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HPAC 'On The Air': Pandemic Pulse Check, with ASHRAE's Bill Bahnfleth

Nov. 22, 2022
*LISTEN or READ* Over the holidays, we asked the former Epidemic Task Force chair for his best advice on staying healthy this winter. "The pandemic is not over," he warns.

HPAC Engineering is pleased to welcome back this month our first returning guest to HPAC On The Air, Dr. William Bahnfleth, P.E., former chair of ASHRAE's recently ended emergency Epidemic Task Force, and current vice chair of the society's Environmental Health Committee. He updates us on the latest pandemic-related guidance for indoor air quality (IAQ) and reflects on the state of our industry as it still strives to make both new and existing buildings healthier for their occupants. 

Click to listen...

What follows is a partial edited transcript of our discussion...


HPAC: Bill, welcome back to 'HPAC On The Air'.

Dr. Bahnfleth: Thanks very much, Rob. Glad to be here.

HPAC: We last spoke with you here about 14 months ago when the Epidemic Task Force was right in the middle of everything. Now much has happened since then. So I was hoping you could update us on where the work of the task force stands today, after its sunset last summer.

Dr. Bahnfleth:  Sure. The first thing I should say is that when we formed the task force, the intent was never for it to become a standing committee of ASHRAE and to go on indefinitely. We, at the time, mistakenly thought that maybe in a year, the whole pandemic would be over and we would've generated some guidance quickly and then we would move on to trying to do things to prepare for the the next pandemic or epidemic. And of course, the pandemic is still going on here, now in its third year. But we felt that we had done what we set out to do in terms of producing guidance by the end of 2021, and that the main thing left to do was to try to look inward to get ASHRAE to start doing the things that we had been doing for the longer term through the committees that already existed.

And we, we pushed out guidance in a lot of areas where ASHRAE has standards, for example. And, and at some point, the standards committees have to be the place where that kind of further development takes place. So I would say right now we're in that transitional mode of trying to engage with the rest of the society and to get them to pick up some of this work. And we're doing that through the Environmental Health Committee (EHC). We had discussed whether or not we should go on for another year with the incoming leadership with ASHRAE President Farooq Mehboob and others. They agreed the best thing to do was to sunset the ETF and to assign responsibility for what it had been doing to the Environmental Health Committee. So I'm the vice chair of EHC now.

I've been a member of it before and know it very well. And it's actually the body that's supposed to coordinate health-related issues through the whole society. So it's a very good place to send that work. And we're now working on some transition plans, a final report that we hope to deliver in in mid-year (2023). We'll see if it gets done on schedule. But that's the plan. But I should say that there are things going on that are still engaging the leadership of the ETF. We started a lot of external relationships going and those have to continue. So a lot of advocacy is in progress. We are working with the World Health Organization (WHO), with the White House, EPA, NIOSH, AHRI, and, and others, on things that we hope will follow on from what we've learned during the pandemic.

ASHRAE, for example, has been providing some support to the White House and EPA as they spin out the White House's Clean Air in Buildings Challenge. And we also helped Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) in the development of the (proposed) Airborne Act, which is a piece of legislation that's sitting in the House, waiting to be acted upon. It would provide tax incentives for doing IAQ assessments and for doing projects to bring up buildings to meet ASHRAE Standard 62.1. So there's all of that. And internally, over the last year, quite a bit of stuff has happened that is relevant to the pandemic response that was in some way related to the ETF. One was the publication of the Indoor Carbon Dioxide position document (PD). There's been a tremendous amount of interest in the use of CO2 as a metric for IAQ and for infection risk.

So that committee was chaired by Andy Persily from NIST, and we produced that document earlier in the year, several months ago. And that was followed just within the last few weeks by the publication of a completely revised infectious aerosols position document. You may remember that that was maybe the first piece of pseudo interim guidance that we had from ASHRAE. We hurried that to publication in April of 2020, and until the ETF could start putting out guidance, that was the place that people were looking. That's really not a document you should be using now, though, so I want everyone to know that the new PD is on the the website and is worth reading. In terms of standards, the IAQ procedure for Standard 62.1 has been approved. That's a big step forward in IAQ for a number of reasons.

