Priorities for ISIAQ in addressing climate change and sustainability challenges


  • Kwok W. Tham

Having had the privilege of serving as President of Healthy Buildings 2003 and subsequently as President of ISIAQ (2006–2009), I have reflected on recent trends that impact indoor environmental quality (IEQ). I have pondered the responses that ISIAQ could consider in the context of climate change, sustainability challenges, and socioeconomic developments. My thoughts on these matters were first shared at the Healthy Buildings 2012 workshop on Indoor Environments and Climate Change: Priorities for ISIAQ. Through this editorial, I now have the opportunity to articulate these ideas to a larger audience. In preparing these remarks, I considered a framework of anthropogenic drivers, the impacts of and responses to climate change (IPCC, 2007), and the linkages between these. I also considered the broader trends that affect the indoor environment and asked: What could ISIAQ's contributions be in continuing to work toward improved IEQ and health?

ISIAQ's mission readily proffers a broad spectrum of engagement opportunities within the socioeconomic developmental platform. In brief, we seek to ‘support the creation of healthy, comfortable and productive indoor environments by advancing the science and technology of indoor air quality and climate as it relates to indoor environmental design, construction, operation and maintenance, air quality measurement and health sciences’ (from ISIAQ's mission statement).

Our scientific heritage (predicated on at least 30 years of research that is actively continuing) and interdisciplinary paradigm have enabled ISIAQ to focus on developing a holistic understanding of the multifarious factors influencing the indoor environment, their consequential effects on people, and the development of technologies and strategies that mitigate against adversities or that enhance the quality of the indoor environment. We offer insights that inform policy, influence governance, drive innovation and enterprise, and shift sociocultural preferences and consumption patterns toward mitigation and responsible adaptation.

Cases of early influence include establishing a regulatory framework for indoor air quality in South Korea and Taiwan, advancing understanding of endocrine disruption through articulating the effects of environmental exposures, developing material emissions' databases and labeling systems, introducing alternative ventilation and air distribution paradigms (such as personalized ventilation) to enhance IEQ, and mitigating indoor airborne infectious droplet transmission. ISIAQ members have had effective engagements in the processes that have yielded ISO standards and WHO guidelines that pertain to the indoor environment.

Some significant trends that impact IEQ

Summarized in the Table 1 are some trends that I consider significant from the perspectives of one or more of the following:

  • measures or initiatives developed and implemented in response to sustainability and climate change challenges;
  • strong socioeconomic patterns driving urbanization and family work patterns;
  • rising economic affluence without commensurate adequately informed consumer choice or consumer protection; and
  • technological innovation that either ignores or accords little consideration for effects of exposures to adverse indoor air quality.
Table 1. Challenges and opportunities for ISIAQ to contribute to improved indoor environmental quality
TrendFeaturesIEQ implicationsISIAQ's priority
Rise in influence of green building assessment schemes, zero energy buildings, and carbon neutrality demonstrationsFocus: sustainability/energy/carbon neutralityIEQ has relatively light weightingDevelop IEQ assessment schemes to be integrated with green building schemes

High occupant density




 Transport vehicles




 Airborne Infection




Develop baseline knowledge and scientific basis for policy and technological innovation
Increased reliance on child care facilities

Close interactions

 Ventilation adequacy

 Environmental exposures (material emissions, dampness, etc.…)



Develop guidelines; develop knowledge on effects of concurrent child care and home exposures
Increased use of air-conditioning and synthetic materials in residences and in commercial and public buildings

Adequacy of fresh air

 Emissions of contaminants



Develop advisory/guidelines for alternative/adaptive behavior;

develop/adopt technological innovations and air distribution strategies

Building regulations/codes/norms

Tendency to be conventional

 Little incentive for innovation

Conventional design does not favor innovations for improved ventilation effectivenessDevelop/advocate innovations in ventilation and AC design
Technological innovations

Industry driven

 Mainly singular focus on a performance

Innovation may emphasize particular strengths and hide adverse implicationsTotal assessment of innovations and their implications; encourage IEQ-friendly innovations
Shrinking pool of IEQ-centric research communityLow renewal ratePotential reduction in knowledge and impact on advancement of IEQRegeneration, mentorship, encouragement participation
Others: rise of exposures to chemicals (persistence and bioaccumulation) such as flame retardants, surfactants, endocrine disruptors, etc. …

Persistence and bioaccumulation

 Endocrine and health disruption

Population effects, transmission of effects to next generationConduct research; field studies

As the influence of sustainability concerns rises with the formalization and adoption of environmental assessment schemes, the relatively lighter weighting accorded to IEQ performance drives design and operational resources toward competing key performance indicators of energy, water, and waste management. Green building assessment schemes (such as US LEED, UK BREEAM, Japanese CASBEE, Hong Kong BEAM, Singapore GreenMark, and Australian Green Star), the proliferation of zero energy buildings and, more recently, of zero carbon/carbon neutrality projects are exhibiting energy and carbon centricity and not according proper weight to IEQ concerns. Given established effects of IEQ on health and productivity, there is significant room for greater consideration to be accorded to IEQ. This attention could be facilitated by stronger presentation of exposure–effect relationships and by the development of IEQ audit protocols that are readily integrated within environmental assessment schemes applied to buildings.

