Bushfires and Indoor Air Quality – Air quality monitoring for commercial buildings

Air quality monitoring for commercial buildings
What is the issue?
Bushfires are a common feature of Australian summer, but risk is increasing year on year as the fire season lengthens and extreme weather conditions – hot, dry and windy – increase in frequency and intensity.
The summer of 2019/20 saw some of the most devastating, destructive and polluting bushfires Australia has ever experienced, exposing millions of Australians to extreme levels of air pollution. Bushfire smoke is a complex combination of particulates and gases, transformed and transported in the air, creating a major emerging public health concern.
Noxious gases, including Carbon Monoxide (CO), and the small particulate matter present in bushfire smoke present a particular concern to organisations with responsibility for the health and safety of their employees. Particulate matter with a diameter smaller than 10µm (PM10) and 2.5µm (PM2.5) is a major hazard which can penetrate deep into the respiratory system and such exposure can result in severe short and long-term adverse health effects.
At the peak of the bushfire season, parts of Australia saw outdoor air quality plummet as PM2.5 concentrations skyrocketed well above the “hazardous” threshold of 350µg/m3 set by the EPA.
Government advice in these instances is to stay indoors, which begs the question; how clean is the indoor air quality in your workplace? Is it safe to work inside for a prolonged period when the air quality outside is so hazardous?
What do the guidelines say?
The National Environment Protection Measure for Ambient Air Quality (Air NEPM) recommends that the maximum allowable exceedance for a single day to PM2.5 and PM10 should be no more than 25µg/m3 and  50µg/m3 respectively.
The National Australian Built Environment Rating System (Nabers), the International Well Building Institute and Green Star are at the leading edge of sustainable and green building rating systems regarding indoor air quality for commercial buildings, requiring rating holders to demonstrate the ability to monitor and report particulate matter concentrations –  PM2.5 below 15µg/m3 and PM10 below 50µg/m3.
Is my building safe?
Premium Grade Buildings (as defined by the Property Council of Australia’s “Guide to Office Building Quality”) should be designed to reduce outdoor bushfire smoke contaminants by up to 90 per cent. This is good news for buildings which possess systems such as hepa or Electrostatic Filters that can produce high indoor air quality results. Hepa filtering can have a downside of needing 30% more fan power energy use to push air through the finer filters, and most buildings do not have these type of particulate filters installed.  Data suggests that workplaces are likely not safe from bushfire smoke.
Who is responsible for indoor air quality?
Comcare (The national work health and safety, and workers’ compensation authority) advise that persons conducting a business or undertaking’ (PCBUs) should:
  • work with your property management (such as building landlords) to monitor the air quality of their buildings or workplaces
  • act if the air quality is not within the acceptable levels
  • keep staff informed of the measures taken
  • have provisions within your emergency plan that outline what you will do if indoor bushfire smoke becomes excessive
This means that as a business owner or manager, it is vital that, from a health and safety perspective, you are aware of the indoor air quality at all times. By monitoring your air quality for noxious gases and particulate matter you can be proactive in protecting your employees in periods of extreme bushfire smoke (Vardoulakis et. al. 2020).
How can ecomon help monitor your indoor air quality?
EcoMon offer a range of commercial grade air quality monitoring devices, as well as ongoing analytical services which can equip businesses and building managers with the necessary tools to keep workers and tenants safe during future bushfire events. EcoMon can also assist in identifying how and where improvements can be made to your HVAC system to improve indoor air quality, and comply with the requirements of Green Star, Nabers and Well Building Institute rating requirements.
ISO 16000-1 is intended to aid the planning of indoor air contaminant monitoring. The sampling strategy for indoor air monitoring, should clarify for what purposes, when, where, how often and over what periods of time monitoring is to be performed. These should be consistent with the concentration limits and exposures listed in the IAQ Verification Method. ISO 16000-1 deals with these factors and offers suggestions on how to develop a suitable sampling strategy.
Moving towards a safer, healthier indoor environment has been shown to improve staff productivity (Residovic, 2017). The property council of Australia estimates that a 1% increase in workplace productivity is the equivalent to the entire energy cost of a building. EcoMon is dedicated to improving the sustainability and performance of the built environment and has a proven record, having assisted a number of businesses achieve sustainability ratings. Contact EcoMon to see how we can help you on your journey to a safer, more sustainable workplace.
Residovic, C., 2017. The New NABERS Indoor Environment tool–the next frontier for Australian buildings. Procedia Engineering, 180, pp.303-310
Vardoulakis, S., Jalaludin, B.B., Morgan, G.G., Hanigan, I.C. and Johnston, F.H., 2020. Bushfire smoke: urgent need for a national health protection strategy. Medical Journal of Australia, 212(8), pp.349-353.