This is the first article in a series looking at the effect of built environment on air quality and vice versa. Air quality has always been an issue. Effects have generally been localised to a discrete area for example cooking smoke, bushfires and volcanic ash. These emissions while causing atmospheric pollution were small enough to be absorbed by plants and algae or broken down to inert substances.

Since the industrial revolution we have exceed the capacity of these natural processes to limit the build up of pollution. This has not generally been seen as an issue given the homogenous distribution of the pollution globally has reduced its’ visible and short term environmental impact.

Since the acknowledgement that CFC’s were causing significant environmental damage and the successful global response to mitigate their usage we have turned to the substantially more complicated issue of greenhouse gas emissions and their potential to render the planet uninhabitable by humans.

With regard to the built environment a similar scenario has been at play but has received much less attention. In particularly the build up of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s) emitted by practically all processed building materials.

According to the American EPA VOC’s have been shown to cause health problem including conjunctival irritation, nose and throat discomfort, headache, allergic skin reaction, dyspnea, declines in serum cholinesterase levels, nausea, emesis, epistaxis, fatigue, dizziness.

The increased concentration of VOC’s has not necessarily been caused by the increased usage of emitting material. The move from naturally ventilated buildings to air conditioning and the improved weather sealing of buildings have both reduced the air change rate within buildings and consequently the indoor air quality.

These internal and external air quality issues will be investigated in subsequent articles to see how they affect current and future building design.

Pic flikr user Vancityallie

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