Post-pandemic, an increasing focus on indoor air quality

November 8, 2023—In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, “fundamental shifts” have taken place in how businesses, governments, scientific and medical communities, and the general public think about indoor air, according to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Joe Allen.

Allen, associate professor in the Department of Environmental Health and founder of the Healthy Buildings Program, was featured on 60 Minutes on October 29, discussing the critical role indoor air plays in health.

“Think about the public health gains we’ve made over the past hundred years. We’ve made improvements to water quality, outdoor air pollution, our food safety, we’ve made improvements to sanitation: absolute basics of public health,” Allen said. “Where has indoor air been in that conversation? It’s totally forgotten about. And the pandemic showed what a glaring mistake that was.”

Though improving indoor air quality wouldn’t have singlehandedly stopped COVID-19 transmission, paying attention to buildings, and how to make them healthier through better air handling systems, would have saved countless lives from the virus, said Allen. And these systems aren’t just important for the sake of curbing COVID-19—they’re also essential tools to stop the spread of other infectious illnesses like flu and RSV, protect against allergens, and reduce the health impacts of wildfire smoke and other air pollutants, including carbon dioxide.

Updating air filtration systems can be simple and inexpensive, Allen said, adding that he is optimistic that buildings—even older ones—can and will be improved.

“The scientific and medical literature’s being rewritten. The government and standard-setting bodies are setting new health-based standards. Businesses are responding and won’t forget what this meant to their employees’ health, and their business,” he said. “So I don’t think we’re going to forget these lessons. We’d better not.”

Watch the 60 Minutes segment: Indoor air systems crucial to curbing spread of viruses, aerosol researchers say