Healthy Spaces Podcast: Season 3, Episode 1 - Clearing the Air
June 12, 2023
Of all the ways in which human and environmental health are intertwined, the most essential connection may be in the very air we breathe.
3 min read
This episode was recorded before the wildfires in Canada spread out of control and reminds us how much human and planetary health are connected. We want to acknowledge the impact this event is having on the people of Canada and eastern U.S. and hope that everyone is staying safe. We believe that continued advancement in sustainable climate technologies will bring clearer skies for us all.
Scientists, doctors, and policymakers all agree that cleaner air means better outcomes for people and the planet. But is it possible to reduce air pollution without compromising energy efficiency?
In this episode of Healthy Spaces, host Dominique Silva speaks to three clean air innovators who are out to prove just that.
“There's a tendency within every industry to focus on your specific area, and that can often lead to an inability to see the bigger picture,” says Sara Karerat, Managing Director for the Center for Active Design. But by considering energy efficiency and indoor air quality goals together, she argues, “we can move the needle forward in more effective ways." And she’s not the only one.
Listen to the full episode to learn how Pierre Dornier and the Chercheurs d’Air (“Air Seekers”) are using citizen science and data collection to impact city planning and improve air quality in Brussels, Belgium; how Sara Karerat and the Center for Active Design are advocating for the intersection of public health, equity, and climate change; and how filtration, ventilation, and smart technologies can make our buildings more efficient and the air we breathe, cleaner – inside and out.
[00:00:00] Dominique: In 2022, the United Nation's General Assembly passed a historic resolution declaring that everyone on the planet has a right to a healthy environment that includes clean air, both indoors and out. But creating healthy spaces while also achieving energy efficiency and sustainability goals is no easy task.
[00:00:26] Dominique: However, that's not stopping some of our greatest thinkers and industry leaders from trying.
[00:00:32] Pierre: I started wondering, okay, what am I actually breathing? So I started Googling that, trying to find information on the air quality I was breathing in Brussels, and I found out two things. The first thing is that there was not much information on this subject.
[00:00:49] Pierre: And the second issue was that when there was information, it was very complicated to understand.
[00:00:54] Sara: One thing that I think is really important to consider is the relationship between the outdoor air and indoor air. So everything that's happening in the outdoor environment is having an impact on the indoor environment.
[00:01:10] Sara: And actually the EPA has found that indoor air pollutants can oftentimes be two to five times higher indoors than outdoor levels.
[00:01:19] Jeff: I think there's more that we can do around identifying more of these contaminants in the outdoor air and comparing them to indoor air values and making a better decision.
[00:01:31] Jeff: We have solutions now that can do that. And that's really critical in a system like this. You don't want to be making manual decisions based off of constant readings yourself.
[00:01:42] Dominique: You just heard from Pierre Dornier, founder and president of Air Seekers; Sara Karerat, the Director of Applied Research at the Center for Active Design, and Jeff Wiseman, the Indoor Air Quality Portfolio leader at Trane Commercial.
[00:01:57] Dominique: I'm Dominique Silva, the Innovation Initiatives leader at Trane Technologies, and you're listening to Healthy Spaces, the podcast that explores the world of environmental quality, both inside and out. In this season premiere, we'll be hearing from my guests about the work they're doing to make our homes, places of work, schools, and the great outdoors cleaner and safer.
[00:02:22] Dominique: In this episode, we'll find out how citizen science campaigns are helping the residents of Brussels to better measure, understand, and act on air pollution. We'll also learn about strategies that building owners, developers and facility managers are adopting to keep their occupants safe. And finally, we'll discover how emerging and existing technologies in the HVAC space are helping buildings become healthier and more efficient.
[00:02:57] Dominique: My first guest, Pierre Dornier, is the founder and president of a Belgium-based organization called Air Seekers or Chercheur D’Air in French. By recruiting the general public to help collect air quality data, he was able to effectively measure the level of pollutants across Brussels and provide city planners with data-driven solutions to create cleaner and safer environments.
[00:03:22] Dominique: But what prompted him to take on such a mammoth task?
