Private sector steps into the breach to provide acceptable building air quality 

Under Eskom’s current plans, emissions from the national power plants would be responsible for 79 500 air pollution-related deaths between 2025 until the plants’ planned end-of-life. (Image: Supplied)

In an effort to keep the lights on, Eskom is burning coal at an unprecedented rate and it’s unlikely to change until at least the end of the decade. The private sector is once again stepping into the breach with many businesses looking for ways to improve the air their staff breathe during working hours. Advances in air-purification technology is ensuring they can do this cost effectively, not only ensuring better air quality but also reducing their exposure to a myriad of airborne diseases.

The Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) has released projections based on its modelling showing that, under Eskom’s current plans, emissions from the national power plants would be responsible for 79 500 air pollution-related deaths between 2025 until the plants’ planned end-of-life. 

In addition, other avoidable health implications include 140 000 asthma emergency room visits, 5 900 new cases of childhood asthma, 57 000 premature births, 35 million days of missed work, and 50 000 years lived with disability.

Swiss technology company IQAir has released its 2022 World Air Quality report, which tracks the PM2.5 measurements. PM2.5 are concentrations of fine particles of air pollutants considered the most dangerous, including sulphates, nitrates, black carbon and ammonium. 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines show South Africa’s concentration of PM2.5 in 2022 was 23.4 μg/m3, which is nearly five times more than the WHO guideline. 

“It’s up to South Africans to take control of the air they breathe. While we wait for government to take a more sustainable approach to air quality, the private sector can take action within our workspaces,” says Edward Hector, MD of the SFI Group.

It’s not looking great indoors either 

Hector explains, however, that most buildings are adding to the air quality challenges. “Simply providing an increase in ventilation rates will not address the issue and presents its own problems. In many cases, the air-conditioning system and ductwork aren’t properly maintained and cleaned, with viruses, bacteria and mould building up over time. Some reports show that 65 percent of ducts are contaminated, with ten percent infected with pathogenic bacteria. Even clean ducts can’t address the many chemical agents being circulated indoors coming from perfumes, aerosols, cleaning products and even airborne fibreglass particles. Considering we spend 90 percent of our time in indoor spaces, that’s six to eight hours a day breathing in an unknown amount of chemicals and pathogens,” he explains.  

Technologies to help us breathe easier 

The Covid-19 pandemic placed a spotlight on indoor air quality, and especially on how to minimise the spread of dangerous pathogens.

Two technologies are gaining popularity because of their effectiveness and relative ease of application: 

Photocatalytic oxidation (PCO)

First tested and used by NASA in the 1970s, PCO is a chemical effect produced when a light source penetrates a surface that works as a semiconductor material or photocatalyst. The photocatalyst absorbs the UV lights and creates oxygen particles thanks to a mix of metals including Titanium Dioxide (TIO2). Several tests have demonstrated that photocatalytic technology produced by TIO2 can reduce viruses and bacteria by 99% after 24 hours of usage, and radically reduce mould and airborne diseases, serving as a powerful disinfectant. The PCO air purifier devices are installed inside the air-handling unit or duct, purifying air as it flows through the entire ventilation system.

Ultraviolet-C radiation or UVC

UVC light fixtures are an effective way to inactivate viruses in a building’s air-handling system. UVC products are specifically engineered for retrofitting into existing air-handling units, and swab tests are conducted before and after installation to demonstrate the efficacy of reducing any microbial count. “UVC is effective in inactivating pathogens such as Covid-19, Influenza A and B, Staph, Legionella, and Tuberculosis. Improving the air quality helps businesses reduce sick days and boost productivity. It also improves HVAC efficiencies by improving heat exchange and airflow, reducing energy consumption by as much as 20 percent. Building managers are keen on the technology because they can achieve measurable return on investment within just one to three years,” Hector shares. 

Conclusion

“The future of our grid might be uncertain, but there are proactive measures the private sector can take to ensure our workers are at least breathing clean, safe air. Fortunately, the technologies that deliver the best quality air also deliver some real business benefits, so the choice should not be a difficult one,” Hector says.

Visit the official COVID-19 government website to stay informed: sacoronavirus.co.za