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Schools can spearhead a clean air revolution

Thoughtful young woman with face mask back at work in office after lockdown.

Teachers know that many of the most important factors affecting children’s performance are invisible. Tiredness, stress, hunger: these all have a significant impact on pupils’ productivity and their ability to learn.

But there’s another significant factor that most educators (and employers, for that matter) rarely consider. This is the most invisible element of all: the air that we breathe. But since the beginning of the pandemic, air quality in schools has been under the microscope. Yet as important as it is to reduce infections through better ventilation, this crisis presents a golden opportunity to improve concentration and performance, not just for school pupils but for every worker.

Breathing new life into classrooms

The annual “back to school” in September is always a stressful time for teachers, children and parents, but this year will be like no other. Everyone knows that packing children into classrooms significantly increases the risk of Covid transmission, which is why school and government leaders are quite rightly prioritising ventilation.

Clean air technology has a stunning effect on reducing transmission. One school was able to capture 99.97% of airborne pathogens by implementing our air disinfection, filtration, isolation and monitoring technology.

But this is an opportunity to do much more than prevent children catching Covid, as crucial as that is. The link between air quality and long-term health complications has been known for many years. The reduction in air pollution has been one of the great public health successes of the last century. What’s far less appreciated is the effect that poor air quality has on students’ productivity and concentration.

Recent research has found that creating and maintaining a standard for air quality can improve productivity by 11%, and can even have a measurable effect on pupils’ strategic thinking and exam scores. In fact, one study found that spending a few hundred pounds on air filtration systems has been shown to raise test scores by the same amount as cutting class sizes by a third.

By improving air quality, we can literally breathe new life into classrooms, with huge advantages for pupils and, longer term, for the growth of the UK economy.

Schools can teach business a lesson

It’s not just children who benefit from breathing purer air; adults experience similar performance and productivity gains from improvements to air quality.

There are certainly many industries that can take a lesson from schools and hospitals on improving air quality. Research among building decision-makers into what they are doing to ensure the health of occupants found that while healthcare organisations are, unsurprisingly, leading the way in implementing clean air technology, less than half of commercial real estate respondents have done so.

This presents a major opportunity for the building and construction industry. The UK’s successful vaccination programme and general levels of Covid fatigue means that stressing the virus threat will only go so far. By moving the conversation on and stressing the measurable, bottom-line benefits to businesses, we can deliver a much more compelling message. Instead of fixing a problem, the industry will be positioning itself as partners in businesses’ future success.

Setting new standards

In truth, the building and construction sector needs a powerful message because existing regulations fall far short of what’s needed to improve workers’ wellbeing and productivity.

Currently, the HSE Approved Code of Practice states fresh air should not fall below five to eight litres of air per second per occupant, while CIBSE’s guidance suggests that buildings should have a ventilation rate of ten litres. This is far too low: testing shows that even at the rate of 12 litres per person/second, CO2 levels can still remain high, leading to drowsiness and poor concentration. It’s also too low to remove particulate matter, which contributes to long-term health complications, while exacerbating allergies that can reduce productivity even further.

Ideally, the minimum standard for ventilation should be doubled to 20 litres per second per person, and that really should be an absolute minimum. But these numbers are not absolute: ventilation requirements change according to how many people are in the building at any one time. This is another area where the construction industry can play an important educational role by setting improved standards based on occupancy and air quality metrics, rather than measuring ventilation alone. 

This has the additional benefit of ensuring that businesses are not over-ventilating their offices, which can be detrimental to their energy efficiency and heating costs.

We constantly hear that the coronavirus crisis is an opportunity to “build back better”. On air quality we have a chance to make a measurable difference to millions of people’s health, happiness, and productivity. Let’s seize this opportunity to make workplaces fit for the future by tackling what’s been so easy to ignore for so long: the air on which all life depends.

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Latest Issue

BDC 317 : Jun 2024