The pandemic and recent wildfires have shown how unhealthy indoor air can be. But scientific and governmental inertia have slowed the necessary remedies.
Published Nov. 20, 2023 Updated Dec. 11, 2023
In early 2020, the world scrubbed down surfaces, washed hands and sneezed into elbows, desperate to avoid infection with a new coronavirus. But the threat was not really lying on countertops and doorknobs.
The virus was wafting through the air , set adrift in coughs and conversation, even in song. The pandemic raged for six months before global health authorities acknowledged that it was driven by an airborne pathogen.
With that revelation came another: Had indoor air quality ever been a priority, the pandemic would have exacted a far lighter toll in the United States.
More than three years later , little has changed. Most Americans are still squeezing into offices, classrooms, restaurants and shops with inadequate, often decrepit ventilation systems, often in buildings with windows sealed shut.
Scientists agree that the next pandemic will almost certainly arise from another airborne virus. But improving air quality isn’t just about fighting infectious diseases: Indoor pollution can damage the heart, lungs and brain, shortening life spans and lowering cognition.
And wildfires, outdoor air pollution and climate change will quickly preclude Band-Aid solutions, like simply opening windows or pumping in more air from outside.
Instead, the nation will have to begin to think about the indoor air — in schools, restaurants, offices, trains, airports, movie theaters — as an environment that greatly influences human health. Improving it will require money, scientific guidance on how clean the air needs to be and, most crucially, political will to compel change.
“The push for clean water is considered one of the 10 biggest public health advances of the last century, and air should be no different,” said Linsey Marr , an expert in airborne transmission of viruses at Virginia Tech.
Federal and state laws govern the quality of water , food and outdoor pollution, but there are no regulations for indoor air quality overall, only scattershot limits on a few pollutants. Nor does any single federal agency or official champion the cause.