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The pandemic has made the connection between indoor air quality and human health clearer than ever

science.org

Sep 5, 2021

Joseph Allen runs a major public health research project at Harvard University, probing how indoor air quality affects human health and cognition.

A tall, athletic-looking man with a bald head and stylish stubble, Allen directs the Healthy Buildings Program at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, where he studies the effects of toxic gases emitted from furniture, carpets, and paints; stale air; and high levels of carbon dioxide. Years of studies by Allen and others have shown poorly circulated air in buildings impairs our ability to think clearly and creatively. Considering that we spend more than 90% of our lifetimes indoors, those findings have implications for personal well-being—and for businesses concerned about their bottom line.

“Joe has always had a unique understanding of this range of domains—from how buildings work, to environmental exposure assessment, to making connections with health outcomes,” says Brent Stephens, chair of the Department of Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology. “There’s not a tremendous number of people in this world that have worked on that whole spectrum.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, the previously esoteric field of indoor air quality suddenly became the focus of widespread concern. Like many of his colleagues, Allen jumped into the fray, advising school systems, police departments, entertainment companies, the Boston Symphony, and a host of other entities on how to make their indoor air healthier, during the pandemic and afterward.

“COVID really changed the conversation,” says Matt Murray, vice president of leasing at Boston Properties, the largest publicly traded developer in the United States and one of Allen’s consulting clients. Before the pandemic, the company would have to explain to bored executives why they should pay attention to indoor air. “Now, the CEOs are all saying, ‘What filters do you use? How you process the air you bring into the workspace?’” Murray says. Outside air is often the best way to ensure indoor air quality. The recommended exchange rate of four to six room air changes per hour can be achieved by opening windows or tuning the ventilation system.