CHICAGO -- There's an invisible obstacle to reviving the economy from the coronavirus pandemic.
Potential transmission of the virus through air conditioning and heating systems is the latest issue employers and building owners are focusing on as they prepare for more people to head back to office towers and other non-residential buildings, whether they're office workers or school teachers and students.
Research on the coronavirus continues to evolve, and there's no clear consensus from public health agencies on how great the threat of airborne illness is compared with close personal contact. The World Health Organization only recently acknowledged the potential for airborne transmission.
As a precaution, some building owners are making big investments toward cleaner air. Changes to heating and cooling systems are being made late in construction or soon after a building's completion.
The pandemic is speeding up the adoption of touchless technologies and fancy air purifying systems, moving air quality from an obscure and unseen issue to one that big corporations and their employees want to know more about. One office building owner recently received six pages of questions related to air quality from a tenant, demonstrating how the issue could become a key factor when companies consider where to lease space.
"There is great concern," said Sean McCrady of UL, a global safety certification company based in Northbrook, Ill. "We get questions over and over about how to navigate this."
"What we tell people is, you can't put a force field around your property," said McCrady, the national service line manager for indoor environmental quality. "You have to know what you can control and what you can't."
Efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19 primarily have focused on cleaning hands and surfaces, wearing masks and maintaining 6 feet of distance to prevent exposure to large droplets from an infected person's mouth or nose.
Unlike large droplets, which fall to the ground within a few feet, scientists believe smaller droplets can linger in the air and within indoor ventilation systems.
More than 200 scientists earlier this month signed an open letter warning that public health agencies such as the WHO and U.S. Centers for Disease Control were ignoring the potential risk of the virus spreading through air circulating indoors.