An Overview of the 2022 Initiative
On March 17th of this year, the White House announced the Clean Air in Buildings Challenge, a call for building owners and operators to improve and protect public health and reduce the spread of COVID-19 and other viruses through actions designed to advance indoor air quality (IAQ) with better ventilation and filtration.
The pandemic put the collective air that we breathe under the microscope and revealed a dire need to modernize existing air quality systems within indoor spaces in America. The Clean Air in Buildings Challenge was initiated as part of the COVID preparedness plan, in response to the knowledge that the most common way that COVID-19 is transmitted is through airborne particles of the virus, but the program is part of a larger plan to advance our national infrastructure and public health.
Why This is a Big Deal
U.S. federal health authorities were initially slow to identify airborne transmission of the virus. It was only in October 2020 that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognized that the virus can sometimes be airborne, long after many infectious disease experts warned that the coronavirus traveled aloft in small, airborne particles. Scientists have been calling for a bigger focus on addressing that risk for more than a year.
The initiative is “really a big deal,” said William Bahnfleth, a professor of architectural engineering at Pennsylvania State University and head of the Epidemic Task Force at the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers. “It’s making the start that is often the most difficult part.”
“For decades, Americans have demanded that clean water flow from our taps and pollution limits be placed on our smokestacks and tailpipes,” said Dr. Alondra Nelson, Chief of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “It is time for healthy and clean indoor air to also become an expectation for us all.”
How Funding is Being Distributed
With funds available through the American Rescue Plan and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the initiative includes $350 billion in funding for state and local governments, plus an additional $122 billion for schools to support investments in ventilation and IAQ improvements. Unlike the funding process for previous programs like the CARES Act, these funds have already been allocated at the state and local level, so they are easily accessible and each district and municipality is responsible for distributing grants.
Recommendations and Actionable Steps
The Clean Air In Buildings Challenge announcement also included a roadmap of guidelines from the EPA to help facilities optimize and update their IAQ systems. This guidance from the EPA includes four steps:
- Create a clean indoor air action plan – assess and document how your current HVAC system works. Implement IAQ monitoring systems such as the Flair Air Safety Monitor to help you get a clear understanding of the air quality trends. Work with your building management team and HVAC specialists to identify what needs improvement and which common spaces may require additional bolstering.
- Optimize fresh air ventilation – increase the amount of clean, outdoor air that is being circulated in the building. This can be achieved through cross ventilation with open windows and a strategic, responsive schedule for HVAC settings in order to maximize ventilation in key areas and during peak times.
- Enhance air filtration and cleaning – upgrade your IAQ through updates to the central HVAC system and the addition of supplemental air cleaning devices. Install the highest MERV-rated filters possible for your system, with the goal of achieving MERV-19 filtered air for the highest level of protection against the smallest particles, which include COVID and other viruses. Consider adding an ultraviolet germicidal irradiation system (UVGI) to clean the air, technology found in the most sophisticated air purification devices like the Purilux in-ceiling light fixture that doubles as a FDA approved air purifier.
- Conduct community engagement, communication, and education. Share your IAQ metrics and a high-level summary of updates made to the building with all affected people so that they are aware of their air safety. This can include signage and other communication strategies as well as a formal plan to continue to evaluate and improve systems related to IAQ.
Time to Raise the Standards and Rise to the Challenge
“Our buildings can make us sick, or keep us well,” affirms Dr. Joseph Allen, Associate Professor of Public Health at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, while speaking at the White House’s recent discussion on COVID and clean indoor air. He goes on to add that “we have to remove the virus from the air. We can move it out of the building through ventilation, and we can clean it out of the air through filtration. We can inactivate it through germicidal UV light. It really is that simple… and we have done this successfully for the past two years in the organizations that got on top of this and recognize that it is spread through the air, and we hope everybody follows that opportunity.”
People spend a lot of time indoors, breathing the same air, in buildings that were built to bare minimum standards for air quality rather than optimal, healthy standards or with the capacity to reduce the impact of airborne viruses and other contaminants indoors. In addition to fighting the operational challenges and health risks that COVID-19 continues to pose, improvements to air quality have even greater benefits to public health. Enhanced filtration with the highest standard purification systems like ThinkLite’s Purilux and ICON also reduce the burden of asthma and allergies and remove harmful pollutants and pathogens including the flu and other airborne germs.
“This is an opportunity to put clean air as a human right, at the center of how we design our buildings and live our lives and how our kids go to school,” affirms Dr. Zeynep Tufekci, while speaking at the White House’s forum on COVID and clean indoor air.
The Clean Air in Buildings Challenge impacts all building owners and operators, from public schools to private universities, hospitals and other medical facilities, commercial spaces like offices and retail businesses, apartment buildings, restaurants, arts venues, places of worship, hotels, fitness centers, airports, and beyond. Any indoor space that accommodates people should be commissioned for higher, health-based benchmarks for the air in the building.