Venting About Ventilation in the Time of Covid

Image Source: BruceBlaus – CC BY-SA 4.0

I need to vent, because we need better ventilation.

The World Health Organization now recommends masking “for anyone in a crowded, enclosed, or poorly ventilated space.”  But few of us know the quality of ventilation in our spaces.

Those who can afford it might use a portable CO2 monitor as a proxy for this, since the more people are exhaling in a poorly ventilated space, the higher the CO2 level rises, and the more of the air you breathe has already been in someone else’s lungs. For the same reason, some nations have instituted requirements for public CO2 monitoring. In Belgium, for instance, anything over 900 requires remediation.

Last week, I took a CO2 monitor to a dentist’s office.  When I arrived at 7am, the reading was in the 700s.  Two hours later,  the level had risen to over 1000.  That’s a lot of unventilated exhalation from me and other patients in the open-plan space.  No telling how high it climbed later in the day.

The uber-rich know that COVID-19 is not a cold ([*]) and that we need better ventilation to avoid catching it. You can tell they know this because they are providing good ventilation for their own spaces.  The hashtag #DavosSafe emerged after the discovery of the situation of at the 2023 meeting of the World Economic Forum, laid out in their three-page “Guidance on Health Measures.”   Participants were required to have a negative PCR test, without which their badges would be deactivated and their entry denied, and rapid tests were provided and encouraged.  In addition, they had high-quality ventilation systems, HEPA filters, and perhaps upper-room Ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI). The prevalence of sweaters in photos of the event also suggests a lot of open windows.  In addition, the Forum provided high-quality masks and required masking of those working there (as “servants“), though not for those badged participants in the meetings. Given the other precautions, universal masking would be less crucial, though it appears that many attendees did wear masks, which of course also helps keep any infectious exhalations out of the shared air.

The need for cleaner air is not news.  We’ve known for years that SARS-Cov-2 is airborne, and reporters have for years been pointing to the handy historical analogy of cholera in nineteenth-century London, where John Snow fathered the field of epidemiology by figuring out that the danger came from human waste in the drinking water. (@NeoliberalSnow on twitter is his satiric incarnation, “Ineffectively addressing preventable disease through deregulation and individualism.”). It wasn’t vaccines or treatment that reduced the disease’s toll: it was better sewer management through public works.  Still, I need to vent, and you need to vent.

Ventilation is about moving air: bringing fresh air into an enclosed area to replace stagnant or noxious air, or removing pollutants from the air (OED I.3), introducing new ideas or therapeutically expressing negative feelings (OED I.5.b), debating or bringing public awareness to a subject (OED II.7.a).   We need to push into the air our anger about what Beatrice Adler-Bolton and Arnie Vierkant have characterized as the state’s “extractive abandonment” of the population.  We need to bring greater public awareness to the issue, and debate how to make happen the solutions we know are materially possible.  And we need to physically clear the air.

So yeah, I have some negative feelings about the fact that US life expectancy has continued to decline precipitouslyand we still do not have universal health care.  I have some righteous indignation about the fact that although the President has stopped thinking about the pandemic he says is over, those around him continue to protect him from contagion with measures not extended to the plebs.  I have some ire about the injustice that while we can’t breathe (because of cops, climate, or covid), the rich are breathing easy.

In the US, the private school attended by the offspring of CDC Director Rochelle Walensky and White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Ashish Jha has also had ventilation upgrades.   There are likely many other such cases of improved air quality for me (“me” of the governing and Professional Managerial Class) and not for thee (me, workers and lumpenfolk), but of course they are not widely advertised, not generally ventilated.

The rest of us have plenty of toxic things in our indoor air.  All that cooking with gas has generously given us NO2, benzene, and fine particulate matter, the last of which is also amply supplied by diesel fuel and the wildfires kindled by climate change.  Homes, schools, offices, and other spaces also offer mold, lead, radon, pesticides, PCBs, and other nastiness. Most of them can kill you, though SARS-Cov-2 might kill you faster than most of the others.

Last year, the White House held a “summit” on improving indoor air quality and launched a “challenge”  asking organizations to voluntarily improve indoor air quality, and calling attention to funds that school districts might (or might not) use to upgrade ventilation and filtration of air.

The summit ended up recommending that spaces achieve 4-6 changes of air per hour (ACH).  That is likely to be an improvement for many places, but inadequate to protect us from the ambient danger of unchecked SARS-Cov-2.  For places occupied by people with airborne infections –which, given the widespread dropping of mitigation measures in the race to pretend the pandemic is over, can now mean pretty much anywhere–the CDC recommends 6-12 ACH, and some studies suggest 12 ACH is minimal.

Clearly, big stockholders and CEOs want to keep the economy going.  They’ve funded campaigns to minimize the dangers of the disease and move the public back to pre-pandemic spending.   And it’s paid off for them in another enormous wealth transfer upward. They presumably also want to avoid panic and organized mass labor actions. But there’s money to be made in the new markets created by privatization.  And of course they don’t care about the social murder of the poor, or we in the US wouldn’t have the lethal  health care system we already live (and die) with. The plan to end the emergency declaration and move the public response to the private market has generated some public ire about the projected cost of vaccines, but the market for indoor air quality firms is looking great!

To be sure, the quality of the “solutions” we might be sold for cleaner air will likely continue to be left to the market, as well.  Early in the pandemic, organizations that tried to do the right thing by cleaning the air sometimes ended up being sold products that were ineffective and possibly dangerous, as suggested by the current lawsuit against GPS(Global Plasma Solutions).  That company, in turn, has sued whistleblower scientist Marwa Zaatari.   The EPA cautions against devices that produce ozone.

Even effective and safe technologies can raise legal problems.  One dining house at Harvard installed UVGIdevices, but, because their presence in one space implied the need for them elsewhere, they presumably opened the university to charges of negligence in not installing them campuswide, and so they were removed.

Meanwhile, we can  organize to oppose the end of the pandemic declaration and demand mandatory improvements in indoor air quality.  We can build safe and reliable Corsi-Rosenthal boxes (or just box fans with HEPA filters) and share them.  We can wear masks to protect ourselves and each other. We can take action to make sure our schoolsand workplaces have cleaner air.  And we can vent!


[*] For anyone who has not heard the news, COVID-19 is a vascular disease that compromises the immune system; it increases the risk of heart,  brain, kidney, and other damage; repeat infections increase those risks; vaccination offers only partial protection; deaths are undercounted; and long covid affects 20-50% of those infected. Harms have, of course, especially affected those already vulnerable: racialized  communities, health-care and other front-line workers, poor people, those with disabilities, and so on. And the more it spreads, the more it mutates,  and the longer the pandemic lasts.