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The hidden air pollution inside your workplace

Chris Birch used to dread late afternoon meetings at the old Stretford office of Hilson Moran, a Manchester engineering consultancy.

以前,伯奇很怕公司下午稍晚的时候开会。克里斯·伯奇(Chris Birch)就职的希尔森莫兰(Hilson Moran)公司的旧办公楼在斯特雷特福德。这家工程咨询公司总部在曼彻斯特。

“You’d be sat in a meeting for three hours, feeling slightly headachy, tired and stuffy,” says Birch, the company’s head of sustainability.


The windows in the conference rooms (and the rest of the office) were kept shut all year round; in winter to prevent the cold getting in and in summer to stop particulates, carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide from car exhaust fumes drifting in from nearby heavy traffic.


But sealing the building meant every breath an employee took during those long meetings would raise the carbon dioxide level in the room, causing drowsiness and headaches.


“The problem we had for 20 years was that when conditions in the office got stuffy or hot, you’d open a window for ventilation and be hit by a wall of noise and air pollution,” Birch says.


Obviously this workspace isn’t unique – nor is the experience of developing a throbbing head and even difficulty breathing as we go about our daily lives in offices.


Having air conditioning doesn’t help unless the system includes proper filters, as the outdoor air – potentially filled with pollutants – is sucked indoors and circulated around the office.


Yet there’s not great awareness of the issue. We all notice air quality in our outdoor environment but less so indoors. Cath Noakes, a professor at the University of Leeds’ School of Civil Engineering who has researched indoor air quality, says the issue has long been overlooked because “it’s a lot less obvious”.

然而,人们并没有太在意这个问题。我们都只注意到室外的空气质量,却忽略了室内的。利兹大学土木工程学院研究室内空气质量的教授诺克斯(Cath Noakes)表示,人们一直以来都忽视了这个问题,因为"它没有那么显而易见"。

“Outdoors, when very polluted, you can see and taste and smell it. But indoors, you often can’t detect what’s there. When people can’t see something, they dismiss it,” she says.


Yet they shouldn’t. The health impacts of poor outdoor air quality are well known – polluted air has been linked to respiratory tract infections, lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). A two-year study by medical journal The Lancet found that 6.5 million people die prematurely every year as a result of poor air quality. It also hits productivity - a 2014 study discovered that for every 10 micrograms of harmful PM2.5 particulates in the air, the productivity of pear pickers dropped by $0.41 per hour.


People often think the answer is to escape indoors – but that’s not true. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), air pollution indoors is often between two and five times greater than outdoors – and can get at its extreme up to 100 times worse than the open air.


“Indoor air contains whatever pollution you have outside, plus whatever you are adding inside a building, like cooking and fumes from cleaning products and building materials,” explains Matthew S Johnson, chief science officer at Airlabs, which installs air filtering technology that removes 95% of air pollutants and harmful gases.

空气实验室公司(Airlabs)的首席科学官约翰逊(Matthew S Johnson)解释说,"室内空气里的污染物与室外不相上下,还多了建筑内部的污染,比如烹饪、清洁产品和建筑材料产生的废气。"该公司的空气过滤技术能去除室内95%的空气污染物和有害气体。

According to The Lancet, 800,000 people die every year due to poor air quality in their workplace. “In addition, 'sick building syndrome' can cause headaches and loss of productivity,” Johnson says.


Most developments in indoor air cleaning have come from engineers in Asia, where fossil fuel dependency and weak regulation have created some of the world’s most polluted cities. According to World Health Organisation data released earlier this year India is home to 14 out of the top 20 worst polluted cities, with several Chinese cities also badly affected.


“China continues to lead the way with regards to indoor environment quality monitoring, in part due to the prevalence of outdoor air pollution across significant parts of the country,” says Matthew Clifford, head of energy and sustainability in Asia Pacific for JLL. “Aside from avoiding the negative impacts of poor air quality, improving indoor air has many positive benefits, including increased productivity, which has a direct impact on business bottom lines,"

仲量联行(JLL)亚太区能源及可持续发展主管克利福德(Matthew Clifford)表示:“中国在室内环境质量监测方面一直遥遥领先,部分原因是因为中国大部分地区普遍存在室外空气污染。我们除了要避免恶劣空气质量带来的负面影响,还应看到改善室内空气带来的诸多好处,比如提高生产力。这直接关系到企业利润。”

In Beijing, which is known for its severe smog issues, a 2015 report by real estate firm JLL and environmental consultancy Pure Living found that 90% of office buildings were not achieving substantive reductions of pollutants on bad air days. But people are taking action. The number of air purifiers in China is rising substantially, nearly doubling in 2012-2013 – at a time when smog was particularly bad - then rising from 3.1m in 2013 to an estimated 7.5m by the end of 2018, according to Euromonitor. A report last year said manufacturers were innovating to meet demand, “using nanotechnology, increasing energy efficiency and reducing the noise levels”.

北京是著名的“雾都”。房地产公司仲量联行(JLL)和环境咨询公司境纯环境(Pure Living )2015年的一份报告发现,空气质量差的时候,北京90%的写字楼内空气污染物没有实质性减少。但人们已经在采取行动。欧睿信息咨询公司(Euromonitor)的数据显示,中国越来越多的人开始使用空气净化器,2012年至2013年期间(当时雾霾尤为严重)增长了近一倍,达到310万台,2018年底增至750万台左右。去年的一份报告显示,制造商正在不断创新以满足人们的需求,比如“使用纳米技术,提高能源效率,降低噪音水平”。

Firms and businesses are also seeing the benefits of investing. In their Beijing and Shanghai offices, for example, large employers including WPP and PriceWaterhouse Coopers have installed air filtering systems in a bid to retain good staff. The Cordis hotel in Shanghai, which opened in 2017, advertises among its amenities the fact that it has “the latest filtration system technology” which maintains indoor air quality within US EPA standards.

