Originally published on Sourceable, by Jock Gammon, 8 May 2019
In school, we learnt the role trees and plants have in producing the oxygen we breathe. We came to understand that forests do more than produce oxygen, they also capture and remove vast amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere via photosynthesis and other natural processes[i]
485 La Trobe Street, Melbourne
Then, as we began spending more and more time in cities, we discovered that the benefits of plants could creep past the tree line and inside our cities and buildings. Not only could they capture CO2 and transform it into oxygen, plants could also remedy some typically modern problems, like the urban heat island effect[ii] and sick building syndrome[iii].
Now, we are finding out that it isn’t the plant alone delivering these benefits but the microcosm around it. And doesn’t it seem obvious? The natural world is symbiotic, nothing is wasted and no process results in a dead end. But let’s pause for a minute before we unpack the science and explore why air quality matters in the first place.
Why air quality matters
Good air quality is essential to our health and wellbeing. On average, a person inhales about 14,000 litres of air every day. The presence of contaminants in this air can adversely affect people’s health.[iv]
Some of the main culprits we’re breathing in include particulate matter (PM), ozone (O3), CO2, sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and benzo(a)pyrene (BaP). In high concentrations, these gaseous chemicals can lead to headaches, eye, nose and throat irritation, asthma, reduced lung function and cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cardiovascular disease and reproductive problems. Infants and older people, as well as those with diabetes, pre-existing respiratory and heart conditions are all particularly vulnerable.[v]. In fact, air pollution is the world’s largest single environmental health risk, causing one in eight deaths in 2012.[vi]
Beyond adverse health effects, poor air quality is also a significant economic issue. A 2016 World Bank study found air pollution cost the global economy about $225 billion in lost labour income and about $5 trillion in welfare losses each year. That is about the size of the gross domestic product of India, Canada, and Mexico combined.[vii]
The call is coming from inside the house
At home and indoors now, the CSIRO has estimated that the cost of poor indoor air quality in Australia may be as high as $12 billion per year.[viii]
Gaseous pollutants and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are emitted from everyday objects found indoors like carpets, soft furnishings and electronic equipment. Even the greenest office fit-outs, VOCs are introduced through human activities and pollutant sources including deodorants, perfume, computers and printers. Left unchecked, these build to make us sick and impair cognitive function.[ix]
Given that Australians spend more than 90 percent of their time indoors where pollutant concentrations can equal or exceed outdoor levels,[x] we must address indoor air quality urgently. The effect spreads beyond the health of individual building occupants and hurts us all: socially, economically and, of course, environmentally.
Getting back to the science
Lendlease head office, Barangaroo
‘People who work in well-ventilated offices with below-average levels of indoor pollutants and carbon dioxide (CO2) have significantly higher cognitive functioning scores – in crucial areas such as responding to a crisis or developing strategy – than those who work in offices with typical levels’.[xi] How much higher? Well, researchers found that the largest improvements occurred in crisis response (between 97 and 131 per cent improvement); strategy (between 183 and 288 per cent) and information use (between 172 and 299 per cent). Imagine the value of that kind of improvement in your workplace? Or in schools or hospitals? Amongst only some of the things, ‘a breath of fresh air’ or two could deliver improved test scores, more effective project execution and better surgical outcomes.
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[i] US Environmental Protection Agency. (2010.) ‘How does green infrastructure benefit the environment?’ fact sheet.
[ii] Department of Environment and Primary Industries for the State of Victoria, Growing Green Guide: A guide to green roofs, walls and facades in Melbourne and Victoria, Australia, Melbourne, 2014
[iv] Ministry for the Environment. (2014.) Air domain report 2014 online. ‘Why good air quality is important.’ New Zealand.
[v] Ministry for the Environment. (2014.) Air domain report 2014 online. ‘Why good air quality is important.’ New Zealand.
[vi] World Health Organization (2014.) News release: 7 million premature deaths annually linked to air pollution
[vii] The World Bank and Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, University of Washington, Seattle. (2016.) The Cost of Air Pollution: Strengthening the Economic Case for Action. p.vii
[viii] Brown, S.K. (1998.) ‘Beating the $12 Billion Cost of Polluted Air’. CSIRO Press Release, Ref 98/55.
[ix] Allen,J. G., MacNaughton, P., Satish, U., Santanam, S., Vallarino, J., Spengler, J.D. (2015.) ‘Green buildings and cognitive function’, Environmental Health Perspectives. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Center for Health and the Global Environment.
[x] Department of Environment. (2011.) Australia: State of the Environment. ‘Ambient air quality: Indoor air quality’
[xi] Department of Environment. (2011.) Australia: State of the Environment. ‘Ambient air quality: Indoor air quality’