The importance of indoor air quality (IAQ)

Discover the importance of indoor air quality and how your office can make improvements to create the perfect working environment.

With the average Brit spending 90% of their day indoors, it is not only a legal requirement that business owners ensure they provide employees with sufficient fresh air, but there is a huge benefit to it as well.

Studies have ranked indoor air pollution as one of the top five environmental issues we face today. The importance of indoor air quality in your home, school, or place of work is critical because of its direct impact on the quality of your life. In particular, if you suffer from many health issues (i.e. allergies or asthma).

To shed some light on the topic, we discuss the importance of indoor air quality and the effects a poor supply can have on people and businesses.

What is indoor air quality?

Indoor air quality (IAQ) is a term referring to the air quality within and around buildings and structures.

It’s important to understand how it impacts indoor environments and control common pollutants to minimise indoor health issues.


How does IAQ affect us?

Indoor air quality is a real talking point today, thanks to a growing body of research highlighting the impact poor indoor air quality has on people’s health. According to the Global Burden of Disease study 2.3 million deaths were attributed to indoor pollution in 2019.

Poor indoor air quality can be caused by a combination of pollutants and most pollutants affecting IAQ come from sources inside buildings, although some originate outdoors too.

Indoor sources (sources within buildings themselves):

  • Combustion sources in indoor settings, including tobacco, wood and coal heating and cooking appliances, and fireplaces, can release harmful combustion by products such as carbon monoxide and particulate matter directly into the indoor environment.
  • Cleaning supplies, paints, insecticides, and other commonly used products introduce many different chemicals, including volatile organic compounds, directly into the indoor air.
  • Building materials are potential sources, whether through degrading materials (e.g., asbestos fibres released from building insulation) or new materials (e.g., chemical off-gassing from pressed wood products). Other substances in indoor air are of natural origins, such as radon, mould, and pet dander.

Outdoor sources

Outdoor air pollutants can enter buildings through open doors, open windows, ventilation systems, and cracks in structures. Some pollutants come indoors through building foundations. For instance, radon forms in the ground as naturally occurring uranium in rocks and soils decays. The radon can then enter buildings through cracks or gaps in structures.

  • Harmful smoke from chimneys can re-enter environments to pollute the air in the building and neighbourhood. In areas with contaminated groundwater or soils, volatile chemicals can enter buildings through the same process.
  • Volatile chemicals in water supplies can also enter indoor air when building occupants use the water (e.g., during showering and cooking).
  • Finally, when people enter buildings, they can inadvertently bring in soil and dust on their shoes and clothing from the outdoors, along with pollutants that adhere to those particles.

Other factors affecting indoor air quality

In addition, several other factors affect indoor air quality, including the air exchange rate, outdoor climate, weather conditions, and occupant behaviour.

The air exchange rate with the outdoors is an important factor in determining indoor air pollutant concentrations. The air exchange rate is affected by the design, construction, and operating parameters of buildings and is ultimately a function of:

  • Infiltration – Air that flows into structures through openings, joints, and cracks in walls, floors, and ceilings and around windows and doors
  • Natural ventilation – Air that flows through opened windows and doors)
  • Mechanical ventilation – Air that is forced indoors or vented outdoors by ventilation devices, such as fans or air handling units

Outdoor climate and weather conditions combined with occupant behaviour can also affect indoor air quality. Weather conditions influence whether building occupants keep windows open or closed and whether they operate air conditioners, humidifiers, or heaters, all of which can affect indoor air quality.

Certain climatic conditions can increase the potential for indoor moisture and mould growth if not controlled by adequate ventilation or air conditioning.

It’s safe to say there are quite a few sources that can affect indoor air quality.

The importance of indoor air quality

According to studies, the level of indoor pollutants is usually two to five times higher than that of outdoor levels. In some cases, indoor pollutants can be 100 times more damaging than outdoor equivalents.

Good indoor air quality in workplaces enables an ideal working environment for staff to complete tasks with a clear head and, in turn, is likely to lead to a greater standard of work being done.

Poor air quality can lead to coughs, eye irritations and headaches in the short term, and possibly more serious long-term problems if exposure to indoor air pollution is continuous.

Exposure to indoor air pollution could lead to prolonged illnesses which would result in a person needing to take time off work, thus hampering productivity. Indeed, poor air quality results in a loss of productivity estimated to be worth tens of billions of pounds worldwide.