[00:03:26] Pierre: I started getting interested in this air quality issue at the end of 2015 when the Diesel Gates scandal started, when the U.S. government found out that Volkswagen was cheating on their emission communication. And then not only Volkswagen was the culprits…
[00:03:50] Pierre: Basically all the, the car manufacturers. So the conclusion of this scandal was that we were breathing air that was a lot worse than we thought. So I started wondering, okay, what am I actually breathing, right? So I started Googling that, trying to find information on, on the air quality I was breathing in Brussels, and I found out two things.
[00:04:14] Pierre: The first thing is that there was not much information on this subject. And the second issue was that when there was information, it was very complicated to understand because it was a lot of acronyms, a lot of jargon, a lot of webpages not displaying properly. So I thought, okay, if, if this is not available, maybe thanks to citizen science, I can create basically this data.
[00:04:40] Pierre: I can create this information so that not only me will have access to it, but also other citizens, because of course the program was for everybody. So that's how I started.
[00:04:50] Dominique: You have me really excited talking about the data and what you learned from that data, but before we dive into that. Pollution is not something that we often see or feel unless it's a particularly smoggy day.
[00:05:05] Dominique: So before we go into the detail about the data that you collected, explain to our listeners what exactly were you measuring and how were you doing that? What technology were you using?
[00:05:17] Pierre: We measured particulate matter, which is one kind of air pollution and NO2, which is another kind of pollution. So particulate matter is basically a little bit like sand, very thin sand.
[00:05:34] Pierre: To give you a comparison, one, let's say grain of particulate matter, its diameter is 20 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair, so it's very, very, very small. The way we measure the concentration of particulate matter is by using basically a little device equipped with a laser system that calculates the number of particulate matters inside a given amount of air.
[00:06:08] Pierre: And then you can say, okay, we have this amount of microgram of particulate matter in one cubic meter of air. This is too much. This is okay. We have a lot of air pollution or not. And the second thing was NO2, nitrogen dioxide, which is a gas mainly emitted by road traffic. And the way that we use to monitor that is what we call diffusion tubes.
[00:06:34] Pierre: It is basically like a plastic tube, uh, the, the size of a, of a pen inside this tube there is something, a little bit like a, a sponge. And this sponge gets the air that is surrounding the tube. And then you send this sponge to a lab and the lab says, okay, during one month, for example, there was this amount of NO2 per cubic meter of air.
[00:07:00] Pierre: And again, this is too much. This is okay. This is acceptable. This is a scandal. So that's what we did. That's what we are doing in general.
[00:07:09] Dominique: You mentioned that you, you kicked off air seekers essentially at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. You were able to overcome those challenges and really get citizens, and I believe a lot of schools as well, to get involved in this research project, but you were effectively measuring air quality during a period, we were seeing less road traffic. Right, because people were stuck in their homes. So how did that influence the data that you collected and what did you learn?
[00:07:45] Pierre: During the pandemic, there was less road traffic, less industry, so of course a decrease of air pollution.
[00:07:51] Pierre: I mean, I think this was not a big surprise because of the, of the context. What was quite surprising though is that even though there was this big decrease levels of air pollution that we monitored, were still—depends where—but in some places there were still a lot more above the WHO’s guidelines and in some places, even in schools, we were two times, three times, four times above the WHO guidelines during the lockdowns.
[00:08:25] Pierre: So this shows how much air pollution there is in city and, and how much work we still need to do, how many measures we still need to put in place if we want to guarantee cleaner air to citizens in big cities.
[00:08:41] Dominique: Let's talk, um, a little bit about what you did with all of this, this data. So what were some of the recommendations that you and your team came up with?
[00:08:52] Pierre: We have a few. I think the main one that would have the biggest impact is what we call the low emission zone. So it's uh, zone area in which only the least polluting vehicles are allowed to drive. And this scale, if you want, evolves year after year. So in Brussels solar emission zone started in 2018.
[00:09:15] Pierre: Only the very old cars and, and vans were forbidden at the beginning. Now a bit more of these vehicles are, are forbidden and the objective is to get rid of all diesel vehicles by 2030 and all thermic engines by 2035. This is very efficient way to, to clean the air because you only, at the end of the day, you only have electric vehicles and we see, for example, in London where there is a low emission that is quite ambitious.
[00:09:48] Pierre: …we see that inside the low emission zone, uh, concentration of NO2 decreased by 26% since the implementation zone, it's a lot. It's really a lot. What we are asking in Brussels is to move forwards faster. We would like to have a zero emission zone, so only electric vehicles allowed in 2030, instead of having to wait until 2035.
