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In February, the EPA set new standards for outdoor air quality. Who sets the indoor standards?

In February, the Environmental Protection Agency issued new air-quality standards for fine particulate matter. The goal is to make the air outdoors more healthy now and for the future.

But what does it take for the air inside a building to be safe to breathe?  And who decides?

Well there is no real short answer.

The EPA does not have rules for indoor air quality (IAQ), but it does offer guidance. 

OSHA has no indoor air quality standards but also offers direction on common workplace complaints, like poor ventilation.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted that lack of focus on the cleanliness of air inside of buildings.

Paloma Beamer is interim associate dean for the College of Public Health at the University of Arizona.

“Most of our time is spent indoors, and yet most of our regulations outside of the occupational setting are for outdoor environments," Beamer said.

She says that can play a big role in the way diseases spread. Like COVID-19.

“It's the difference between you know a drop in a glass of water versus a drop in the ocean when somebody has COVID is indoors versus when you're outdoors.” Beamer said.

Different diseases, however, travel at different rates depending on a range of aspects. 

“I'd be less concerned about the temperature and humidity and more concerned about what is the outdoor affect is on the ventilation rate and what is the filtration efficiency on the HVAC unit.” Beamer said. 

Some indoor spaces have a higher focus on the quality of indoor air than others. Hospitals for instance. And this nonprofit indoor playground called Lily’s Pad in Tempe.

It’s open to children whose immune systems are diminished or compromised.

“So any child that's going through a medical battle of some type: that could be cancer, they might be recovering from heart surgery, or it may be a child that's born with an autoimmune disease that they just basically once exposed to, like typical germs that kids normally can handle, but they can't.” said Dawn Garza, executive director of Lily’s Pad.

It offers a colorful full sized jungle-gym, specialized floor mats, and arts and crafts.

“It is totally free for them to play. It's free for the child that qualifies. And for their immediate parents and their siblings so they can come as often as they like.” Garza said.

A place like this requires not just the surfaces to be clean, but the air inside, as well. 

“We have HEPA filters. So we're up to the level of a hospital clinic, Over here we have an air quality monitor, and I have an app on my computer that I can monitor the air with.” Garza said. 

The monitor tells her how many contaminants — like dust, dirt and particles of cleaning solution — are in the air at any given time. Garza says visitors can feel the difference.

“I'm able to watch those numbers. I can see sometimes where it's too hot, too cold or we need to flush the air so I can change that. I've noticed when our filters are bad, so it's a great system for me to be able to keep track of the quality of the air," Garza said.

Kelly Reynolds is chair of the Community Environment and Policy Department at the University of Arizona.

She says the leading force for driving indoor air quality standards is the American Society for Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers.

“They have a number of standards that aren't new, which are published for minimum ventilation rates, again mostly with commercial buildings. So something that's kind of new that came about since the COVID-19 pandemic is really this this standard development, it's called ASHRAE 241 and this was really a call from the pandemic where politicians were saying we need something that is in response to COVID-19 and we need a new standard for mitigating these dangers of respiratory diseases, not just in commercial buildings but also in residential environments,” Reynolds said.

Some groups are pushing for more legal enforcement. John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health worked with Arizona State University to develop a model law for states last year.

It says that improving IAQ will diminish exposure to airborne diseases, limit outbreaks and reduce the cost of work lost to illness. It also notes that there is little federal support to protect health though IAQ improvements.

Reynolds says she wishes it didn’t take a global pandemic to bring these ideas forward.

“Many of us have been wondering why we haven't seen more research, but sometimes it takes an outbreak. I wish it wasn't of such magnitude as the COVID-19 to drive more research on these topics, but that's really what it took to to really highlight the importance of our air and our indoor environment," Reynolds said. 

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Greg Hahne started as a news intern at KJZZ in 2020 and returned as a field correspondent in 2021. He learned his love for radio by joining Arizona State University's Blaze Radio, where he worked on the production team.