Stepping into the breach 

Stepping into the breach 

In an effort to keep the lights on, Eskom is burning coal at an unprecedented rate, and this is unlikely to change until at least the end of the decade. The private sector is once again stepping into the breach, with many businesses looking for ways to improve the air their staff breathe during working hours.

As the Minister of Electricity and his team address various ways to repair South Africa’s shaky national energy grid, Eskom’s ailing fleet of coal power stations is being run flat out. The resulting emissions are taking their toll on South Africans’ health. 

The Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) has released projections based on its modelling. These show that, under Eskom’s current plans, emissions from the national power plants could potentially be responsible for 79,500 air pollution-related deaths between 2025 and the plants’ planned end-of-life. 

In addition, other avoidable health implications include 140,000 asthma emergency room visits, 5,900 new cases of childhood asthma, 57,000 premature births, 35 million days of missed work, and 50,000 years lived with disability.

South Africa’s air quality challenges are not unique to areas immediately surrounding its power plants, however. Swiss technology company IQAir has released its 2022 World Air Quality report tracking measurements of PM2.5. This relates to concentrations of what are considered the most dangerous fine air pollutant particles, including sulphates, nitrates, black carbon, and ammonium. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines show South Africa’s concentration of PM2.5 in 2022 was 23.4μg/m³, nearly five times more than the WHO guideline. 

“Given the government’s inability to address air pollution in the immediate future and no clear signs of an end to coal powered energy generation, it’s up to South Africans to take control of the air they breathe. While we wait for government to take a more sustainable approach to air quality, the private sector can take action within our workspaces,” says Edward Hector, MD of the SFI Group, a provider of air-conditioning and related maintenance services.

It’s not looking great indoors either 

The solution is not as simple as stepping into a building to escape the bad air outside, and Hector explains how most buildings are actually adding to the air quality challenges. 

“Simply providing an increase in ventilation rates will not address the issue and presents its own problems. In many cases, the air conditioning system and ductwork aren’t properly maintained and cleaned – with viruses, bacteria, and mould building up over time,” he says. 

“Some reports show that 65% of ducts are contaminated, with 10% infected with pathogenic bacteria. Even clean ducts can’t address the many chemical agents being circulated indoors coming from perfumes, aerosols, cleaning products, and even airborne fibreglass particles. Considering we spend 90% of our time in indoor spaces, that’s six to eight hours a day breathing in an unknown amount of chemicals and pathogens.”

Technologies to help us breathe easier  

The Covid-19 pandemic placed a spotlight on indoor air quality and especially on how to minimise the spread of dangerous pathogens. Fortunately, just as we have come a long way in purifying the water we drink, technology to improve air quality has also advanced significantly. 

Two technologies are gaining popularity because of their effectiveness and relative ease of application. The first is photocatalytic oxidation (PCO). First tested and used by NASA in the 1970s, PCO is a chemical effect produced when a light source penetrates a surface that works as a semiconductor material or photocatalyst. The photocatalyst absorbs UV light and creates oxygen particles, thanks to a mix of metals including titanium dioxide (TiO2). 

Several tests have demonstrated that photocatalytic technology produced by TiO2 can reduce viruses and bacteria by 99% after 24 hours and radically reduce mould and airborne diseases, serving as a powerful disinfectant. The PCO air purifier devices are installed inside the air handling unit or duct, purifying air as it flows through the entire ventilation system.

The second technology is Ultraviolet-C radiation, or UVC. UVC light fixtures are an effective way to inactivate viruses in a building’s air handling system. Retrofitting UVC in a building can help keep occupants safe and healthy, as well as save money. UVC products are specifically engineered for retrofitting into existing air handling units; swab tests are conducted before and after installation to demonstrate the efficacy of reducing any microbial count.

“When installed in a heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system, UVC is effective in inactivating pathogens such as Covid-19, Influenza A and B, Staph, Legionella, and Tuberculosis. Improving the air quality helps businesses reduce sick days and boost productivity. It also improves HVAC efficiencies by improving heat exchange and airflow, reducing energy consumption by as much as 20%,” expands Hector. “Building managers are keen on the technology because they can achieve measurable return on investment within just one to three years.”

The first steps towards a healthy building 

Drawing on his experience working with building owners and managers across the country, Hector shares five steps for providing indoor air quality that will protect workers from pollution as well as illness: 

  1. Indoor air quality is dynamic, so start with measuring key metrics. Over time a picture will emerge based on various factors, such as occupancy levels and outdoor ambient conditions.
  2. Build the data into meaningful dashboards to educate occupants on where things stand and to get their buy-in for the benefits they can enjoy once the work is done.
  3. Pilot air purification products from reputable sources. Poor installations will result in sub-optimal results.
  4. Focus on interventions that involve HVAC systems instead of standalone technologies. It could be the HVAC system that is the source of the problem.
  5. Don’t view these interventions simply as a cost. The upsides of a healthy building include lower absenteeism, higher productivity, and energy savings, all of which are attractive to current and future tenants. 

Hector wraps up by pointing out that air quality measurement may itself be a victim of loadshedding, with the increased blackouts resulting in monitoring stations being offline and the South African Weather Service failing to meet its quality monitoring goals for the preceding quarter.

“The future of our grid might be uncertain, but there are proactive measures the private sector can take to ensure our workers are at least breathing clean, safe air,” he notes. “Fortunately, the technologies that deliver the best quality air also deliver some real business benefits, so the choice should not be a difficult one.”

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