And I just noted that for 62.2, the residential standard, they've done two big things recently. An addendum was approved to require air cleaners to meet the same UL 29 98 ozone standard that is in 62.1. And very interestingly now, the minimum filter efficiency required for all residential buildings at 62.2 is MERV 11. So it's now actually better than 62.1, which is currently still sitting at MERV 8. And I hope that they're encouraged to raise the bar there, as well. And the final thing I would note here is that we just had a a global HVAC summit in Istanbul that had a two-day meeting about indoor environmental quality and wellness. So there's a lot of activity going on, and the remnant of the ETF, if you will, is plugged into a lot of that activity, I would say.

HPAC: Looking back now, and I know we are not totally out of the woods yet, but what specific lessons or even surprises came from the pandemic regarding indoor air quality practices that you would like to see carry forward now?

Dr. Bahnfleth: That's a really intriguing question. Maybe I have more observations than lessons. One of the more worrisome ones is I think we've seen that people have short attention spans. We really want the the pandemic to be over. And to some extent, a lot of society has declared that it is over, and we've gone back to "normal." And even within ASHRAE, I see a big swing back to the emphasis being all on energy efficiency and decarbonization now, even though we're just getting started with, I think the project of raising the bar for indoor air quality. That worries me because it's going to take some resolve and investment to really change things. And it's a warning that we need to keep pushing, those of us who think that, because it needs to be done.

Another observation. "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink," as they say.

A lot of money was made available early on through (the federal government) to facilitate improvements in air quality in schools. And a lot of that money has gone unspent or been spent for other things. And you have to wonder why that is. Why is the uptake not there for some of this technology when the case for doing it ought to be pretty clear and the the resources are there? The only thing I can speculate is that maybe there are other things that for which that money is seen as being a higher priority that need to be done in schools. We know that schools have bad infrastructure problems. Another thing I'd observe is you can't make up for decades of underinvestment in solutions overnight.

People would like us to have a lot of answers for things that have to do with technology. Like, do air cleaners work? Are our air cleaners safe? And what should ventilation rates be? And you know, if we had been investing in those things, like investment has gone into things like vaccines, tens of billions of dollars in the last three years, maybe we'd be a little closer to having confidence in the answers we can produce. So, going forward, I hope that those who have the resources to support such research and development will really put an effort into that. At ASHRAE, there's a lot of work going on now to address air cleaner standards. And AHRI is working on that sort of thing, too. It's a very good opportunity now for industry partnerships with organizations like ASHRAE.

Another observation: It's a big project to integrate public health with building science.

I think it's wonderful to see the the White House getting on board through its COVID Response Working Group supporting air quality improvements as a way of mitigating risk of COVID. But, you know, remember the pandemic started in 2020, and we got this substantial new show of support from the White House, really around the beginning of 2022, not much before that. So we were more than two years into the pandemic before the public health officials really picked up on that. And I think we still have a ways to go now with getting a good understanding, between those who do building science and those who do public health, about how the two fit together. And it's something that has to be done.

Another thing I might mention is this. I hear so much from all sides about what's going on, and I think some people are a lot better at pointing out weaknesses than they are at developing solutions to overcome them. You know, there's a huge outcry from some that we really ought to be able to change standards right now, and that we know how to do that properly. And I think we should try, of course. But it's not an easy task, and I don't see the answers sometimes coming from the critics.

HPAC: That reminds me of Teddy Roosevelt, I think, who talked about the man in the arena, as the one who receives the barbs. That it's easier to be in the audience than on center stage.

Dr. Bahnfleth:  Yes, that it's better to be engaged than to be sitting in the stands.

HPAC: When you mentioned the recent increase in federal involvement before, were you referencing the new Clean Air in Buildings Challenge?

