Stepping up hygiene so we can all breathe more easily

The importance of hygiene best practice in combating the spread of Coronavirus has become all too familiar in the last few weeks. However, we should be applying this to ventilation systems, as well as people.  Gary Nicholls, MD of ductwork hygiene and legionella risk experts Swiftclean, outlines a few sensible precautions we can take to ensure a healthier building.

Now, more than ever, it is important to ensure that our indoor environments are as healthy as possible. Yet many property managers are overlooking hygiene in one important area – the ventilation system. This oversight is entirely understandable. In order to limit the spread of this new illness, we are vacating the office and other workplaces in favour of working from home. But is everyone safer at home?

In local housing settings which rely on a mechanical ventilation system, we should be giving some serious thought to the cleanliness of the ventilation system itself, in order to ensure good indoor air quality. The whole purpose of the ventilation system is to draw in fresher air from outside and to expel staler air from inside. If we wish to circulate clean air, logic demands that we should be using clean ventilation ductwork. Successful self-isolation will require a clean air supply in order to promote good health. In our modern tightly sealed buildings, it is easy for air to become stale or laden with indoor pollutants such as cleaning products, which can exacerbate existing respiratory conditions such as asthma.

Sadly, as ductwork experts we are all too aware that many of our older ventilation systems are far from hygienically clean. Before the second edition of TR/19, the leading guidance document on ventilation hygiene issued by the BESA, came into force in 2013, there was no clear understanding of whose responsibility it was to ensure that newly installed ductwork was compliantly clean before commissioning and actual use. Sadly, the credit crunch of 2008 also meant that ventilation ductwork cleaning became one of the first casualties of the cutbacks.

As a result, there are far too many ventilation systems in our multiple dwellings and workplaces which have either not been cleaned for over a decade – or which have never been properly cleaned at all.

This is a real concern to us in the current crisis. We do not understand enough yet about the transfer and spread of this disease, but we are clear that the most vulnerable groups include those with asthma and other respiratory problems, which can be made worse by poor air quality. In order to promote good indoor air quality and therefore good health and wellbeing, we need clean ventilation systems, so the cleaning of the ventilation system in accordance with TR19® should now be a high priority for every building manager.

The TR19® compliant clean is excellent under normal circumstances, but, at the moment, we strongly recommend a deep clean of the system using medical disinfectant known to attack and destroy almost all known viruses and bacteria. This chemical clean can be performed at the same time as TR19 cleaning at little extra cost, or can be carried out on its own if you are at all concerned about the cleanliness of your ventilation system.

Treatment with this chemical solution can, incidentally, also be applied through a fogging process to sanitise all interior surfaces, hard and soft, and to eliminate the Coronavirus from any rooms, or even entire buildings, in which there has been a suspected or confirmed case.

It is worth noting that in residential housing with multiple dwellings, we could be accommodating NHS staff and other front-line workers. Sadly, not all our essential workers are highly paid, so are, ironically, quite likely to live in rented accommodation served by communal ventilation systems, the cleanliness of which is always imperative.

We also strongly recommend not letting up on essential preventative maintenance such as ACoP L8 legionella prevention, especially in housing situations. We are relying heavily on handwashing to keep people safe, so we must ensure that the water is safe and free from legionella bacteria.

Legionnaire’s Disease, caused by legionella bacteria, is also a ‘flu-like illness which poses a potentially lethal threat to those with underlying medical conditions. In fact, the rate of fatalities among those who contract Legionnaire’s Disease is around 12% – greater, at the time of writing, than the toll from Coronavirus. If you manage to avoid Coronavirus only to fall prey to an outbreak of Legionnaire’s Disease, you will certainly be no better off.

Once the crisis is over and people are safe to return to work, you will also need to give a lot of thought to legionella prevention. If water outlets such as toilets, taps and showers have been idle for some time due to lack of use, you will need to ensure that you flush the system thoroughly to provide a supply of fresh, clean, safe water for returning workers.

A healthier building provides a healthier quality of both air and water – both of which are essential to our good health. Let’s not overlook the hygiene of our air and water while we do our best to turn the tide on Coronavirus.