Poor quality air from sources such as dirty air vents or filters can affect your health negatively in several ways, immediately and in the long term. We recommend you spend 2 minutes refreshing yourself on how often you should clean or change air filters. It could save a life.

Immediate health effects

Some of the health effects that can quickly take hold of poor air quality include headaches, dizziness, and fatigue. It could also lead to irritation of your eyes, nose, and throat.

These health effects are similar to those from colds and other viral conditions, so it is important to note the timing and location of these symptoms occurring. If the symptoms fade when you leave the building, it is almost certain that the poor air quality is to blame, and then action needs to be taken to eliminate the problem.

The probability of an immediate reaction to poor air quality will depend on several factors, such as your age and whether you have any existing medical conditions.

Long-term health effects

Some effects may only come to light in the years after prolonged exposure to poor ventilation, including respiratory conditions, heart disease and cancer. In some cases, these problems can be fatal.

However, it can be difficult to pinpoint a specific concentration or period of exposure that is likely to produce health problems from poor ventilation, while the probability of significant long-term health effects will vary from person to person.

How to improve indoor air quality

Air conditioning plays a crucial role in helping to keep a building’s temperature comfortable and productive all year round, but without including adequate ventilation, the internal climate may actually be affecting the health of occupants.

Many of the UK’s older commercial buildings were not built with air conditioning in mind. Therefore, they don’t have a system in place or rely on old units that are ineffective.

Once air conditioning is installed, windows that were openable previously must now be shut for the space temperature to cool down effectively and efficiently. But no thought is rarely given to the quality of the internal air that is being conditioned once this change takes place.

If the indoor air is still very poor, then it will still be as poor after it has been cooled by the air conditioning system.

Unsurprisingly, the UK’s Health & Safety Executive found that 30-50% of newly constructed or renovated buildings showed at least some element of Sick Building Syndrome (SBS), a condition where otherwise healthy individuals experience symptoms of physical distress in the workplace.

Up to 85% of the occupants within these classified ‘sick’ buildings experienced symptoms of SBS. The culprit? Poor indoor air quality.

Finding the right solution

How do you ensure that building occupants are provided with enough clean air at a comfortable temperature to be both productive and healthy, whilst using the least amount of energy possible?

This is where an MVHR (Mechanical Ventilation with Heat Recovery Unit) working in tandem with air conditioning can play such an effective role. There are various types of ventilation systems in buildings viable for improving IAQ, but MVHR is definitely the most efficient.

MVHRs are specifically designed to deliver fresh air to a building whilst simultaneously extracting stale air in the most energy-efficient way. They do this using advanced heat recovery technology.

As stale air is extracted from a building, up to 80% of the temperature of the outgoing air is recovered and transferred to the incoming fresh air, keeping the building at a comfortable temperature and helping reduce overall energy costs.

Discover 5 other reasons why you should invest in ventilation installation.

More than just a breath of fresh air

When you consider that 90% of business operating costs are staff-related, applying small changes to the working environment can either help or hinder business growth and success.

We’ve already seen various health implications associated with poor indoor air quality, ranging from respiratory problems to discomfort and even time off work.

It has been estimated that businesses can achieve an 11% increase in productivity thanks to the reduction of airborne pollutants and the delivery of fresh air to workstations.

But it’s not just about productivity. At the end of the day, businesses have a duty of care to look after their employees and ensure they are working in an environment that doesn’t adversely impact their health.

Using the correct MVHR system means that moisture, humidity and temperature are always kept in balance to deliver a comfortable internal environment that reduces the likelihood of employees suffering from airborne illnesses.

With many new buildings designed to be airtight to help improve energy efficiency, the idea of installing more technology that is constantly running can be seen as counterproductive.

However, because MVHR units recover the heat or cooling that would normally be lost as part of the ventilation process, energy wastage is in fact reduced in airtight buildings and an estimated 30% can be saved on heating or cooling bills.

Couple this with an MVHR system’s thermal efficiency of 95% and you can save an additional 30% on overall running costs, deliver excellent energy efficiency, and provide a healthy environment for your building occupants.

Leave your indoor air quality testing to the experts

If you’re unsure whether your indoor air quality is up to par, contact us. At Mid-Tech, we are specialists at recommending, installing, and maintaining equipment that can improve your:

  • Safety
  • Comfort
  • Office indoor air quality

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