Dr. Bahnfleth:  Yes. And that the White House has now put indoor air quality into the COVID action plan, which I think is, is terrific, and I really commend them for that. I just wish we had started back in the, the previous administration to do this. ASHRAE sent an outreach letter to to the previous administration saying they really ought to have building science expertise on the COVID response team. And it finally happened, but it took a long time.

HPAC: Speaking of COVID, like so many of us now, you now have personally experienced it, unfortunately. How would you describe your experience and how has it changed your approach, if at all, to your work with ASHRAE now?

Dr. Bahnfleth:  Well, let me say, it hasn't really changed my approach as much as it's convinced me that all of this effort was worthwhile and that we should keep going. But I had a pretty bad case. I contracted it at a conference in Rotterdam last spring that was advertised as having good air quality. The thinking was "nobody needs to wear a mask because all the restrictions have been dropped." I'd been vaccinated four times already, but I was so sick. If I had gotten much worse, I would've been in the hospital. And I was very thankful to have antivirals, because that really made all the difference for me. I tested positive for two weeks. I've got a child who has had it twice within three months, even though she and her husband who's a physician are both vaccinated and know what to do, and she works at home. My wife has had it, too.

Everyone I know has had it, and actually, I've met more people that I know who've gotten it recently than I did in the first two years of the pandemic. So it's still very much amongst us. Maybe what this has showed me is that even if we're vaccinated and we have a building with good air quality, that may not be enough for a virus that's highly infectious. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't do those things. But I think the reality is that we need to think of these engineering controls of ventilation and filtration and UV as a way of expanding the envelope within which we don't have to do things like social distance and wear masks and can take other measures.

I think at some point when there's enough incidents of a disease in the population, that's just what we're going to have to do if we really want to try to protect ourselves from it, instead of just letting it kind of roll over us. I think letting COVID run rampant through the population, as we can see is really a horrible thing to do, especially with the long COVID consequences that some people are experiencing.

HPAC: As we all now battle another winter, I think I can speak for many when I say that I'm still wary, or even confused, about how best to interact with others safely at this stage of the pandemic. From someone with your experience and informed perspective, what's your best advice for how to safely navigate the months ahead?

Dr. Bahnfleth:  My advice based on everything the task force has done and on everything I know is to make sure your vaccinations are up to-date: meaning COVID vaccinations, the influenza vaccine, whatever you can get.

Two, if you've looked at the early season influenza data, it's scary. It's peaking like Omicron did this year. It's a season like we haven't had in a long time. So we need to be worried about that, too. And I'm reading that respiratory sensorial virus, RSV, is really wreaking havoc. I remember hearing recently about ICUs full of kids in Canada.

So there's a lot of stuff going around, but vaccinations are important, as well as COVID testing. You know, I can get eight rapid tests a month free, and my wife can, too. So, we get 16 tests through our insurance every month. So there's never any question about, you know, should I use a test or not? We've got plenty of them to go around now. So, if you're going to go out and be in a social family situation, test before you go, and test when you come back. Make sure that everyone is as sure as they can be that they're not infected before you get together. And masks are still de rigueur. I wear a mask everywhere I go in a public situation. And I was at a basketball game with probably 6,000 people the other night, and the only two people I could see who were wearing masks were my wife and myself.

But it makes a difference. There's nothing you can do, in terms of controls, that's nearly as effective as, as wearing an N-95 mask. And then you're just agreeing to expose yourself to much higher risk if you take it off. So if you worry that things are going around that could be bad for you, and if you want to help break the chain of transmission, wearing a mask is still a good thing to do. And I would do it at conferences, and I would do it as much as possible in public during the holidays. And certainly, any time you're on public transportation. I put on an N-95 when I get to the airport and I don't take it off until I leave the airport at my destination.

You get used to it, and it's really not bad if you wear high quality stuff, which I try to do. The masks are very comfortable, and I don't even think about having them on anymore.

