With Malaysia having entered the endemic phase from April 1, many companies have summoned their employees to be back on-site. This was, of course, was met with mixed reactions for obvious reasons but one thing all officegoers should actually pay attention to is the air quality in the workplace – is it really safe?
Employees spend a significant amount of time indoors, where gases, chemicals and other forms of pollutants (otherwise known as particulate matter or PM) can cause headaches, eye irritation, allergies and fatigue. Hence, it is important that both employers and employees keep a few things regarding office air quality in mind, especially since it does play a pivotal role in the health of office workers.
In this article, we will explain particulate matter in the office, where it comes from, how it affects your employees’ health and what steps you can take to implement good air quality.
What is particulate matter?
Particulate matter (PM) is a range of particles of dust, dirt and liquids that become suspended in the air. Some of these fine particulate matter requires an electron microscope to be seen, but the particulate matter that employees or office workers have been more exposed to is like soot, smoke, dust, or dirt, which is large enough to see. These are known as PM10.
Despite the “largeness” of the particulate matter, it is actually not that dangerous – especially when you’re comparing it to PM2.5, also known as fine particles, which are capable of getting into your lungs and bloodstream.
What are the effects of particulate matter on health?
It has been established that pesky particulate matter can get deep into your lungs, while some may even get into your bloodstream and cause serious health problems.
For example, short-term exposure to PM10 is associated with the worsening of existing respiratory symptoms, while short-term exposure to PM2.5 is associated with premature mortality, increased hospital admissions for heart or lung diseases, acute and chronic bronchitis, asthma attacks, emergency room visits, respiratory symptoms and restricted activity days.
To make matters worse, a study by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health showed that PM exposure even led to impaired cognitive abilities!
Where does particular matter come from?
Now that we know the side effects of PM exposure, it’s important to know where they come from – especially at the office. These three activities, which are commonly carried out at the office, are considered some of the top “hot spots” from which particulate matter stems:
This may seem a little contradictory, especially since vacuuming technically “cleans” the office space. Unfortunately, it is the opposite – vacuuming can actually increase particulate matter. Particulate matter is exuded during vacuuming because contaminants are agitated in the process of trying to get rid of them. Particulates may also be shed by the vacuum motor itself.
2. Cooking or microwaving
Home cooking can release particulate matter indoors, especially if you’re frying or sautéing. But of course, unless you’re running a cooking school, your employees wouldn’t be cooking their lunch in a pan at the office. However, even the act of microwaving food can release fine particulate matter.
A 2013 study, for instance, found that microwaved popcorn produced 300-800 times the PM2.5 emissions of microwaved water. Interestingly, replacing the foil-lined original package with a brown paper bag significantly reduced the peak concentration of particulate matter – so perhaps this is something to remember the next time you use a microwave.
3. Printing or copying papers
A 2019 study showed that indoor concentrations for all air pollutants were higher than those measured outdoors and that they increased during working hours. This was due to the presence of a variety of electronics such as printers, copier machines and other equipment in office buildings that may present a high health risk because of their particulate matter emissions.
The results also showed many health effects like eye irritation, dry throat, runny nose, sneezing, cough, tiredness, irritability, difficulty concentrating, headache, dizziness, and skin irritation.
Why office air quality matters now, more than ever
Proper maintenance of indoor cooling and ventilation systems has become all the more pertinent now that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is found to spread through the air.
In Malaysia, a team of researchers from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) carried out studies showing that the COVID-19 can remain suspended in the air for up to eight hours in enclosed spaces without proper ventilation and can spread as far as six metres in aerosol particles.
Based on their study, the researchers discovered that enclosed spaces without any circulation of fresh air and with air-conditioning operations that recycle the same air can facilitate the transmission of the virus in the air via aerosols.
Adding to this finding is another Harvard University study suggesting that, “long-term exposure to air pollution increases vulnerability to experiencing the most severe COVID-19 outcomes.”
How can employers reduce particulate matter at the office?
If the first thing that comes to mind is to populate your office with indoor plants, you’re not exactly wrong. Many plants are known as nature’s air purifiers because they can absorb toxins from the air, but be aware that mould often grows around plants that are watered often.
That aside, it’s entirely impossible to ban your employees from microwaving their meals, using the printers or even cleaning the office so what’s there to do?
Well, the simplest yet most effective (with regards to cost, energy and time) is the adoption of enhanced ventilation systems.
Ever wondered why your employees are always sniffing and sneezing in your office? You can blame your HVAC Air Ducts for that. You can easily solve this issue by installing cold plasma air purifiers such as our PureAir+ Cold Plasma Ions System into the ductwork of the HVAC system.
Image: White Umbrella
The cost of running our air purifiers is very little and they will add zero extra strain to the HVAC unit itself. Plus, with White Umbrella’s cold plasma technology, our PureAir+ system can sterilise indoor areas quickly and effectively, and destroy airborne viruses, mould and bacteria at the same time.
What’s more, is that the cold plasma air purification process will also eliminate any mould and mould spore production coming from the condensers and drip pans within the unit, and effectively capture any outdoor pollutants that are circulated throughout the vent.
Just this simple solution will solve many problems at the office, but of course, there are other White Umbrella products that you can discover and utilise to better protect the health of your employees.
Speak to the White Umbrella team today and we’d be more than happy to help you find the best solution to suit your concerns and budgets.