Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Buildings Could Help People Breathe Easier

• June 13, 2010 • 5:00 AM

Well-ventilated buildings could be the ‘lungs of the city,’ supplying filtered air at street level to help people breathe easier, experts say.

On the heels of record smog in Hong Kong comes a novel idea for clearing the air: Make buildings the “lungs of the city.”

In effect, they may already be performing that function, said Elia Sterling, president of Theodor Sterling Associates Ltd. in Vancouver, a pioneer in the field of indoor air quality.

Recent tests inside four Hong Kong skyscrapers revealed that the indoor levels of particulate matter were 70 percent lower than outdoor levels, Sterling said. The buildings, with their massive ventilation systems, were acting as oases from the smog.

Why not expel their clean, filtered air into the smog at street level instead of off the rooftop? Sterling wondered.

“There’s an opportunity we’re not taking advantage of,” he said. “A lot of the main floors of buildings in Hong Kong are open to the air, like a pedestrian mall. You could just supply the cleaner air into that space and create a clean-air bubble zone around buildings and in adjacent public spaces.”

According to the Clean Air Network, a Hong Kong-based nonprofit group, the air in Hong Kong, a city of 7 million, is three times more polluted than the air in New York, a city of 19 million. Hong Kong’s smog during the recent fall and winter quarters, ending in March this year, was the worst on record. Sandstorms from China played a role in the thick haze, but so did traffic exhaust and the smoke from factories and power plants in Hong Kong and the nearby Pearl River Delta region, a major export hub.

Particulate matter, among the most harmful of all air pollutants, is a mixture of tiny particles from car exhaust, wood-burning stoves, construction dust, industrial smoke and the dust from open lands. When inhaled, the particles can evade the natural defenses of the respiratory system and lodge deep in the lungs. Particulate matter can cause and aggravate bronchitis and may increase the number and severity of asthma attacks.

Typically, fresh air forms at least 20 percent of the indoor air supply of large buildings. It gets filtered when it enters a building and passes through many more levels of filtering before it is expelled as much cleaner air from the rooftop.

“People spending their time in buildings are significantly less at risk than people who are outside on the streets of Hong Kong,” Sterling said.

And not only in Hong Kong. In reviewing seven years’ worth of air quality data from 200 buildings across Canada, Mike Glassco, the operations manager of Sterling Associates, found that, on average, the levels of indoor particulate matter were between 45 percent and 62 percent lower than outdoor levels.

Glassco estimates that 100 well-ventilated buildings in Canada can remove about 1,700 pounds of particulate matter from the air every year, roughly the amount produced by 4,300 cars. In Hong Kong, where the outdoor air is much dirtier, he said, 100 well-run buildings would have an even greater impact on air quality.

There’s obviously no substitute for cleaner cars and factories, but making better use of the clean air from buildings could help, Sterling said. It’s worth testing the “lungs of the city” hypothesis over a larger number of buildings in multiple cities, he said.

“Particularly in China, where urbanization is happening at a rapid pace and industrial emissions are a large part of the air quality challenge, applying the ‘lungs of the city’ effect for town planning could be very beneficial for human health,” Sterling said.

Melinda Burns
Former Miller-McCune staff writer Melinda Burns was previously a senior writer for the Santa Barbara News-Press, covering immigration, urban planning, science, and the environment.

More From Melinda Burns

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.