公司和企业也意识到了安装空气净化器的好处。为了留住优秀员工,WPP集团和普华永道(PriceWaterhouse Coopers)等大型企业在北京和上海的办事处都安装了空气过滤系统。2017,康得思酒店在上海开业,其宣传亮点就是,拥有"最先进的过滤系统技术",使室内空气质量保持在美国环保署的标准之内。

Innovation and awareness are also travelling outside Asia. Airlabs is installing systems in London shops after businesses recognised that levels of nitrogen dioxide inside stores on Oxford Street and Bond Street were similar to levels on the street outside. The first store to install Airlabs tech, which filters 1,800 cubic metres of air an hour, was Stella McCartney’s flagship shop on Old Bond Street.

创新和环保意识也在走出亚洲。空气实验室公司正在为伦敦的一些商店安装系统,因为这些商户发现,位于牛津街和邦德街店铺内的二氧化氮水平几乎与外面街道上的含量持平。第一家使用空气实验室技术的商店是斯特拉•麦卡特尼(Stella McCartney)的旗舰店,位于老邦德街。

At the moment there are no strict rules yet around the standard of the air we breathe in workplaces around the world, though the WHO developed guidelines in 2009 for indoor air quality. The US EPA provides “non-regulatory” guidance, while the UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence is developing guidelines – not rules – for indoor air quality in UK homes. The guidelines are expected to be published next year, and the scope of the investigation indicates they will include potential interventions to remove sources of pollution and to introduce air filtering as standard.

目前,世界上没有针对工作场所的空气质量标准制定严格规定,只有世界卫生组织在2009年制定了室内空气质量准则。美国环境保护署也仅提供“非监管”指南。英国国家健康与护理卓越研究所(National Institute for Health and Care Excellence)正在制定英国家庭室内空气质量的指导方针,而非规定。这些指导方针预计将于明年公布,调查范围表明,指导方针将为消除污染源提供潜在干预措施,并引入空气过滤作为标准。

Experts are unsure about the benefits of hard regulation. Simply setting a limit on the number of parts per million of troublesome pollutants allowed indoors can be arbitrary. Every building is different, and hard figures don’t account for office visitors whose breathing can push it above safe levels. “It’s something where there should be more accountability by bigger organisations that manage buildings,” says Leeds University’s Noakes. “But do you regulate it? That’s a difficult question.”


Luckily for those of us cooped up in offices every day, more employers are taking action. Philip Whitaker, the chief executive of AAF Flanders, the world’s largest air filter manufacturer, has said his company “see[s] enormous growth opportunities in Asia and in Europe with their increasing needs for air filtration”.

对于我们这些每天被关在办公室里的人来说,幸运的是,越来越多的雇主开始采取行动。全球最大的空气过滤器制造商AAF Flanders的首席执行官惠特克(Philip Whitaker)表示,他的公司“在亚欧两洲看到了巨大契机,这两个地区对空气净化的需求日益增长”。

Chris Birch, and the rest of Hilson Moran, moved to a new city centre office building in Manchester a few years ago. It allowed them to design their workplace from scratch and to tackle the problem at source.


Some actions were obvious: installing air filters that get rid of some of the most harmful pollutants. They also installed a number of air quality monitors that continuously check the levels of carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulates in the air and raise a warning if they reach an unacceptable level.


The office also got a lot greener. “We looked at a piece of research NASA did that investigated plants that actively clean the air,” says Birch. They picked a handful of plants from a list of the top 10 most efficient and put them in their new office.


Then, says Birch, there was the “new car-like smell”. It’s produced by volatile organic compounds from paints, adhesives, furniture and carpets used in the building that leach into the air for several years in a process known as “offgassing”, explains Noakes.


To avoid this, Hilson Moran actively sought out low-pollutant materials for their furniture and fittings as certified by the International WELL Building Institute, which oversees the WELL Building Standard. Some fittings are even made out of potato peelings glued together with potato starch.


It was a difficult task. “A lot of the furniture and carpet manufacturers at that stage hadn’t yet got their head around it,” explains Birch. The company only had a couple of manufacturers of WELL Building Standard-ready items to pick from. But two years on, the number of manufacturers and the range of products they offer has increased.


Hilson Moran were so proud of their new office they submitted it for certification by the International WELL Building Institute. It passed the test, becoming only the third office in the UK – and the first outside London at that time – to do so.


At the same time, the company asked its staff to complete a standard worker wellbeing survey, using a common methodology called BUS (or building use studies). They’d done the same survey in the old office, where it came out in the lowest 10% of 650-odd other office buildings. “We did the survey again in this office and were in the top 2%,” he says.

与此同时,该公司还让员工完成一项标准员工福利调查,使用一种叫做BUS(building use studies)的通用方法。他们在旧办公楼里也做了同样的调查,评分介于650多座办公楼里最低的10%。他说:“我们在这个办公楼又做了一次调查,结果进入了前2%。”

“I don’t feel a tangible difference in the air quality,” admits Birch. But he manages to stay awake through those long, late afternoon meetings – headache-free, too.

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