How better air quality can save lives and boost brainpower

When it comes to health risk factors causing death, the top few are predictable: high blood pressure is number one, then smoking, with high blood sugar and obesity as risk factors four and five. But in third spot is a more surprising risk – air pollution. It’s linked to millions of deaths around the world each year, it can spread diseases like covid, and it diminishes both office productivity and student performance.

Low air quality is damaging to our health

Extended exposure to poor-quality air can be damaging to our lungs and our overall health. Although Aotearoa generally has among the best air quality in the world, we still had over 1,200 premature deaths attributed to air pollution in 2016, as well as hundreds of hospitalisations.

What are the main air polluters in New Zealand? The most well-known pollutant is carbon from vehicle emissions, and pollution is often associated with busy city streets. What’s perhaps less well-known is that indoor fires (wood and coal) are another major local pollutant, producing carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter (tiny inhalable particles of matter). This affects not only people who heat their homes with fires, but also those working around fire, such as staff in open-air kitchens.

Construction and manufacturing are also significant causes of air pollution. Dust from building sites can cause long-term respiratory problems in construction workers, including wood dust, silica dust and particles from synthetic fibres found in products like insulation. Also at risk are workers in manufacturing plants where the processes use chemicals or burn coal; these people may be exposed to sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and high levels of particulate matter.

To prevent some of these health problems, the Government has set national environment standards for air quality. There are also controls in place around specific high-risk activities, including limits on emissions from domestic fires, and codes of practice for air quality management in manufacturing and construction.

How can you measure air quality in your environment?

The only way to accurately understand the air quality in any environment is to measure and monitor it. New Zealand’s councils monitor outdoor air quality at 89 sites across the country, and the data is available online. They use sensors to monitor compliance with the five ambient air quality standards (carbon monoxide, particulate matter under 10 micrometres in diameter, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and ozone). You can also see monitoring in action at Wynyard Quarter’s Innovation Precinct. There, the Monna Smart Bench not only measures air quality, but also traffic density, as well as using solar power to charge devices, e-bikes and scooters.

For indoors, Spark IoT has some ready to go kits to help you ensure you have a Healthy Workspace, whether it’s for an office, learning or factory environment. These monitoring solutions are available via Spark IoT Bridge platform – making it easier for you and your teams to remedy any issues as they arise.

In workplaces with a high risk of carbon monoxide exposure, like manufacturing, commercial kitchens and vehicle service depots, a smart carbon monoxide and fire alarm can be a simple and cost-effective way to monitor for CO, smoke and temperature spikes.

To find out more about IoT Bridge – our platform for making monitoring environments easy, visit here

To request an IoT Trial Kit visit here

Explore national air quality data at LAWA

Find out more about Smart Benches

Read more about IoT on construction sites here

Better air quality boosts learning and productivity

Meeting compliance standards is a good start but improving air quality can achieve much more. Better air quality improves our mental performance and productivity. In school classrooms, research has shown that ventilation rates are directly associated with academic achievement – and when air quality is improved, kids make “measurable progresses in maths and reading."

Additionally, having better ventilation and quality of air at your workplace or school reduces the transmission of airborne viruses like covid and the flu, leading to fewer sick days for employees and students.

Stuffy buildings also have a negative impact on employees’ brains: poor indoor air quality has been shown "beyond reasonable doubt" to decrease productivity. The impact is so significant that the researchers believe employers can recoup the costs of improving air quality in as little as two years. In another study, Harvard researchers found that higher air quality resulted in employees making better decisions and scoring higher on tests.

Read more about the impact of air quality on employee performance at the Harvard Business Review

Compliance, performance, and future readiness

Because air quality has come under the spotlight thanks to the pandemic, it’s been getting more attention both locally and internationally. Dr Siouxsie Wiles has called for a national ventilation scheme, the new Healthy Homes Standards have a ventilation standard for rentals, and the UN has recently published the first global assessment of air pollution legislation. It’s safe to say this is an area that will come under increasing regulatory scrutiny in future.

By monitoring air quality in any environment, you can reduce risks, improve human performance, and make it easier to comply with current and future legislation.

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