Indoor air quality worsened in the UK, Europe and US over a year of lockdown

Image credit: Betta Living, CC BY-NC 2.0 license.

Air quality technology firm Airthings says indoor air quality has become worse during the lockdowns

COVID-19 lockdowns have led to reduced travel and emissions, and so it appears, improved outdoor air quality, with indicators such as IQAir’s 2020 World Air Quality Report showing that 84% of nations reported improved air quality compared to 2019. However, the same cannot be said for indoor air quality. Last year, we reported a sharp increase in indoor CO2 and airborne chemicals (Volatile Organic Compounds or VOCs) due to the lockdowns (read the report here). As homes have taken on the dual functionality of being both personal living spaces at the same time as being office and school spaces, good indoor air quality is not only central to our health, but our productivity.

Now, a year later, we have completed further analysis to appraise whether poor indoor air quality persisted into the rest of 2020.

Average CO2 levels in the United States and Europe

Average CO2 levels in Norway, Germany, and the UK

As shown on the live graphs above there were higher levels of CO2 and airborne chemicals (VOCs) in both Europe and the United States after the lockdowns, compared to before. Overall, Europe had higher levels on average than the United States.

Airthings’ analysts looked into CO2 trends during typical work hours to understand how working from home has affected indoor air quality in major markets. In both Europe and the United States, there is a noticeable spike in March when the lockdowns began and another steady rise in autumn when many countries went into a second lockdown. Europe’s CO2 levels were significantly higher throughout the entire year, and we see a 16% increase in CO2 levels from late February, just before the lockdowns started, to the end of the year. In the United States, just before the lockdown started, there was more than an 11% increase.

Breaking Europe down into individual markets, the expected peak in CO2 in March was observed for Norway, Germany, and the UK. In the UK, an even larger peak is apparent when CO2 levels rose over 25% when the second national lockdown went into place at the beginning of November.

CO2 is a greenhouse gas that is natural and harmless in small quantities. Most commonly produced indoors by the air we exhale, CO2 levels build up indoors with more people, more time, and less ventilation in a room. It’s important to monitor indoor air quality as high concentrations of CO2 can cause restlessness, drowsiness, headaches, and more.

With the home environment now doubling as the work and school environments, healthy CO2 levels become important to job performance as high concentrations are directly correlated to low productivity and decreased cognitive abilities. In fact, studies show that as CO2 levels rise, people have a much harder time learning, performing simple and complex tasks, and making decisions. Good air quality improves productivity and can result in a 101% improvement in decision making. Fresh air will also aid in a better night’s sleep and in avoiding the “stale” air feeling which comes from increased levels of CO2. A good night’s sleep will help in increased productivity and focus the next day.

To decrease CO2 levels, improve the airflow throughout a home by opening windows or vents for 5 – 10 minutes, several times a day. Additionally, it is important to regularly replace air filters in indoor fan systems.

VOC levels in the UK, Europe and the United States over lockdowns:

Average airborne chemicals (VOCs) levels in the United States and Europe

Average airborne chemicals (VOCs) levels in Norway, Germany, and the UK

As shown above, levels of airborne chemicals [VOC’s] in Europe were higher than the recommended level for nearly the entire year; at its peak of 390ppb, airborne chemicals (VOCs) were 50% higher.

Low levels of airborne chemicals (VOCs) are considered to be under the threshold of 250ppb. In Germany, several spikes were observed in airborne chemicals throughout the year. By the end of the year, the average level of airborne chemicals (VOCs) had increased nearly 7% since March. The UK follows a similar trend to Germany, with several peaks, whereas levels in Norway are more stable after the initial peak in March.

Airborne chemicals (VOCs) are a combination of gases and odours emitted from many different toxins and chemicals from everyday products and activities such as cooking and cleaning fumes, new furniture, paint and craft products, and more. In the short term, airborne chemicals (VOCs) can cause headaches and minor eye, nose, and throat irritations which can impede optimal performance when working from home. However, there are more serious long-term health effects such as liver and kidney damage.

Education on the importance of good indoor air quality is critical, allowing insight into air quality contaminants and the knowledge to take action with simple steps like opening a window or turning on a fan. This can dramatically impact and improve the air we breathe and therefore our comfort, mood and most importantly, our health.

On Clean Air Day 2021, Evotech has launched, together with Airthings and Airly, its ‘Clean Air Schools’ initiative to offer five Calderdale schools a fully funded air quality monitoring program for the next academic year. One hundred head teachers in the area have been contacted by Evotech, explaining how poor indoor air quality can adversely affect the health and wellbeing of occupants, especially children, and offered them the chance to have free indoor and outdoor air quality monitoring solutions installed at no cost to the school.

Poor air quality can greatly impact children’s abilities to learn and concentrate whilst in the classroom as well as affecting teachers and therefore disrupting the learning environment within the school. Indoor air problems can lead to health problems such as eye irritation, cough, headaches, fatigue and allergic reactions and considerably increase the number of days absent. This is a key reason why, both Airthings and Evotech, are determined to raise awareness of indoor air quality within schools and aid improvements.

Engineers will fit both indoor and outdoor air monitoring solutions and provide support and advice, analysing the data and providing monthly reports. Each indoor sensor will be linked to the Airthings’ cloud dashboard that shows easy to read, air quality data in real-time and where alerts can be set up. The Airly outdoor air quality sensor will monitor outdoor air and provide hyperlocalised air quality data which can also be viewed on the Airthings dashboard. Local MPs have also been contacted to ask for their political influence to help drive outcomes that benefit the community, like establishing school streets and promoting active travel. Airthings and Evotech hope that the campaign will gather momentum and that they can join forces with local businesses and communities to further inform the debate around air pollution and increase awareness both locally and online.