“There are lots of cowboys out there” – Dr Heike Neumeister-Kemp on the need for scientific assessment and official standards of indoor air

by Ben Ice
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air-conditioning sign at front of business

FM speaks with environmental mycologist Dr Heike Neumeister-Kemp about mould, COVID-19, climate change and what it all means for those managing indoor air.

Dr Heike Neumeister-Kemp is CEO and principal mycologist at Mycolab, an environmental mycology laboratory. There, she studies the science of mould and fungi. Her team determines fungal IDs and speciates for viable and non-viable air and surface samples. Mycotech, Neumeister-Kemp’s consultancy, sends assessors to sites to sample moisture, identify presence of contamination, track indoor air quality and determine what needs to be done.

Here, she explains the role better HVAC and air management plays in building and occupant health, and voices her frustrations about air quality ‘technicians’ and how Australia lacks suitable, standardised and enforced guidelines on indoor air.

FM: How does good filtration of the air prevent and manage mould and fungi?

Dr Heike Neumeister-Kemp: Filtration is needed when you have contamination. Of course, the easiest thing is to not have contamination in the first place, so first you need to keep your building clean and your air-conditioning clean. But then we add people – because we wouldn’t build transport and buildings and houses if people didn’t use them – and people entrain particulates. People entrain what comes from the outside air into the building, into their dwellings; people have particulates on them, and once you have particulates in the building, then, for good housekeeping, you need to get rid of them. That is when air filtration comes into place. 

The idea is, as part of this good housekeeping, you additionally put in filters and filter material to consistently clean the air, especially in air-conditioning systems.

The problem we have in reality is that many of the air-conditioning systems are very insufficient; the filters are not changed often enough. Then, unfortunately, you get an accumulation of what we call ‘nutrients’ on the filter material and, together with moisture (for example, in the cooling coils), you get external ingress. Then you have a buildup of mould with which the air-con actually contaminates the building. 

People think that a split system on the wall brings in fresh air, but it doesn’t. It just swirls the dirty air around. So if it isn’t cleaned, you are actually constantly spreading contaminants around. And if you have a ducted system, and you don’t clean it, you are actually contaminating the air. There is an absolute lack of awareness of good indoor air quality. 

If you have a lot of particulates in the air and you have mould in the air, coronavirus, or other things attached to the particulates, can then spread. If there already are contaminants and high particulates, they act as a carrier. 

There is evidence that the cleaner the air is, the less likely it is that you have contaminants in it. So at the moment they’re researching whether the prevalence of COVID-19 is higher, and it looks like it is but we haven’t got really good papers. In any case, air filtration is extremely important to reduce known contaminants, like fungi bacteria particulates. There is the risk that if someone comes in the building and has COVID-19 and the building’s indoor air is dirty, the COVID-19 can attach to particulates much more easily, and then spread via the already existing particulate load.

You’re definitely not the first expert I’ve spoken to who’s frustrated by the lack of awareness of indoor air quality.

In general, before clients talk to us, there is an absolute lack of awareness. On a daily basis we see things like: filters are not even in the air-con, filters that have never been changed, filters that may be changed but the cleaning coil’s never been cleaned, irregular cleaning practices or no regular inspection. Very few buildings have indoor air quality checks. Often when they do have indoor air quality checks, they miss that they’re actually looking for particulates, or [they think] ‘OK, we have particulates but are they actually dangerous? Is there mould or bacteria in there?’

Because most people use microscopists and not mycologists. A microscopist can see there are particulates [and] give you a number. But mycologists actually see how much of what’s there to determine things like ‘all right, if we have water-loving fungi, there must be a water ingress problem’. It’s a much finer analysis, because every building is different and, in order to find out if the building has good or bad indoor quality, you have to do a proper assessment. 

Unfortunately, as in every business, there are lots of cowboys out there. There are, whatever, carpet cleaners, restorers, this and that, who all think they are indoor air quality specialists. Or there are indoor air quality ‘specialists’ who do a six-week course, because there is actually no formal qualification to be an indoor air quality scientist. Because ‘scientist’ would imply that they actually have a university degree. But 90 percent of them don’t. And that’s not me just being arrogant… Because it’s great, if they are all under-qualified – awesome, more work for me! I’m just very passionate about education. 

We did ‘Is Your House Killing You?’ to raise awareness of indoor air quality. We tried to actually put an indoor air quality standard or guideline into Australia. It hasn’t happened. They’re still trying to do it. We still do not have an indoor air quality guideline. Neighbours like Indonesia and Malaysia, they all have it; we don’t. It’s crazy. We need a standardisation: what should be the level that we accept we can have of contaminants in our air? And then, we need to enforce it, so people actually test to see if they comply or not, and then there need to be consequences if they don’t comply to actually clean the mess up. 

And that’s before COVID-19. Now, with COVID-19, you need to be even more diligent and tighter, because you now have an additional contaminant, an additional risk to the public health. That needs to be addressed.

Do you think coronavirus has raised the awareness?

For indoor air quality, definitely. There is now so much research. We are now personally involved in some of it, where we could never get funding before, and now suddenly it has become national. I’ve been in indoor air quality since the early ‘90s, and we lobbied and measured in Australia, and it was just a non-issue. Now, over the last 20 years, slowly the awareness and the possible consequences for public health, that it actually makes people sick, is on the horizon. And now, [with] the general level of education and awareness, the press actually, every now and then, reports on it. Which is great.

If an HVAC or filtration system has issues with mould, particulates or poor air, is it a costly fix?

