Life has not been the same since my meeting on Friday with indoor air consultant George Woo. I had always thought of air pollution in terms of grey skies, cross-harbour visibility and diesel fumes. The roadside readings are bad today, so I must stay off the streets as much as possible, my subconscious would tell me. Horror of horrors: I just learned that sitting at an office desk - what most of us do for our working day - can be as bad, perhaps worse, for our health.
Woo has been campaigning for five years to get people to think about pollution in this way. I phoned him after a friend, just diagnosed with allergic bronchitis, wondered whether his cough and itchy eyes could have something to do with the quality of air in his office on Hong Kong Island. The irritations seemed to be worse at peak traffic times. Then my friend smuggled the specialist, his assistant and two pieces of hand-held equipment into the building at 6.30pm for an hour of tests.
The office block is not unusual for the area: 30-odd years old, next to a highway and with sealed windows. Woo quickly set up his machines and, within minutes, had readings. Eight hours of results are needed for qualified figures that can be taken to management or a building owner. The ones he produced were snapshots that were only for reference.
A formal assessment or not, the figures were eye-opening - although Woo said they were not unusual among older office buildings in Hong Kong. The website of the Environmental Protection Department has figures for guidance for those seeking healthy indoor air quality. Those found by Woo - the principal consultant for Calcite Indoor Environment Services - were 25 to 30 per cent above the recommendations for carbon dioxide, 80 per cent more than the suggested level for carbon monoxide and about three times beyond the objective for bacteria-sized particulates. The 23-degree temperature was considered acceptable although the humidity was high. He did not bring his machine that measures chemicals, so could not provide measurements of formaldehyde and other health threats that can lurk in the adhesives used for carpets and wallpaper.
Such figures are not good for employees or their bosses. They can cause tiredness, drowsiness, dizziness and nausea. There is an increased risk of sickness. In the US, tens of billions of dollars are thought to be lost each year in productivity because of poor office air. In Hong Kong, where there is little awareness of the problem and no government regulations, the human and financial costs are unknown.
Improving the air quality in my friend's office would not be a difficult task. Typically for buildings of that vintage and location, there were no apparent ducts to let in fresh air. This meant that air was largely being recycled. Illness could easily spread among staff. A solution lies in large intakes to pump in fresh air - after treating it to extract pollutants - then installing a system to move the old air out of the building, perhaps through a kitchen or toilet area.
My friend is thankful that he has some figures and solutions. But he isn't sure what to do next; he can tell his bosses, but they may be unwilling to pay the millions to fix the problem. Nor are they obliged to: unlike in Australia, Europe and North America, there are no rules on indoor air quality in Hong Kong. A Canadian could take such figures to management and action would be mandatory. In this city, there are only guidelines, with no legal backing. Woo, understandably, feels helpless. All he can do is provide data and suggestions. He likens himself to a doctor without medicine. 'We can check you out and diagnose the problem but, sorry, there is nothing more that we can do,' he said.
Some companies, like Swire and Hong Kong Land, realise it's good for business to ensure the air in their buildings is healthy. By maintaining high standards, they can attract international firms and garner bigger rents. Those corporations, in turn, can expect and get better productivity from their staff. These are issues uppermost in my mind as I join my friend in figuring out how to improve my own indoor environment.
Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post