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Let’s talk about the quality of air you breathe at office

Is the quality of the air you breathe indoors good? At work, it’s a question that companies need to pay heed to

There’s a growing number of epidemiological studies to indicate that even short-term exposure to ambient fine particulate matter (PM2.5) can cause cognitive dysfunction.
There’s a growing number of epidemiological studies to indicate that even short-term exposure to ambient fine particulate matter (PM2.5) can cause cognitive dysfunction. (iStockphoto)

It’s a routine that Preethi Gavagal, a senior staff engineer in her 30s at a leading technology company, has become used to. After entering her workplace at Whitefield, Bengaluru, known for its tech parks, she begins to sneeze.

Meanwhile, in Gurugram, Vikram S., 44, keeps falling sick, often down with a cough and cold, and sometimes a fever. Even his colleagues at a multinational bank in Gurugram keep taking sick leaves every now and then. “Most of them report sick with respiratory problems,” he says.

While such symptoms could be passed off as flu or general health issues, experts believe such cases, especially among office workers, are due to exposure to poor indoor air quality (IAQ).

Also read: Exposure to traffic-related air pollution increases blood pressure: Study

How healthy is the air at your office? This question has lingered after covid measures have been dismantled and employees have to report to work daily. For, studies have linked IAQ to productivity. According to Satyanarayana Mysore, head of department and consultant in pulmonology, at Bengaluru’s Manipal Hospital, Old Airport Road, there’s a growing number of epidemiological studies to indicate that even short-term exposure to ambient fine particulate matter (PM2.5) can cause cognitive dysfunction. “Any impairment of cognition will adversely affect productivity. Indoor air quality is often neglected, the reason being that not many are aware of indoor air pollution. Currently, deforestation, mushrooming of buildings, the age of the buildings—the older the building more the radon (odourless, invisible, radioactive gas released from rocks, soil and water) exposure since the walls will emit it, and poor ventilation amplify bad air quality.”

In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, Joseph G. Allen, associate professor of exposure assessment science and director of the Healthy Buildings program at Harvard University, noted: “There is scientifically proven link between better indoor air quality and higher-order cognitive function across people seek out and utilise information, and how they respond to crises in a work environment. In short, the air your employees breathe impacts how they perform, and the only way to know if you’re in the optimal range is to measure it.”

Clearing the air

At Epsco, a pan-India company offering HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning) duct cleaning services apart from other similar services, there has been significant shift in the way their services are viewed. Harish Rao at Epsco Chennai says that when he joined the business in 2014, it used to be an uphill task to convince prospective clients about their cleaning services. “I used to plead with them to at least allow for a robotic inspection of the duct. Invariably, they would panic on seeing the videos and ask for the cleaning to be done,” Rao says. The cool air and hot air clash causing condensation at the grills which, when left unattended, breed fungus and mildew within the duct pipes. There’s another alarming pollutant as well. “In order to suppress the noise of the cooling system, there’s usually at least 10m of fiberglass acoustic installation starting from the duct’s grill,” he explains. “Due to wear and tear, fiberglass particles get strewn out from the grills into the indoor workspace. It is carcinogenic and hazardous.” Dirty ducts, according to him, are the main causes of allergies, eye infections, increased BP, headaches, and upper respiratory infections.

Dr. Mysore says the best way to have good IAQ is to ensure collateral air circulation. “Having air purifiers alone isn’t enough,” he says. Rao points out that most office buildings in cities are located off major roads, which means the outside air isn’t fresh. Cities like New Delhi, Bengaluru, Mumbai and Kolkata are known to have a poor air quality index.

Sanjay Varadarajan, senior consultant in project management and civil engineering, advises that natural greenery should be incorporated within the layout itself. “Pantries, breakout areas and cafeterias should have plenty of indoor plants and even green walls,” he says. “If there’s access to the terrace of the building, then that too has to be well-greened.” One significant point that buildings need to look at is the height of the ceiling. “Often, after the false ceiling is put up, the ceiling height is usually about 7ft. When the floor is packed with employees, air becomes heavy at the height of 4’ or 5’. This hot air needs to rise and circulate which is why there must be a minimum ceiling height of 10’. A lot of green buildings have done away with false ceilings for this purpose.”

Some companies have become aware of the importance of IAQ. Alok Aggarwal, managing director and chief executive at Brookfield Properties India, says they prioritise clean air as a fundamental responsibility to their employees. Some company initiatives in offices across nine cities include live IAQ and AQI displays, intelligent multi-sensors, MERV 14+ filtration and green spaces.

At Tata Realty & Infrastructure Ltd, too, there’s increased focus on tracking indoor air quality with the help of high-efficiency filters, green walls, and a strict prohibition on chemicals with high volatile compounds to ensure healthy air. Ritesh Sachdev, head (commercial leasing and asset management), explains: “Our office parks include sustainability features, including microclimate landscaping, insulated walls, and energy-efficient HVAC systems. There’s proactive carbon-dioxide monitoring to maintain optimal conditions for occupant well-being.”

From the employees’ standpoint, it is good to check what processes are in place. With pollution rising across the country, organisations need to be proactive.

Jayanthi Madhukar is a Bengaluru-based writer.

Also read: Air pollution: 4 gadgets, apps to help you track the AQI and breathe better



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