[00:10:16] Pierre: To give you an example, we are also asking for what we call “school streets.” A school street is a street that passes by a school. That is closed to road traffic. And we know as well that this kind of measure, um, allows to, to decrease strongly the NO2 concentrations. Again, we saw that, uh, thanks to a school street it had, you can have an NO2 decrease by 23% right in front of the school.
[00:10:43] Pierre: I'm not going to give you all the measures, but you have two examples of the kind of things that we ask at. Less cars, less trucks, less van in cities, more bikes, more walking, more public transport. And for the vehicles that remain in our streets, for these vehicles to be as light as possible, as small as possible…
[00:11:04] Pierre: …and electric, because an electric vehicle is definitely a lot cleaner than a diesel, a gas, or a petrol vehicle. That's for sure.
[00:11:16] Dominique: We have this idea that big cities can't change because it's too complex. Right? And you've kind of given us inspiration to show that actually there can be positive change, and if it can happen in big cities, why not small cities as well?
[00:11:27] Dominique: You've shared with us at least two ideas, right, that came out of the Air Seekers project. I know that some of your recommendations have already been implemented with success in some municipalities, but let’s imagine a future where all of these policies and green technologies are implemented at scale.
[00:11:51] Dominique: So let's be ambitious, right? It's 2030. What does Brussels look like to you in 2030?
[00:11:57] Pierre: For us, the Air Seekers, I think the main thing would be, you know, a city in 2030 where breathing doesn't make us sick. I think this would be amazing already if we could get there. And then a city that is a lot greener, literally greener.
[00:12:15] Pierre: So with more trees, with more flowers, with more plants, Brussels is a is a beautiful city, but to be honest, it's not very green. I mean, you have big parks, but in general it's quite a gray city. So it would be amazing if it could get a little bit greener. And I would say the third thing, if it could get quieter by 2030. So less noise, especially from road traffic. In my opinion, that would be amazing.
[00:12:46] Dominique: Pierre's work has helped shine a light on the reality of outdoor air quality across Brussels. But the reality is the air we breathe indoors may be two to five times more polluted. And this is of particular concern because most of us spend about 90% of our time indoors. So what are some techniques that building managers can adopt to ensure their spaces are as healthy and productive as they can be?
[00:13:13] Dominique: To answer that, I spoke with the director of applied research at the Center for Active Design, Sara Karerat. But how exactly does her work help building managers?
[00:13:25] Sara: So we help to create standards for buildings to ensure low levels of contaminants, which can reduce allergies and reduce risk of asthma. And another big part of my job is reading, I read a lot, specifically public health literature. And then I then take that as a team and work across our internal groups to transform those findings into actionable solutions that can be implemented by the real estate industry to promote health. One of the biggest ways we work with our partners is through a healthy building standard, uh, that's called fitwell.
[00:14:01] Sara: It was actually created originally by the Centers for Disease Control and the General Services Administration, who we still work with closely as research partners.
[00:14:10] Dominique: So one part that you mentioned was around reading all of the new research coming out there. I'm, I'm curious about what you've most been reading about lately that has you excited.
[00:14:23] Dominique: So what fields of research are you currently looking at in the context of healthy and sustainable buildings?
[00:14:30] Sara: So I'm really excited about how to bring the conversation around health and sustainability together through a co-benefits approach. So what that means is looking at where certain interventions have an impact, not only on health promotion, but also on mitigating the risk of climate change.
[00:14:48] Sara: One example of this is a researcher out of Harvard School of Public Health, Dr. Adele Houghton, and she's really taken it upon her work to focus on looking at built environment interventions that positively impact climate change, equity and health outcomes. So one intervention can have this huge ripple effect that's not only impacting sort of one area, but also touching on many different outcomes that are really important from a societal perspective and can have a massive impact.
[00:15:19] Sara: And there's a tendency to sort of focus on your specific area, and that can often lead to an inability to see sort of the bigger picture and bringing together those conversations is something that I think is happening more and more frequently and really gets me excited as someone who sort of works, uh, across disciplines and really values that interdisciplinary approach to conversation and research.
