Joe Allen’s focus on clean indoor air

A Science magazine profile of healthy buildings expert Joseph Allen described his research on how indoor air quality affects human health and cognition, his work advising companies on ventilation and air filtration, and his efforts during the pandemic to clarify how COVID-19 spreads in indoor spaces and the best ways to prevent it from doing so.

Allen, associate professor of exposure assessment science and director of the Healthy Buildings program at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, originally planned to become an FBI agent, according to the August 5, 2021 profile. When that didn’t pan out, he continued to use his investigative instincts to study the effects of toxic gases emitted from furniture, carpets, and paints; stale air; and high levels of carbon dioxide. Studies from Allen and others have shown that poorly circulated air in buildings can impair people’s ability to think clearly and creatively.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Allen has advised school systems, police departments, entertainment companies, and other organizations on how to keep their indoor spaces healthy, and has spoken out on the topic in the media, including in numerous op-eds. “Even though the virus was novel, there are elements in all this that feel quite familiar,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a radiological hazard, biological hazard, or chemical hazard. We know how to assess the risk and put in appropriate controls.”

Allen said he thinks that one positive to come out of the pandemic will be “a fundamental rebalancing” in how people think about indoor spaces. “I think that people won’t tolerate sick buildings, where you feel tired, your eyes itch, you have a headache, or you’re stuffed into a closetlike office with no windows,” he said. “That era is over. Rightly so, and good riddance.”

Read the Science article: This scientist says cleaning indoor air could make us healthier—and smarter