June 06, 2020

Healthy air thanks to engineering triumphs

Engineering successes benefit nearly every tangible aspect of our lives: our transportation system, energy infrastructure, health care system, communications system, trucks and automobiles, lighting, televisions, computers, appliances and even our homes and offices. The work of engineers also has an effect on something we can’t see: our indoor environment. Achieving good indoor air quality, which is critical to our individual health and welfare, is engineering, too.

The simple, historic fix for poor indoor air conditions – “open the window” – may not be effective, useful or even possible. Today, we know a lot more about building systems, and our surroundings have become more

complicated. As a modern society, we no longer live and work in small, uninsulated wooden homes heated by a central open fireplace. We like warm cozy indoor spaces with central heating, indoor plumbing, hot water

and cooking appliances. We like large commercial and industrial spaces that deliver fresh air and thermal comfort to hundreds, if not thousands of workers. These “conveniences” are essential to the health, safety

and productivity of the individuals living and working inside these spaces, and they require good engineering practices to design, install and maintain them.

The Engineering Code of Ethics (published by the American Board of Engineering & Technology) states that an engineer’s first priority is to “maintain the safety, health and welfare of the public in the performance of professional duties.” Engineers must therefore understand the effects of airborne contaminants, (such as radon, combustion pollutants, pesticides, mold, chemical compounds) on human health and well-being. We better understand that energy efficiency improvements must be considered collectively with their potential effect on indoor air quality.

To accomplish the balance between the indoor environment and human health, we turn to engineers, who have the technical expertise to design and implement structures and systems to minimize health risk. In other words, we rely upon engineers to resolve many human health problems that are the result of our exposure to indoor contaminants that can lead to debilitating conditions, such as asthma.

Engineers create and promote healthy indoor environments through attention to the following activities: Working to achieve core goals for all indoor environments: buildings that are clean, dry, pollutant and pest free, comfortable, and well-ventilated. Working with other professionals to achieve an environment where the indoor air quality approaches that of the outdoor air – a simple concept, a complicated achievement. Valuing the “whole building” approach, looking at how each building component operates as an integral part of a whole building system. Supporting performance testing and building commissioning as an essential step to getting complicated systems to operate as intended. Becoming involved in many of the good organizations that provide

networking and participation such as the Consulting Engineers of Maine, the American Society of Safety Engineers and the Maine chapter of the U.S. Green Buildings Council, among others. And pursuing continuing education and knowledge of current best practice and state of the art technology in a rapidly evolving field.

Maine’s engineering community has accomplished a great deal in developing professional and public awareness of indoor air quality and in the pursuit of health and medical goals. Engineering provides the foundation for fulfilling the technical goals needed to ensure healthy and safe indoor environments.

And that is something truly worth celebrating.

Dennis Kingman is an industrial hygienist at Summit Environmental in Bangor and president of the Maine Indoor Air Quality Council.

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