[00:15:44] Sara: And I think it really will help us move the needle. Uh, to be able to go from just focusing on those interventions that impact health and moving it, moving it forward, and be able to broaden the impact.
[00:16:00] Dominique: Earlier on in the show, we spoke with another one of our guests about research which is being done on the impact of outdoor air pollution in cities and urban areas. Pierre talked a lot about increasing levels of fine particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide. And actually not long ago, there was a study by the University of Washington which highlighted that there are many states in the U.S. which are seeing concerning levels of ozone in the air. So it is pretty daunting when you think about all of these pollutants and contaminants that you're breathing in just by stepping outside.
[00:16:39] Dominique: So, Sara, do you think it's, we're better off living indoors forever?
[00:16:45] Sara: One thing that I think is really important to consider is the relationship between the outdoor air and indoor air. So everything that's happening in the outdoor environment is having an impact on the indoor environment, and actually the EPA has found that indoor air pollutants can often times be two to five times higher in indoors than outdoor levels.
[00:17:08] Sara: So I guess my short answer is no, we're already spending 90% of our time indoors, but I don't think that we need to stop and enjoying the outdoor spaces. I think we all know that that's very important from a mental health perspective, a physical health perspective. That said, I think it, it introduces some real important concepts around how by mitigating outdoor air pollution, we can also improve indoor air quality …
[00:17:37] Sara: …and why sort of taking that broader perspective that we were talking about before is so vital. The other thing … I know you mentioned nitrogen dioxide. That's something that I think has been in the news a lot recently within indoor air quality because of the relationship to gas stoves.
[00:17:56] Sara: … and how gas stoves can create high levels of nitrogen dioxide indoors. So I think we're encountering similar contaminants, outdoors and indoors. And by taking sort of that more holistic approach to what are the different ways that we can reduce those levels in both areas will really go a long way in making sure that we can occupy outdoor and indoor spaces in sort of a healthy and health-promoting way.
[00:18:26] Dominique: What would you say are some of the key strategies that building owners could be looking at? And maybe let's start with existing buildings.
[00:18:35] Sara: That's a really great point, that it is a different calculus when approaching existing buildings versus new construction. And we know that existing buildings and retrofitting those existing buildings is one of the most efficient things that we can be doing.
[00:18:47] Sara: So that is something that our standard was created with existing buildings in mind. So in that thinking, one of the, uh, real areas that existing buildings are able to go into headfirst is really around operational policies. So making sure that when it comes to an HVAC system, thatthat HVAC system is being well maintained, is being optimized for the ventilation filtration that's needed within a space.
[00:19:14] Sara: Another area is really around looking at the spaces that are available and seeing how they can be adjusted to promote health. So one, uh, strategy that we like to talk about a lot because it has such a important health impact is around lactation rooms. So it's something that oftentimes might not be the first thought for how to use a space, but we know that ensuring that …
[00:19:43] Sara: …new moms that are coming back to work have access to that space can impact not only them from a mental health and physical health standpoint, but also their newborn. And then the last thing I'll say is really around if a developer owns a whole building, looking at how additional greenery can be added, that's something that has a huge impact…
[00:20:03] Sara: …on not only making sure that their views of nature and it's a pleasant place to sort of exist, but also can reduce things like heat island effect, especially in cities, and make sure that there's proper shading and ensuring that ultimately if every building were to do this, it could have an impact on energy efficiency and energy use.
[00:20:27] Dominique: So Sara, can you talk to us about some of the applied research which has you excited about the future of healthy buildings? Are there any specific technologies which you feel are helping pave the way to a more sustainable living indoors?
[00:20:43] Sara: We know that HVAC systems present a real opportunity when it comes to maximizing efficiency and they're the key to making sure that indoor air quality is, is being maintained and that we're supporting the health of occupants.
[00:20:58] Sara: So one area within this space that is—seems really basic and it's not a fancy technology, but it really is around maintenance. Maintenance can have a huge impact when it comes to making sure that a system is running efficiently, and that the HVAC system is operating as it's meant to operate. So this in itself can have a huge impact on energy efficiency as well as health.
[00:21:29] Sara: The other area is really around, there's been some research out of the Department of Energy that's looked at technologies that help to ensure that energy efficiency goals and indoor air quality goals are being considered at the same time. And strategies that have been found to be really effective include ventilation, scheduling, fine tuning and maintenance, again, of the HVAC system, envelope ceiling implementation of green cleaning policies.
