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The Importance of Removing Indoor Air Pollutants During Maintenance Work at Medical Facilities


Constructions, renovations, and repairs all stir up quite a bit of dust. Comfort is just one reason to clean up the air. In hospitals and clinics, that dust carries microbes and chemical irritants. These pose a significant health risk to workers, patients, and staff.

Thus, any maintenance projects should include a plan to preserve — or improve — IndoorAir Quality (IAQ). The right approach can contain the inevitable dust and purify everyone breathing air.

Health Risks of Poor Indoor Air Quality

Indoor air pollutants are more than a nuisance. They can cause illness, discomfort, and in some cases, serious infections. In large buildings, microbes such as Legionella have ample space to thrive and disperse. Many pathogens also become airborne when they can "hitchhike" on drifting dust particles or water droplets. 

Also, chemicals in paint, lacquer, and other building materials release fumes. Without proper circulation, these vapors accumulate, causing headaches and respiratory distress. That's why workers in commercial structures are prone to "sick building syndrome." Also called Monday fever, exposure to various pollutants can have negative effects. Particles that would normally be dispersed or filtered by natural environments get the chance to proliferate and spread.

In a medical facility with vulnerable, often immunocompromised patients, that can be a dangerous situation. Healthcare-Associated Infections, also known as Hospital-Acquired Infections (HAIs), affect one in 31 patients per day. Tuberculosis, Pseudomonas, and Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) are among the most common culprits. In fact, people are most likely to contract these bacteria in medical facilities.

While there's always a risk of infection in a building that contains biohazards, construction work may increase these risks. As dust, particulate matter, and vapors get released from building materials, they carry pathogens throughout the air. Opening ducts or vents may also stir up bacteria and spores that were lying dormant.

In sum, good IAQ is critical for reducing Healthcare-Associated Infections — for both patients and workers.

How to Improve Indoor Air Quality in Medical Facilities

The best way to reduce the spread of pollutants and pathogens is a two-pronged approach: air filtration plus purification, supported by dust containment methods.

Air Filtration

Air filtration is the first line of defense. Air is forced through a device or medium that traps particles. The resulting clean air is then passed back into people-occupied spaces. The filter captures microbes released from sick patients, biohazards, or unsettled construction dust.

In healthcare facilities, it's of prime importance to clean as much air as possible. High-efficiency particulate (HEPA) filters certainly help, but not if most of the air never reaches the filtration system. Thus, focus on the air handler as a way to catch hazardous particles before they have a chance to disseminate.

A powerful air handler can remove most pollutants with every complete air change. IAQ specialists recommend air change rates of 25/hour for medical facilities, especially for operating rooms and other high-risk areas. This effectively cleans 95% of the space's air.

Another metric to keep in mind is the filter's MERV rating. The Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value indicates how many particles sized 0.3-10μm the system captures in its worst performance. A MERV 16 filter catches more than 95%, including the smallest particles. As most microbes "hitchhike" on dust particles at least 0.3μm in size, this greatly helps reduce the spread of disease in healthcare facilities.

Air Purification

Air purification generally refers to post-filtration methods of cleaning the air. For example, some viral particles could potentially pass through the filter. A UV sterilizer or Photo-catalytic Oxidation (PCO) device can kill them before the air is dispensed from the system.

PCOs are particularly effective at destroying microbes within the airstream. Air purification also addresses pollutants that can't be caught by a filter. Gaseous contaminants such as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) from paint, furniture, etc. may cause respiratory distress, which is dangerous for many patients. Activated carbon absorbs

VOCs from the air, so it's an ideal complement to filtration methods. Construction work often requires paint, adhesives, and other materials that release VOCs. Thus, chemical purification is critical to your overall IAQ control.

Dust Containment

Of course, the best way to keep pollutants out of the air is to reduce the particular matter that helps it circulate. Maintenance or construction projects tend to release dust, such as when a duct or wall is opened. Carpentry, drywall work, etc. will also produce particulate matter. If this is allowed to disperse, it may carry pathogens throughout the facility.

Dust containment systems use negative air pressure to limit airflow to other spaces. It's the same concept as creating a quarantine room in a medical facility. Air flows from higher-pressure areas to lower-pressure ones. A negative air machine ensures that contaminated air doesn't leave the space.

When the air does leave, it can be more easily forced through a dual filtration-purification system. Those devices only work when air passes into them. A negative air machine ensures maximum flow through the system.

So, if construction is happening in one room, a dust containment device prevents particulate matter from escaping into the rest of the facility. This minimizes the risk of pollutants spreading as they lack the extra dust to hitchhike on.

IAQ Controls are Critical for Maintenance Work in Healthcare Facilities

Indoor Air Quality is a major consideration for any medical building. Chemical pollutants, fungal spores, and VOCs can all cause illness in patients who are already vulnerable.

Worse, viruses or bacteria can easily spread if the air is not properly circulated or filtered. But while most healthcare facilities are built with IAQ needs in mind, construction or maintenance projects create a new vector: dust. The more particulate matter on the breeze, the wider the pollutants can spread. Thus, it's vital to everyone's health to invest in dust containment solutions. These prevent the existing air filtration/purification systems from being overloaded. Plus, they often include additional filters and sterilizers to prevent the spread of pathogens or irritants.

As a result, the IAQ improves, creating a safer, healthier environment for everyone. To learn more about how to minimize the spread of HAIs, download our Complete Infection Control Guide.

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