It absolutely depends on the building. Some buildings have building defects, and that’s expensive. If they have water ingress, if they are designed incorrectly and have issues that need fixing, then it costs money. But if they just have poor maintenance, they can fix it virtually on the ongoing budget by just doing things slightly differently. Doing things differently is to reduce the particulate load in the building, by doing HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) vacuuming, instead of just vacuuming and spreading it around, having better maintenance and cleaning regimes, having maintenance in the air filtration and duct cleaning and having products that prevent the buildup of nutrition. So there are many different ways, on a budget, which don’t cost you anything extra [but] just by using different techniques and different products, to then keep the building clean. 

Now, you need to differentiate between a building that has building defects and buildings that are just poorly maintained. Poor maintenance can be fixed easily and cheaply but building defects? Now it depends what defect the building has. It could be something from the construction, or it could be after events have caused damage. If you had a hailstorm, for instance, where you now have ingress or your roof is leaking, that is what we need to assess per building then advise our clients: ‘OK, if the roof is leaking, or your air-con has never had the filters changed, that needs to be addressed.’

Are mould and fungus going to get more difficult to mitigate as climate changes?

Partially, partially. Climate is one factor. Because moisture, as it is humidity, and the temperature, play a role in which fungi grow. Warmer, moist climates will make mould proliferation much higher. You see that in the climate zones here in Australia. As far north as you go in Queensland, maybe into the rainforest, for example, of course you have exorbitantly more mould naturally occurring than in Tasmania, South Australia or south Western Australia. So, yes, if the climate changes and we become more tropical, and/or subtropical, that will raise the amount of mould that is naturally in the air.

Then, in buildings there are different conditions in which the building will be more moist because of the high relative humidity. Because the air-conditioning can not always filter all of that out, so you’ll have more mould growing.

For future planning and thinking about clean air, what is your advice?

In my opinion, there should be political action taken, to use signs to determine what clean air is then released, at least best practice guidelines or a standard. Then, it should be enforced that buildings are regularly monitored. And there should be much more education, how to uphold good building maintenance, cleaning maintenance and how to clean buildings in the first place and contain them. And there should be penalties if people don’t.

Because, at the moment, if somebody has a dirty air-con, it’s ‘oh, that’s dirty’. There are never consequences, never enforcement. And people don’t like to spend money. There needs to be an incentive. In the US, for example, clean buildings get a rating. 

We have these NABERS Green Star ratings, where if you comply and you’re a good building, you can demonstrate it so you could potentially attract more people to rent it or want to be in there. In the US they put the air quality testing results monthly next to the elevators, so people know what’s going on in the building. There should be much more transparency so people actually understand. At the moment, people only understand ‘oh, it’s too hot or too cold’ or ‘oh, I have itchy eyes’. But there is so much more, from ‘what are the carbon dioxide levels?’, ‘do I get enough fresh air?’, ‘is the air that I breathe actually fine for me to breathe?’ or ‘I have a right not to have stale air’. 

We need changes in the building code, so we don’t build buildings in the first place that leak,  or that don’t allow for fresh air intake or don’t allow for openable windows, which all have to do with an indoor environmental quality (IEQ) and indoor environmental comfort. So one thing is you have particulates and you have contaminants that make people sick, but it’s also about how we perceive the IEQ. So if a building is dark or moist or people have no influence to alter hot or cold, they already feel less comfortable. That is another big issue we need to put here into perspective. Apart from having no contaminants, a building also needs to feel good. Is there lighting, are there carpets, can I slip here, do I have access to an openable window, can I regulate the temperature in my little workspace or my little office?

Often people are not aware of what the actual temperature is. So if you have a building monitoring system where they can have an app on their phone so they know ‘oh, my temperature is this’ or ‘my relative humidity is that and then I can change it or I can have more or less ventilation’. That all contributes to perceived better air quality. These are very complex things. 

With the changing climate, we need to adapt building maintenance and how we build buildings and that needs to be enforced politically to change building codes and enforce it; because it’s no good having it if nobody checks they’re doing thermal breaks, better insulation or more fresh air with x amount of air exchanges.

Just making you aware, at the moment, if you go into a doctor’s surgery and they have three, or four, or five split [systems] and everything is closed, within the first 10 minutes already, you exceed the recommended CO2 levels. But nobody knows that. In a school, same thing, office building, same thing. There is no regulation of how much fresh air intake or how many air changes you should have per hour in the building. Which is crazy. You can suffocate people in there. And, of course, if you suffocate people, if you have no fresh air changes, now imagine you bring in a contaminant like COVID-19. Now you know why in hotel quarantine, where everything hangs on the same air-conditioning system, people get so sick and we have cross contamination. 

So what we actually want to achieve, at the end of the day, is to have the indoor air quality as safe as the outdoor quality. So it’s as safe to be in the building as outside. At the moment, the data really shows that the transmission of COVID-19 in outside air is much less than in indoor air. That’s why we were allowed to still exercise outside, but we’re not allowed to meet in buildings.

I feel very strongly that the profession of indoor air quality scientist really should be a scientific degree where you learn to assess holistically, and that we stop using what I call ‘technicians’ from any trade or whatever to just produce data. Because it’s not about the data, it’s about the interpretation of the data, and to have a qualified analysis of indoor air quality and to take it seriously. Because you wouldn’t take a heart surgeon or a doctor that said, ‘oh, I feel like I want to be a doctor, do a short course and then I’ll perform heart surgery’. The responsibility you have to tell people whether their buildings are healthy or not is very, very high and it needs a certain qualification. So, the education and the certification for people who do assessments should be professional and should be government-regulated. What they conform to, and what are acceptable levels in Australia, should be put into guidelines and standards and how we build buildings and to enforce that they do what they say – that’s what needs to be regulated.


Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

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