[00:21:55] Sara: So again, pretty basic things, but that can have a huge impact. And then one area that I know has been talked a lot about in this industry is around demand controlled ventilation. I think there's still a lot of room for growth within this space. But the Department of Energy has also found that using demand controlled ventilation can achieve energy savings that are about 18% across U.S. climate zones.
[00:22:20] Sara: So using this a mix of new technologies and old operational considerations, but implementing them in an effective way… I'm very hopeful about the research that's coming out about the impact of bringing these two elements together.
[00:22:40] Dominique: Throughout this conversation, we've talked extensively about technologies and as well as operational efficiencies, some low-hanging fruit, things that people can easily look at and do.
[00:22:50] Dominique: Today, I want you to in imagine a future, and it's not that far away, so let's imagine it's 2030, a lot of these recommendations and, you know, strategies are really being put into practice. How do you envision a city like New York?
[00:23:09] Sara: Two main themes come to mind for me. One is a greener city. I think that in traveling to some other, other cities, um, one example that comes to mind is, uh, New Delhi, India.
[00:23:25] Sara: It’s a very crowded city, lots going on…But the way that greenery is just naturally integrated throughout that city, it blew my mind. And I think that there's a lot that New York could learn… about how it doesn't need to be a full-on park. So things like green roofs, green walls, I think there's progress in this space, but definitely have a ways to go.
[00:23:45] Sara: And then the other theme is bike infrastructure. I think that there's still definite room for improvement in making sure that there are accessible routes across different neighborhoods and they're spread out equitably across the city. So I think things like bike lanes that are protected and also bike share, making sure that that is spread across the city in an equitable way as something that I hope for in 2030. I think it has such widespread impacts.
[00:24:22] Dominique: Sarah's work is helping building owners and facility managers to better understand how to maintain healthy indoor environments while also promoting the co-benefits for the wider community. And my next guest is working to deliver more efficient and environmentally friendly HVAC systems that help to improve air quality while also meeting efficiency goals.
[00:24:45] Dominique: Here's Jeff Wiseman, Trane Commercial's indoor air quality portfolio leader, telling us how he has seen attitudes towards air quality management evolve in recent years.
[00:24:58] Jeff: One of the very few good things that came out of the pandemic was much more awareness around indoor air quality and exactly what is in our air.
[00:25:07] Jeff: We've since moved on past the pandemic viruses and bacteria may not be the number one priority anymore. However, awareness of CO2 and VOCs and other gases in the air is still pretty high and the impact that has on occupants within the space going forward, I think having the ability to monitor what's in the air and being able to react to what's in the air…
[00:25:31] Jeff: … it is important and something that we are looking at and ensuring our equipment has the capability to respond to if and when needed. So ensuring that we have the capability to increase filtration, making sure we have the controls and sensors in place, so if we see CO2 increasing or VOCs, we know when to bring turn on ventilation and bring in outside air and bring in nice clean air and exhaust the contaminated air.
[00:26:00] Jeff: And then we continue to explore other technologies that may be able to reduce some of the gases and harmful contaminants in the air more efficiently to ensure that we can maintain this type of operation, I guess in the long term.
[00:26:14] Dominique: You talked a little bit about filtration as a mitigation strategy. Another mitigation strategy that we hear a lot about is ventilation. Mainly increasing ventilation. Right. I'd love to talk to you a little bit about this because during the pandemic, but also beyond, we heard a lot of building managers who were following the guidelines, increasing their ventilation rates. What does that mean exactly, Jeff?
[00:26:42] Jeff: There are standards out there that define how much outside error you must bring into your space. Uh, and they may vary based off occupancy levels. And so a commercial building that is unoccupied, you can typically turn down your, your ventilation rates and, and bring in little to no air.
[00:27:00] Jeff: However, as occupancy increases, you need to start bringing in more fresh outside air, and in turn, you're exhausting the contaminated indoor air. You know, with the pandemic, we did see more focus and attention to ventilation rates. And we started to see some proposals to update ventilation rates in spaces.
[00:27:21] Jeff: If you live in a space or a location where the outdoor air is clean, there's absolutely beneficial to bring in that outside air that's not universal. There are some large cities where the outside air is pretty heavily contaminated, and so it's really region or location specific on when you want to adopt a ventilation strategy.