Getting back to the ETF recommendations, keep spaces well ventilated. Crack windows if you're at home, if you have a CO2 monitor, which is nice to have. It can tell you if things are getting too stuffy. So I use mine all the time, and if I see it's getting up over 700, 800 ppm, I make sure I open a few more windows. And I also recommend having portable air cleaners at home. I got mine a long time ago at the beginning of the pandemic, but I now pretty much have them room by room. HEPA air cleaners that will do four or five air changes per hour, and you can turn them on and off, as needed.

So those are are things that I would recommend that you can do yourself. And for those who are putting on events, just run them responsibly. If you're doing a conference or having a wedding or some kind of a party, encourage people or even insist that they are vaccinated and tested before they come. And, and don't be wishy-washy about promoting use of masks at meetings. Many have been, and there have been many significant outbreaks of COVID because of that at meetings that I've been to.

HPAC: I just saw a headline a few days ago, about another cruise ship that had reported 800 infections or so. I think that was in Australia?

Dr. Bahnfleth:  Yes. I forgot to mention cruises. What were they thinking? I don't know. I'm not really the type to go on cruises, anyway. But now I'm really not very interested in doing that for the foreseeable future.

HPAC: Finally, the last time we spoke, you had referenced an article then that you had co-authored for Science magazine with a number of other experts that talked about the need for a broader paradigm shift to combat indoor respiratory infections. You were hopeful then that architects and engineers would take up the gauntlet and start being more proactive in designing healthier building environments. Of course, that relies on owners being more open to that, as well. But now here we are, 20 months later or so from that article. How far along would you say we are on that 'paradigm shift'?

Dr. Bahnfleth:  Now? Well, there are different places where that change can happen. The Paradigm Shift article itself was really written to encourage changes in standards, which haven't really come to pass yet, but I think they are going to happen. The group that wrote it, 36 of us that Lidia Morawska (of Queensland University of Technology) put together, is actually working on another article that's more detailed on standards. But I think that there's certainly been a lot of discussion, and you can already see it in ASHRAE standards. It's a small start, but the changes in Standard 62.2, are pretty much coming directly out of the response to the pandemic. As for what professionals are already doing, my own anecdotal evidence is that a lot of designers and owners are thinking about improving air quality and doing more than they were.

So, I think the signs are all good. Today, we have LEED and we have WELL standards for buildings, providing some guidance for those who want to do better. But if you think about the startup of LEED, it took a long time for it to really catch on and have this kind of exponential growth. You couldn't see much for a while at the beginning, and I think we're really on that path now again (with IAQ). It's going to take a while for it to really add up. Of course, the big prize will be doing something about existing buildings. All of these great ideas for new buildings are going to change the landscape very slowly. What we really need are things that we can go in and do in existing buildings that are cost-effective. And that's one reason I like Rep. Beyer's legislation a lot, because it's working on the buildings we already have and that we know are deficient.

HPAC: Well, Bill, hopefully 2023 will see more progress on that and on all the areas you mentioned. Thanks so much for your time here, and for the update on everything. Take care and we'll see you in Atlanta, sir.

Dr. Bahnfleth:  Yes, I hope so. And thank you for this opportunity, Rob. Always a pleasure.


To listen to our first podcast with Dr. Bahnfleth from Sept. 2021, click here.

To listen to previous 'HPAC On The Air' podcasts, please visit our Members Only page.

About the Author

Rob McManamy | Editor in Chief

An industry reporter and editor since 1987, McManamy joined HPAC Engineering in September 2017, after three years with, a Chicago-based media startup focused on tech innovation in the built environment. He has been covering design and construction issues for more than 30 years, having started at Engineering News-Record (ENR) in New York, before becoming its Midwest Bureau Chief in 1990. In 1998, McManamy was named Editor-in-Chief of Design-Build magazine, where he served for four years. He subsequently worked as an editor and freelance writer for Building Design + Construction and Public Works magazines.

A native of Bronx, NY, he is a graduate of both the University of Virginia, and The John Marshall Law School in Chicago.

Contact him at [email protected].