A lot of us talk about living and working in a healthy home or office, but hardly any of us are actually doing it. It’s a difficult concept to define never mind practise, and much like the trash metaphor, one person’s haven of healthy living is another’s dead zone. “Unhealthy” elements can include smoking, using bleach, reading a newspaper (broadsheet or computer) pets, and yes, children, though few of us would abandon Fido or Johnny Jr because they may be a little germy from time to time.
The United States’ Centers for Disease Control adds some context: “Healthy homes are a key part of sustainable, healthy communities. In a healthy community, the environment is free from unhealthy materials. A healthy environment supports the overall health and well-being of the people living in the community.”
For most of us, a healthy environment means building materials that aren’t dangerous (lead paints and asbestos in walls are a thing of the past), clean water and, crucially, clean air. It’s easy to see why the air we breathe is at the root of a healthy home. We take in one litre of air each time we take a breath, and 70 percent of our bodies’ detoxification happens through breathing. “Nowadays as urban dwellers we have a certain consciousness about [living] a healthy lifestyle. We watch what we eat, we watch what we drink, we use cosmetics to stay fresh and vital, we work out,” begins Lars Kirchhhoff operations director for Clairzone, a local high-performance air quality solutions provider. “But at the end of the day we often overlook that fact that the lungs are the only internal organ that are always exposed to the external environment, which has deteriorated rapidly over the past decades.”
Hong Kong is an exemplar of the rising trend in urbanisation and high-density living. Buildings are so close together they act as sources of pollutants coming into our home. One building’s vented exhaust is another’s “clean” air. Aside from biogenic agitators (skin, hair, regularly amassing dust, sand storms and so on), other external hazards include landfill particles and particulates, lights, nighttime illumination that keeps airborne pollution viable — and Hong Kong has a serious light pollution problem — and bunker fuel, still burnt in Hong Kong among others. Hazards already in the home include toilets (one of the culprits in the spread of SARS), showers, carpets, computers, cleaning agents, mould and spores in duct systems — the alleged source of fresh air — and our own bodies.
Also not surprising is the fact that Hong Kong’s air quality standards fall well short of international acceptance levels for pollutants in the environment and HKU’s Hedley Environmental Index puts a boggling dollar value on those lax standards. Not much can be done about the outside, but inside — our safe havens — can be even worse. “The concentration of indoor air pollutants can be high; it can be two to five times worse than ambient/outdoor levels,” Kirchhoff notes. His partner, Barton KC Wong agrees. “Before SARS a lot of people weren’t concerned about IAQ, they didn’t understand it. For example high carbon dioxide levels are very important,” Wong says. He’s been the health department’s go-to indoor air specialist and consultant for years predating his work with Clairzone as its R&D director, and he was at the forefront of the SARS fight in 2003. He also agrees that good air is the key to healthy living. Wong has taken some disturbing reading during his research. Regarding CO2, he’s recorded readings at schools of 1,929 parts per million, 1,424 in operating rooms and over 2,000 in some shopping centres. Acceptable levels are less than 1,000.
One of the problems stems from the nature of Hong Kong itself. Mixed-use buildings are fundamentally flawed with regards to air quality. “When use for a building is decided, whether it’s for a hotel or a restaurant or maybe all of it, you need different controls. A hotel is complicated, they have a fitness room and then the restaurant has different demands. There’s no consideration for that variation,” Wong explains. “In Hong Kong there are no laws governing IAQ guidelines — not for hospitals not for high rises. And each [structure] needs its own special type of circulation.” How many medical clinics are in office towers? Answer: A lot.
Wong and Kirchhoff focus on air because the other major issue, water, is much easier to control — even if pipes could be newer and water tanks could be cleaned monthly. There are three primary ways to improve IAQ: Dilution and ventilation, or flushing the space with fresh air. “But that doesn’t really work in Hong Kong or Beijing,” Kirchhoff states. Air quality can be controlled at the source with strategies like non-smoking policies, use of non-toxic materials, better design, operation and maintenance. Last is purification. “There are various technologies in the market that work. The safest are hepa filters with active charcoal. With other technologies there are chances of creating by-products — ozone, or reactive oxygen species that can harm our lung tissue,” Kirchhoff finishes. But the consumer purifier market is a low ethics one that relies on brand name recognition and smoke and mirrors. Many major manufacturers hawk products that can, ultimately, add to poor air quality by simply operating normally.
Is it worth the effort and will it really lead to a healthy home when some of the city’s ancient plumbing can add toxins to otherwise excellent water? “Generally, I believe it always helps to reduce environmental toxins. With healthy air, research indicates you’ll sleep better at night, there will be no puffy eyes, a lot of things that are noticeable immediately. And of course there will be long-term benefits in terms of disease prevention,” says Kirchhoff. And with 60 to 70 percent of all children in China currently afflicted with respiratory ailments it can’t hurt. As usual, it comes down to will. “Hong Kong can do a lot. It’s not a huge city and so if the government wanted to control IAQ it could,” summarises Wong. We’ve heard that before.