Nova Scotia engineer calls for tougher ventilation rules in face of COVID-19
Jeff Feigin says there are buildings he won't go into because he believes the air quality poses a hazard
An environmental engineer says the Nova Scotia government should improve ventilation regulations in the building code to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Jeff Feigin of Highwater Holding Company near Whycocomagh, Cape Breton, admits he has a financial interest in promoting environmental engineering solutions, but says as a citizen, there are buildings he will not go into because he believes the air quality poses a public health hazard.
"It is something that needs to be addressed and I think at a government level," he said. "I think it's becoming very clear with this present pandemic we have that it is inadequate.
"I tend to have a look when I go into a public space. You know, some public spaces I don't even go into, they're just terrible."
For example, Feigin said, small foyers with automated teller machines tend to have no ventilation whatsoever and other buildings, like some grocery stores, simply recirculate stale air rather than bringing in fresh air.
He said there is a cost to retrofitting a building and adding a heat exchanger to keep energy costs down, but that's a small price to pay for clean air.
"That's what engineering is about, saying how can we make this work the best for the least amount of money," Feigin said.
"We have very good engineers here and I think we just need to up our game, that's all. We need to say, 'Hey, this is important.'"
Feigin has written to the province urging changes to the building code that would address ventilation concerns specific to a pandemic.
Governments in Ontario and Quebec are also being pushed to tighten up regulations around ventilation in public buildings and in Montreal, the English-language school board is installing air purifiers in all schools.
The Nova Scotia government declined an interview, but said in an email it is not considering any changes to the building code.
The government said if a building's ventilation system is designed, operated and maintained properly, the risk of coronavirus transmission is minimal.
Even so, Education Minister Zach Churchill recently said his department has discussed the public's concerns over ventilation with public health officials.
He said schools use a variety of systems and they are all fine as long as they continue to work properly.
The Education Department has set aside $2.7 million in federal pandemic money to increase air quality inspections in schools and to use, if necessary, for ventilation improvements.
"We have previously checked every single ventilation system in the province," Churchill said.
"There have been no red flags provided to me. This will just help ensure that we are doing more regular maintenance checks and to have money in place in the event that we need to do any maintenance quickly in any of our schools."
The National Research Council also declined an interview request, but the agency said it is in the early stages of reviewing research with experts before making any recommendations about the building code.
Barbara MacKinnon, CEO of the New Brunswick Lung Association and a former biologist with some experience in epidemiology, said people are right to be concerned about ventilation and COVID-19.
"It's certainly a legitimate concern, because ventilation is a key factor that will help reduce your exposure," she said.
However, people need to balance their concerns with exposure at home, while out shopping or in other public spaces, MacKinnon said.
The risk of contracting COVID-19 from the air can be mitigated by wearing a mask, keeping your distance, limiting exposure to under 15 minutes and ensuring a regular supply of fresh air, she said.
For example, if someone uses an ATM without a mask and you follow them in afterwards, public health guidelines should be followed, MacKinnon said.
Scientific evidence needed
"The doors are opening and closing as I go in, I've got a mask on, I'm at the ATM for three or four minutes, maybe. I don't think that that's a particularly long period of time for an exposure."
MacKinnon said if she has forgotten her mask at home, she'd probably skip the ATM that day.
Both Feigin and MacKinnon said opening windows is one way to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission, but both said winter weather may make that difficult.
Newer buildings probably have good ventilation, but scientific evidence will be needed before the building code changes, MacKinnon said.
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