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Breathe easy

Who remembers when most of the world thought it would be ridiculous for humans to pay for drinking water? My kids don’t, but 20 years ago, bottled water and water refilling stations were the exception rather than the rule.

I don’t know what exactly happened but once we started buying drinking water, there was no going back. In third world countries like the Philippines where water districts often delivered brown colored water, drinking from the tap became unimaginable. I remember, when we traveled to Japan, one of the first things I did to impress my kids when we got to the hotel was to drink from the tap and it blew their minds that such a thing was possible.

It is now normal for most Filipino households to have a budget for drinking water that is often purchased from a water purifying and refilling station and usually delivered to our homes. Nobody drinks from the tap and the privileged few have their own water purifying equipment.

I bring up our changed drinking water habits because these days, it is high time for us to start thinking about the air that we breathe, especially in enclosed public spaces and work spaces. If before we took drinking water for granted, the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us it is now time for us to put more thought into the quality of the air we breathe.

For decades we have taken indoor air quality for granted. The only thing that mattered, especially to Filipinos is the indoor temperature of the air and that is why we spend so much on air conditioning. We didn’t think about air circulation, air quality, and how the design of rooms and air conditioning units make it easy for airborne pathogens to persist in enclosed spaces.

The thing about air conditioners for most residential, office, and small commercial applications, is that they do not introduce fresh air into the spaces where air temperature is being conditioned. Unless a door or window is opened, the occupants of most rooms breathe the same recirculated air over and over. Unless someone farts in the room, this system of air conditioning was ok during the pre-pandemic days because there is generally enough oxygen for everyone.

However, as many of us must have noticed, we now have a problem with enclosed air conditioned spaces due to the arguably airborne nature of the Covid-19 virus. The problem with the current design of rooms and air conditioning units is when the air in a room is not changed or circulated properly, the chances of infection becomes greater.

The easiest to understand analogy for the infectiousness of a poorly ventilated room is a constantly farting officemate. If we had an office mate who constantly farts, the officemates would be forced to either open the doors and windows to let fresh air in and the farty smell out, or kick the offending farter out of the room. Replace the fart with a less smelly but more deadly and infectious Covid-19 virus and the importance of changing the way rooms are ventilated becomes urgently clear.

Dealing with a flatulent officemate is easy because of the giveaway smell. Even if the fart is the strong silent type, everyone instantly knows that the offending gas is circulating in the room and immediate action can be taken to address the inconvenient but relatively harmless issue.

However, when it comes to airborne unscented viruses like Covid-19, things become more complicated and that is why these days, more than 15 months into the pandemic, government and the private sector should’ve taken decisive steps to make our air conditioned spaces safer by improving ventilation and air circulation standards.

It is mind-blowing to think that, after all this time, basically nothing has been done to address this serious issue that should be critical to any safe restart of an economy as battered as the Philippines.

Big buildings with centralized air conditioning units should have an easy solution to the issue because the building manager should be able to adjust the mix of fresh and recirculated air to safer and healthier levels. The energy costs of cooling more air may go up, but the occupants of those buildings will be better protected from airborne viruses like Covid-19. It is unfortunate that most of these buildings such as malls seem to be addressing the issue by turning up the temperature to “safer” levels only but still failing to adjust the ratio of fresh air to stale air.

For smaller buildings and rooms, the only solution right now is for a window or door to be kept open or be opened at regular intervals so the air in the room can be changed. This will also raise the temperature of the room every time warm outside air is introduced but these measures will also expel the stale, potentially virus-laden air from the room. If this is going to be part of our new normal, AC units will have to be redesigned to allow the introduction of fresh air or windows will have to be retrofitted to allow semi-automated opening or closing for air changes to take place. Unfortunately for those of us who have to go to work in such spaces, absolutely nothing has been done to improve the safety and quality of the air we breathe.

If we changed our ways 20 odd years ago to ensure we drink safer water, we have to take a long, hard look at the air we breathe and make it safer. Investing on AC units with better ventilation or retrofitting rooms to have simple ventilation systems using one or two of the many eternally closed windows of most enclosed spaces has to become the norm. If we can regularly budget P20 on a 5-gallon container of drinking water, then a 1-time spend of a few thousand pesos to improve a room’s ventilation and make it safer from airborne pathogens should be a good investment after everything we’ve been through over the past year.

After more than a year of adapting to the Covid-19 pandemic, our only safety measure remains the marginally useful face shield. Do we have to wait for some crony to bag the nationwide room-ventilation retrofitting contract before we do anything about this?*

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