[00:27:40] Jeff: You don't want to unintentionally introduce contaminants that may be causing other issues in the space. And so, you know, there's not a universal answer, but having the right sensors and controls in space can help you make that decision.
[00:27:55] Dominique: I love how you pointed out that obviously we're trying to exhaust as much as we can, those indoor air pollutants that have been created, but we also need to be paying attention to what we're bringing in some building managers, facility managers might argue that increasing ventilation is extremely inefficient. What are your thoughts on this?
[00:28:20] Jeff: Yeah, I have heard feedback from customers that it can be costly to bring in outside air and it's really regional specific as to what that cost may be. And, and you know, if you live up north and it's the wintertime and the air is very dry and it's very cold, it can be costly to heat the air.
[00:28:39] Jeff: To a comfortable temperature to bring it into the space and also add humidity, uh, to the air as well. And the same can be said for hot and humid environments. It is costly to, to cool down the air and to dehumidify the air as well. There are challenges with bringing in outside air. There is a large area of the country where it may not be as costly as it is on the more extreme hot and cold areas.
[00:29:04] Jeff: If it's a nice sunny and 75 degrees outside, and humidity's not very high. It's actually really efficient to bring in that air, because it might be exactly the conditions that you're looking for in the space are very close to it. Again, it's going to vary day by day and by region.
[00:29:20] Dominique: Can you talk to us about some of the innovations that Trane might be doing in this space? Are our control systems today able to help customers optimize for air quality and efficiency?
[00:29:34] Jeff: They are, and I think we've had that capability in the past. However, I think we have evolved our strategies and our technologies, uh, over the last couple of years. So previously a lot of focus on temperature and humidity.
[00:29:50] Jeff: That really drove our decisions on when we wanted to bring an outside air and, and when we did not with more awareness around the contaminants we talked about earlier, CO2 and particulate matter and VOCs. I think there's more that we can do around identifying more of these contaminants in the outdoor air and comparing them to indoor air values and making a better decision.
[00:30:15] Jeff: We have solutions now that can do that. That’s really critical in a system like this, you don't want to be making manual, you know, decisions based off of constant readings yourself. There's control systems that can do the math for you and help improve the efficiency of the space, while also controlling the air quality in the space.
[00:30:35] Dominique: Thank you so much for that, Jeff, for my last question, I'm going to appeal a little bit to your imagination and the imagination of our listeners. Let's imagine that 2030, if all of these technologies get implemented at a scale that you would like to see, how do you envision the future?
[00:30:57] Jeff: I'll start with the outdoor air piece first. So I, you know, I live in Tampa Bay. A lot of people are moving to the Tampa area, right? With remote work options available. I think we're one of the highest growing states in, in the U.S. That's putting more cars on the road, that's putting more pollution in the air outdoors, so in the future, definitely ways to control that.
[00:31:17] Jeff: I know there's more efficient vehicles that are available. Think about the water, water's, you know, key to Florida, right? You know, clean water is important, you know, for our community and our state. But back to the air, bringing that back inside, we talk about the energy, you know, ERVs, the, the energy recovery ventilators.
[00:31:35] Jeff: Seeing more adoption, not only in the commercial space. I think there's a huge opportunity in the residential space. Can we take some of these technologies and start to incorporate them in all of our indoor spaces to not only ensure clean indoor air quality, but also help reduce the energy consumption of all of our buildings, residential and commercial.
[00:31:55] Jeff: Ultimately that's gonna lead to fewer carbon emissions and cleaner air. I think it's, it's you know, a big happy circle, right? If we can do it right all the way around, I think it's just gonna continue to get better and better. You know, 2030, I think, yeah, we've got an opportunity to really make a big change here and, and improve the space and hopefully, you know, we're in that right direction by 2030.
[00:32:18] Dominique: So many great insights from Pierre, Sara and Jeff there. A big thank you to all of them for joining me in today's episode, and thank you for listening. If you want to find out more information on our conversation today, make sure you check out the show notes and remember to rate and review Healthy Spaces in your favorite podcast app.
[00:32:39] Dominique: Join us next time when we'll be taking a look at the technologies influencing the homes of the future, all while helping us thrive inside of them.
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