How Construction Sites Impact Air Quality

Construction sites are responsible for 14.5% of particulate matter in the air and 8% of total emissions in the United States.

air quality
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The Environmental Protection Agency updated and strengthened air quality standards to better protect communities from harmful particulate matter (PM) like soot and pollution. These fine particles (sometimes called soot) can penetrate deep into the lungs and can result in serious health effects that include asthma attacks, heart attacks, and even premature death.

But even with decades of progress and recent innovations, over 137 million Americans live in places with failing grades for unhealthy particle pollution levels or ozone levels, according to the 2022 “State of the Air” report.

Construction sites are responsible for 14.5% of particulate matter in the air and 8% of total emissions in the United States. To learn more about PM and construction sites, Facility Executive spoke with Serene Al-Momen, Ph.D. and CEO of Attune to learn more about what can be done to improve these conditions.

1. How are buildings’ air quality impacted by construction sites?

Sources of PM are numerous and can include construction sites, unpaved roads, fields, smokestacks, or fires. The outside air quality impacts the indoor air quality within a building because the building’s HVAC system brings outside air into the building. The question of how much outside air to bring in is a major question because of the amount of energy needed to heat/cool the outside air. The public has been conditioned to believe that more outside (i.e., fresh) air is presumptively better, but the energy efficiency impact must be considered.

A construction site is a known contributor to PM pollution in the outside air quality. It is difficult to determine the true extent of the impact of a construction site from a geographic perspective, because the effects of outside air pollution are not localized. Attune has monitored the indoor air quality in many buildings in the Washington, DC area and has seen the impact of PM pollution due to wildfires on the west coast impacting the indoor air quality of those buildings on the east coast.

We also noticed the major role that air filtration systems had on the indoor air quality in those buildings. Regulation that will reduce the amount of PM pollution generated by sources of PM such as construction sites will help, but the buildings themselves have a large role to play in the ultimate indoor air quality in buildings.

2. Do you think there should be a greater focus on construction sites within air quality standards?

Construction sites represent only one of many sources of PM pollution. In addition to man-made sources of PM pollution, there also exists significant sources of natural PM pollution (e.g., wildfires). Even if we could effectively define regulations for particular sources of man-made PM pollution, there is no guarantee that outside air quality would necessarily hit the desired standards due to compliance/enforcement limitations and the existence of natural causes of outside air pollution.

I believe that more focus should be placed on indoor air quality in buildings because that is the fastest way to reduce exposure by our various communities to the harmful effects of PM pollution. Most of us spend the vast majority of our time indoors.

The current administration’s Clean Air in Buildings Challenge is a step in the right direction because it points to a glaring hole in the technology infrastructure of buildings worldwide. We know that the air filtration industry is firmly taking up the Clean Air in Buildings Challenge, as they increasingly implement MERV 13-15 air filters. What is further needed is real-time sub-micron PM data to determine when those air filters are dirty and need to be changed.

3. Why do you think real-time monitoring is the first step for construction sites to improve their conditions? Can you describe the benefits of real-time monitoring in this context?

As a general proposition, real-time monitoring is beneficial because “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.” Real-time monitoring of construction sites has many benefits, not the least of which is the health and safety of construction site workers. Without real-time insights of on-site PM pollution conditions, construction site workers could not assess the safety precautions that should be undertaken while on the job.

It should also be noted that not all construction sites are outdoors. Many construction sites exist indoors as part of a renovation of an existing building. In these instances, the premium on real-time monitoring of indoor air quality during and after construction activity indoors is significant as the PM pollution can impact occupied spaces within that building. Ideally, the PM pollution is contained, but due to ventilation systems in existing buildings, it is natural for PM pollution to spread.

Real-time monitoring of PM pollution indoors is the only way to truly assess the level of pollution and its impact on the indoor environment.

4. How would you advise building owners and facility managers on how to implement real-time monitoring strategies?

It is a fact that many of the most advanced Class A office buildings that have been commissioned last year have little to no real-time IAQ monitoring as part of the Building Management System (BMS). We call those buildings functionally obsolete because while they are technologically new, they are not designed with the functions you need, i.e., performing real-time measurements of airborne pollutants. Digitization of buildings is in its infancy.

That is the unfortunate reality of today. Fortunately, wireless IoT technology that promotes health and wellness through real-time IAQ monitoring is available today. The ROI isn’t a question because, for less than the cost of an annual gym membership for a single individual, you can implement real-time IAQ monitoring covering 3,500 sqft of CRE space. That benefits a lot of people.

The first step is gaining visibility. Wireless real-time IAQ monitoring units can be installed throughout a building with little to no impact on existing tenants. A full installation can be completed in a few hours without the cost of installing new network cabling. The real-time insights provided by these IAQ monitoring units can be used to assess the levels of various airborne pollutants (e.g., PM, carbon dioxide (CO2), Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), ozone, etc.) to assess the ventilation and air filtration performance within buildings. Adjustments to the HVAC system can then be made using data.

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