The influence of buildings on health is being researched
José Pichel Andrés/DICYT Most people spend about 90% of their time in closed spaces, in their own home and in workplaces and places for study and leisure. This is why the interior conditions of buildings are determinant for health, for example the temperature, the humidity, the noise, the quality of indoor air, and the building materials. The team of the Laboratory of Health in Building (Laboratório de Saúde na Edificação, LABSED) of the Universidade da Beira Interior in Portugal is researching all these aspects to achieve a healthier atmosphere.
“The result of new forms of construction and concerns such as heat efficiency has been the improved waterproofing of buildings, and the lack of renovation of indoor air is a health risk because harmful elements accumulate”, DiCYT was told by João Lanzinha, the coordinator of LABSED.
Together with this lack of ventilation, the synthetic materials of floor surfaces, the wallpaper, the paints, and the materials used for insulation tend to contain a high concentration of oil derivatives that may contribute to the prevalence of some diseases according to experts. Moreover, discomfort owing to temperature or noise are other important risk factors, especially for certain age groups such as children and the elderly.
All this means that there is growing interest in the study of the indoor atmosphere. Apart from the special characteristics of each building, the factors determining their influence on people's health are their relationship with the outdoor environment and the way in which the inhabitable spaces are used, which depends to a large extent on the behaviour of their occupants.
In order to analyse these factors, the LABSED team is carrying out research and providing specialised services, both in the laboratory and in situ, with the aim of assessing potential health and security risks to the occupants of buildings in use. The experts are giving advice so as to mitigate the risks detected and propose efficient restoration work.
Construction rules have changed over the years in response to new problems and also thanks to the development of research and scientific knowledge. From concern as to the minimum structural safety of houses the situation evolved to the idea of ensuring comfortable conditions, which has given rise to heat, acoustic, and air quality certificates, but “there is no doubt that in the future we shall see specific legislation that aims to protect the health of building users”, João Lanzinha predicts.
The laboratory team is currently beginning to collaborate on a research project named 6.60.6, the objective of which is the taking of various measurements in six houses corresponding to six different construction periods (the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s) for 60 days. The scientists intend to analyse elements such as metals, fungi, and bacteria collected in vacuum cleaner bags, in addition to the temperature, the relative humidity, the volatile organic compounds, and the air composition. They will thus begin to assess and compare the health risks in each case.
On the other hand, the researchers of the Universidad de Beira Interior (UBI) are currently analysing the comfort conditions of old people's homes and nurseries. Another civil engineering study aims to establish a methodology to assess the health risks for house occupiers. The objectives of the LABSED also include collaboration in the setting up of an extensive international consortium, which is still being assessed, to research “the modern human being's habitat, the interior environment”, in which other Portuguese specialists from the UBI, Oporto, and Aveiro are expected to participate together with others from Japan and the United States.
The laboratory coordinated by João Lanzinha has advanced acoustic measurement equipment that allows the exploration of other lines of research apart from matters directly related to health. One of them is the acoustic behaviour of churches, which has recently been studied at the Convento de São Bento de Cástris in Évora with the aim of defining a methodology for this type of studies and of drawing conclusions on the spatial and constructive organisation of interiors and their acoustic behaviour.