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Can indoor finishings improve the air we breathe?

In this latest instalment of the Better Places for People thought leadership series, Willem Burmanje, Director Strategic Communications at Forbo Flooring, discusses the fascinating impact which indoor finishings and flooring can have on the air quality within our schools, homes and work spaces.

What is indoor air quality?

The Health and Wellbeing Framework pioneered by WorldGBC in 2020 consists of six key principles to benefit human health and wellbeing. At the top of the list is air quality, within principle one: Protect and Improve Health.

Indoor air quality (IAQ) is one of the indoor environmental aspects responsible for our health, well-being and comfort. As early as the 1990’s, poor IAQ levels have been linked to what was then called the ‘sick building syndrome’. This aimed to explain the general discomfort of people indoors, which led to illness, reduced productivity and impaired learning for children.

There were a range of factors involved, from primitive air-conditioning, to interior finishing materials. These materials were used with high emissions of volatile organic compounds, further polluted by microbial contaminants such as mould and bacteria. So what does the research tell us? There seems to be one simple cure to improve IAQ of school buildings: ventilation.

Modern ventilation systems can actually bring about the same effect as an open window as long as air can circulate. Air circulation improves oxygen levels and helps control the humidity in an indoor environment, with humidity levels between 30% and 60% commonly seen as the acceptable norm. Recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has made us more aware than ever of the importance of well-ventilated classrooms in schools.

How can we measure and regulate IAQ?

IAQ has become an important factor in determining the quality of public building and is controlled by an ever-increasing body of regulations and standards. Initially, standards for non-domestic buildings have aimed to control odour. The WELL Building Standard (IWBI, 2016) focuses on the people in buildings and identifies over 100 performance metrics, design strategies, and policies that can be implemented by building stakeholders to enhance the health and well-being of the occupants of buildings.

Determination of IAQ involves the collection of air samples, monitoring human exposure to pollutants, collection of samples on building surfaces, and computer modelling of airflow inside buildings. Schools in particular have become an important domain for investigation.

Caption: Schools past and present.

My memories of the school environment 

I remember my early school days as a pleasurable time, spent in a 1960s building that was airy and light! The tables weren’t too close and a class of around 25 children had enough space to move around. What’s more, the smell of cleaning detergent was often present because the school, its corridors and classrooms were cleaned on a daily basis. This memory is in stark contrast to that of the one I have when my own children went to school.

It was a different building, but one which had undergone some renovation work, as well as extensions. There were more children in classes and, instead of detergent, I now smelled classrooms that were dusty and damp because cleaning was on a budget and windows were closed to keep out traffic noise.

Indoor air pollution in schools is caused by a combination of physical, chemical, and biological factors, as well as the level of ventilation in the environment. The European project on “Indoor Air Pollution in Schools” by the European Federation of Allergy and Airways Diseases Patients Associations (EFA) pointed out that the right to breathe good air at school is largely ignored in many countries, where high levels of common indoor pollutants are frequently found because of poor building construction and maintenance, plus poor cleaning and ventilation.

Several pollutants have been observed in the classrooms, such as bacteria and moulds. In addition, CO2 is often very high, indicating a poor IAQ. Correlations have been reported between the concentrations of the pollutants and the onset of health problems in school children, predominantly respiratory/allergic symptoms/diseases and reduced lung function.

Can floor coverings improve IAQ?

Floor covering is an important factor of the indoor environment finishing material, as floors in a building are of course omnipresent. If the product used is of inferior quality or material, this in itself can cause an unhealthy climate, by emitting volatile compounds or even, in some cases, the use of toxic or hazardous materials. In the past, where the sick building syndrome was identified this often appeared to be the case. When removing floor coverings, the installation method itself can cause unwanted surprises. Asbestos is one of them, and it is the most dangerous of indoor environment contaminants.

Floor coverings nowadays are safe and subject to regulations. In fact, when it comes to floor coverings, the coin has flipped and floors are now capable of making a truly positive contribution to IAQ.

Taking care of the outdoors, indoors

Let’s start with the basics: the entrance of a building. The amount of dirt, dust and moisture carried inside begins the deterioration of the indoor environment. Floors need to be cleaned thoroughly and on a regular basis to avoid air pollutants, and the detergents used to do this again have an adverse effect on the IAQ. The combination of a ridged and textiled entrance can take care of 95% of all walked in dust and dirt, provided the entrance floor covering stretches for over 6 metres and the floor covering in the entrance is regularly cleaned, e.g. vacuumed with a vacuum cleaner.

Resilient floors are smooth and ‘collect’ dust by creating flocks that slide over the floor when air vents are used, they can be easily collected by vacuum cleaning or sweeping floors with a damp cloth. It is also for this reason that in various countries resilient floors are recommended in order to avoid asthma patients reacting unfavourably to the indoor environment.

Today’s natural bacteriostatic resilient floor coverings have waterborne finish layers that are almost ‘indestructible’, safe when it comes to emission levels and are absent of volatile content. What’s more, today’s installation techniques and adhesives have developed in such a way that a true low emitting, green and safe floor covering can be offered by using a resilient flooring solution.

Final thoughts 

Back to my personal experience, with the knowledge obtained from this paper I now understand that not only are there solutions to improve IAQ in older buildings but also modern buildings. Interior finishes play an important part in our wellbeing. The floor covering industry has done its part in delivering better and safer products. It is up to the owners to make the best use of them.

There’s no doubt that proper ventilation and fresh air is the solution to most of the poor indoor air quality situations that are found in educational facilities. But a thoughtful mind and proper use of interior finishing material, next to an efficient cleaning and maintenance regime, can do the wonders that we want to see for the classroom life of our children.

About Forbo flooring 

Forbo Flooring Systems is a leading global player in high-quality, commercial floor coverings & total solution flooring projects that include Linoleum, Vinyl, Luxury Vinyl Tiles, Flocked Flooring, Carpet Tiles and Entrance Flooring Systems. If you want to know more about indoor air quality and how to improve your interior environment, visit

View Forbo’s newest video on CO2 neutral Marmoleum (often used in classrooms because of its antistatic and bacteriostatic properties)  or find out more about Forbo here.