Urbanization and the growth of cities are continuing powerful trends, which are now intensely sweeping developing countries, many of which have large populations. The chronic exposures to process-oriented emissions and to bioeffluents, owing to high occupant density and close human-to-human contact, exposure to traffic-originated pollution and to emissions from synthetic materials has potential consequential adverse health and productivity outcomes. Articulating baseline knowledge can provide a sound scientific basis for informed policy formulation and can encourage responsible technological innovation and enterprise.

In cities, work participation of both parents in the family has become a dominant economic norm, with young children being delegated to child care facilities on a daily basis, often for durations equivalent to or longer than that which parents dedicate at work. Some studies have demonstrated associations and elevated risks of the prevalence of respiratory symptoms (for example, rhinitis and wheezing) with inadequate ventilation, environmental exposure to dampness, chemicals, and dust. Young lives have vulnerable, still developing organs that need firstly protection and secondly creation of congenial indoor environments to enhance their best development so that they can attain the fullest potential for the future well-being of humanity.

The phenomenal increase in the use of air-conditioning in residential living (often without intended fresh air provision) accentuates exposure, which may be further aggravated through emissions of pollutants from inappropriate materials, equipment, and processes. Contaminant classes of concern include volatile and semi-volatile organics, bioeffluents, and particulate matter. Economic considerations bedeviled by inadequate knowledge of adverse effects of such exposures may continue to propagate such situations. Developing and conveying advisory guidelines for informed consumer choice and adaptive behavior would be useful population-based contributions with far-reaching impact.

Building regulations, codes, and design norms tend to be conventional and offer little incentive for innovation that enhances IEQ. Ventilation is a powerful paradigm with great potential for contributing to healthy indoor environments. However, the odds are against it being harnessed effectively: dicta on ventilation practice essentially focus on air change rate (ACH) and pay little or no attention to air distribution and airflow characteristics that influence ventilation effectiveness and exposures including airborne droplet transmission. Worse still, ventilation may be curtailed by energy conservation considerations. Our strong understanding of the role and determinants of ventilation and technological innovations for effective air distribution is platforms of engagement for which we can advocate.

Technological innovations usually focus on singular performance indicators; their marketing emphasizes particular strengths and is often silent (within the provisions of regulatory frameworks) on adverse implications. Pervasive usage of chemicals in everyday products because of their desirable modifying effects on material behavior (such as flame retardants, surfactants, plasticizers, etc.) has given rise to exposures with significant undesirable long-term effects. The persistence and accumulation of xenobiotic chemicals in the human body have been demonstrated to cause endocrine disruption with potential genetic modification that not only manifest effects in the exposed individuals but are also being passed onto the next generation. A more holistic assessment of the innovations and their impact on IEQ would encourage IEQ-friendliness as an essential component of technological innovation.

ISIAQ's response to IEQ challenges

The challenges are complex, and a suitable response requires a comprehensive front. I suggest that we need responses at both the individual and collective scale.

As individuals, each ISIAQ member has specific interests, whether in science, technology, enterprise, or social advocacy. In the chosen area(s), each must continue to engage in what each considers most important or rewarding. Pushing the frontiers individually in each of these spheres may appear to be a singular effort from one's individual perspective; however, these efforts potentially build into a collective contribution of considerable influence. Through sharing in published works, we spur each other forward. The more promising of the knowledge development efforts would inspire innovation and influence action and policy development.

ISIAQ synthesizes and facilitates collective impact through organized platforms for interactions, development of ideas, and considered positions and advocacies. These occur through the Indoor Air Journal, at conferences (Indoor Air and Healthy Buildings), in Scientific Technical Committees, via position documents (a latent potential that could be re-energized) and through collaborative engagement with strategic partners (fellow societies, organizations, and institutions that support and leverage on respective expertise and spheres of influence).

In a recent editorial, Nazaroff (2012) briefly recounted the historical developments leading to the establishment of ISIAQ and the Academy and highlighted the importance of three elements that ‘need to be nurtured to ensure that the community of indoor air scientists and practitioners remains strong through the next several decades’. These were (i) diversity of intellectual backgrounds and inclinations; (ii) a pipeline for infusion of new talent; and (iii) relevance to societal needs. Encouraging and equipping the next generation of IEQ community to embrace the broader issues outlined is a priority we cannot diminish.

The stake of the future and the consequential impact it has on humanity through the quality of the indoor environment are great. Can we afford to do less?