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Flu may spread via ventilation systems

By Jonathan Nelson
Dolan Media Newswires

Portland, OR — A ventilation systems trade group warns that its industry may be a contributor to the spread of infectious diseases, a revelation that takes on greater importance as the threat looms of another outbreak of the H1N1 flu virus.

The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers issued a report this summer that suggested ventilation systems could spread droplets infected with the flu when someone sneezes or coughs. While those systems already use filters and other methods to scrub the air clean, the study suggested building owners, managers and construction groups could improve air quality through ventilation protections, room pressurization and ultraviolet germicidal irradiation.

Schools, hospitals and clinics are preparing for the upcoming flu season and the unknown impact of the H1N1 swine flu virus. But those plans stop short of equipping ventilation systems with specialized equipment because at this point the potential benefits don’t outweigh the costs.

“There are studies showing that building airflow can be an important mechanism, but in terms of quantifying a change in ventilation systems reducing the transmission rate is tougher,” said Andrew Persily, a former vice president of ASHRAE.

Instead, building operators are turning to simpler preventive measures.

Susan Steward represents owners of 29 million square feet of office space from Vancouver, Wash., to Salem, Ore., as executive director for the Portland office of the Building Owners and Managers Association. She said the flu season is on the minds of BOMA’s members, but instead of a revamped air system, hand sanitizer is being liberally distributed throughout buildings.

“Most of us feel (the H1N1 threat) is overblown,” Steward said.

Matt Shelby, spokesman for Portland Public Schools, said the district is mindful of air quality and ensuring enough fresh air is pumped into schools. The district’s preparedness efforts for flu are more focused on keeping students who show flulike symptoms home.

Beaverton School District has adopted a similar stance, according to district spokeswoman Maureen Wheeler.

She said officials are concerned with keeping buildings clean, but flu prevention is more focused on the personal level. Hand sanitizer is being liberally dispensed in classrooms.

The pending flu season is an especially hot topic in the medical field.

Hospitals and clinics in the Legacy Health System already are designed to guard against the spread of disease.

Brian Terrett, director of public relations for Legacy, said the organization’s biggest challenge is managing its waiting rooms. He said patients shouldn’t be surprised to see staff wearing face masks and eye protection, especially in emergency room and clinic waiting areas.

Even though the upcoming flu season might not trigger major building upgrades, Persily said building owners and managers are re-examining ventilation systems. Those maintenance checks often result in air filters being changed, which may reduce the spread of viruses.

One comment

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