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COVID-19 indoor air quality concerns grow as winter approaches

News Channel 3 anchor Lora Painter speaks with Susan Lindemann, Kalamazoo College's facilities management director and chief sustainability officer, about how HVAC systems work. (WWW/Lora Painter)
News Channel 3 anchor Lora Painter speaks with Susan Lindemann, Kalamazoo College's facilities management director and chief sustainability officer, about how HVAC systems work. (WWW/Lora Painter)
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Cold, winter weather could make avoiding coronavirus disease 2019 more difficult for people living in West Michigan.

During the warm summer months, there were options for people to be outside to take-in the expert-recommended fresh air while social distancing to keep COVID-19 at bay. For example, people across West Michigan dined outside, exercised outside and some teachers held classes outside.

But as colder weather forces more people to stay inside, not only for comfort but also for safety, the chance to get that fresh outdoor air changes.

Experts said that might increase the risk of contracting COVID-19.

"Since around this February, there were real questions about the virus particles lasting in the air," said Michael Pinto, an indoor air quality expert with Wonder Makers in Kalamazoo. "We use to think the particles didn't travel far — that's where the six-foot distance rule came from. But now, we do think viral particles can move through air. To prevent this, we should get outdoor air."

Researchers at the United States Environmental Protection Agency said there is growing evidence COVID-19 can remain airborne for longer times and farther distances than originally thought. In addition to close contact with infected people and contaminated surfaces, there is a possibility that spread of COVID-19 might occur via airborne particles in indoor environments.

The EPA said strong ventilation indoors should join handwashing, mask wearing and social distancing as measures to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus.

Researchers at the EPA said COVID-19 is thought to spread mainly through close contact from person to person. But the researchers also said in the report that it is possible the spread of COVID-19 could happen indoors even beyond the recommended six feet distance often associated with the concept of social distancing.

"Air conditioning recirculates air, which could push around contaminants," Pinto said. "Introducing outdoor air into the system is important."

Introducing fresh outdoor air might not be easy. Experts said some buildings might lack enough accessible windows to allow for outside are to flow into rooms. And when opening windows isn't an option in the winter, older heating ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems ight struggle with handling the demands.

"The colder it gets outside, the more you have to return air from inside the building in order to condition it at the level we need," said Susan Lindemann, Kalamazoo College's facilities management director and chief sustainability officer.

"We have to think about humidity. The dryness in the air is also a concern," Lindemann said. "So it's more difficult, the colder and dryer it gets outside; the more difficult it is for the equipment to do what it needs to do and that's why coming inside poses more of a risk to us."

Research shows many schools around the country are dealing with aging air conditioning, heating and circulation systems that work poorly or not at all because maintenance and replacement were deferred due to tight budgets. One study found an estimated 41% of school districts nationally need to update or replace those systems in at least half of their schools.

Lindemann also said it's worth noting that bringing in more fresh air necessarily means a great deal more energy consumption, which can be difficult to swallow for those of us who are deeply invested in environmental sustainability.

"Modern HVAC systems are really designed to be more energy efficient by returning more air from the space," Lindemann said. "Typically, you would only bring in as much fresh air as you needed to dilute the CO2 in the space and there's a monitor that will watch and determine occupancy based on the CO2. In a situation like this we want to bring in more fresh air all the time and that uses a lot of energy."

"This is taxing our energy system to be able to bring in all this fresh air," Lindemann said. "We hope that this is a very temporary situation because this is not how we want to operate our systems in the long term."

Among several detailed suggestions, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggested businesses consider taking steps to improve ventilation in their buildings, in consultation with an HVAC professional, based on local environmental conditions (temperature/humidity) and ongoing community transmission in the area.

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