientists maintained that the remedies do not have to be onerous. Air quality in buildings can be improved with a few simple fixes, they said: adding filters to existing ventilation systems, using portable air cleaners and ultraviolet lights — or even just opening the windows where possible.
Morawska led a group of 239 scientists who last year called on the World Health Organization to acknowledge that the coronavirus can spread in tiny droplets, or aerosols, that drift through the air. The WHO had insisted that the virus spreads only in larger, heavier droplets and by touching contaminated surfaces, contradicting its own 2014 rule to assume all new viruses are airborne.
The WHO conceded on July 9 that transmission of the virus by aerosols could be responsible for “outbreaks of COVID-19 reported in some closed settings” but only at short range.
文／Apoorva Mandavilli 譯／李京倫 核稿／樂慧生