Does air con help spread coronavirus? Chinese study of 3 families in a restaurant suggests it
April 15, 2020
How Indoor Air Quality Can Affect Your Health
April 15, 2020
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Opening windows in buildings, including our homes, may prevent the spread of the coronavirus, scientists believe

Experts in health, the built environment and microbiology at the University of Oregon and the University of California, Davis, made the recommendations by reviewing existing studies on germs including SARS-CoV-2 (the virus which causes COVID-19 disease).

They also looked at data on other members of the large coronavirus family of bugs which trigger severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). They published their findings in the journal mSystems.

The team hope their recommendations will help those tasked with deciding when and how to ease social distancing measures as the pandemic continues. According to Johns Hopkins University, 1.9 million people worldwide have so far been diagnosed with COVID-19, more than 126,700 people have died, and almost 494,000 have recovered.

According to the team, most people spend more than 90 percent of their daily lives in the built environment, giving viruses a range of ways to infect people: from close interactions with other individuals, to touching surfaces, and breathing in contaminated air.

How a building is ventilated and how paths of air travel in a space can affect which microbes are present, the authors explained.

“For most buildings, the easiest way to deliver outside air directly across the building envelope is to open a window,” they wrote.

But the researchers warned the outdoor temperature should be taken into account to avoid exposing people to extremes, and to prevent viruses spreading between residences.

Past research also indicate light is useful for controlling the spread of some infectious diseases.

Microcosm studies, where a controlled environment is set up to imitate an ecosystem like the home or office, suggest daylight affects the communities of bacteria present in a space. Both visible and UV daylight can impact the viability of the germs, with one study on the flu virus, cited by the team, showing simulated sunlight cut its half-life from around 31 minutes in the dark to two minutes.

“Further research is needed to understand the impact of natural light on SARS-CoV-2 indoors; however, in the interim, daylight exists as a free, widely available resource to building occupants with little downside to its use and many documented positive human health benefits,” the team argued.

People should try to open blinds and shades when possible to let in “abundant daylight and sunlight,” they suggested.

The humidity of a building, the team said, may also affect the spread of infections like COVID-19. The limited data available on SARS-CoV-2 indicates it is active longest on plastic surfaces at a relative humidity of 40 percent, with an average half-life of 15.9 hours, and shortest in aerosol form with an average half-life of 2.74 hours with a relative humidity of 65 percent.

This is supported by evidence suggesting viruses, including coronaviruses, struggle to survive in typical indoor temperatures and at a relative humidity of above 40 percent. Targeted in-room humidification could therefore be considered as a means for preventing COVID-19, while remembering that humidity above 80 percent could create its own health problems, the team advised.

Considering the potential use of air filtration systems, the authors found the majority of viruses, including coronavirus, are too small to capture bugs like SARS-CoV-2 and “no filter system is perfect.”

Those with air delivery systems should take care not to recirculate indoor air which “could potentially increase the transmission potential.” Boosting airflow rates could meanwhile risk sending germs into the air from surfaces and “increase the potential for contamination throughout the building by distributing indoor air more quickly, at higher velocities and volumes, potentially resuspending more ultrafine particles.”

Keeping air filters properly installed and maintained could help to minimize the spread of SARS-CoV-2, according to the team who stressed “it is important to understand that filters should not be assumed to eliminate airborne transmission risk.”

The scientists also reviewed studies on how SARS-CoV-2 is spread, highlighting that at the time their study was submitted in mid-March, there had been no documented cases of a person developing COVID-19 from a surface, only through droplets.

Regardless, “steps should still be taken to clean and disinfect all potential sources of SARS-CoV-2 under the assumption that active virus may be transmitted by contact with these abiotic surfaces.”

They added: “With an abundance of caution, it is important to consider the possibility that the virus is transmitted through aerosols and surfaces ”

The team said: “We believe this information is useful to corporate and public administrators and individuals responsible for building operations and environmental services in their decision-making process about the degree and duration of social-distancing measures during viral epidemics and pandemics.”

A separate group of scientists in China have also considered the potential for the built environment to aid the spread of SARS-CoV-2. They found air conditioning may have lead three families in Guangzhou, China to develop COVID-19.

Between January 26 and February 10 of this year, 10 members of three families who ate at the same air-conditioned, windowless, restaurant in the port city northwest of Hong Kong caught the coronavirus. One of the families had recently returned for the central Chinese city of Wuhan, the original epicenter of the pandemic.

“We conclude that in this outbreak, droplet transmission was prompted by air-conditioned ventilation,” the team said. However, the authors acknowledged their study was limited as they did not conduct an experiment simulating the potential spread in the restaurant, and did not estimate the risk of infection of asymptomatic family members and other diners.


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