Citywide testing of public spaces evaluates the risk of virus transmission in Toronto

Posted by Janet B. Stroud — November 26, 2022 — According to a Leger survey of workers in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) conducted on behalf of the BreatheEasy safe indoor air consortium, 70% are concerned about catching a respiratory virus at work. Of the spaces where people feel the most uncomfortable due to the risk of virus transmission, public transit (55%) and gyms (48%) topped the list, followed by medical offices (33%), restaurants (32%), office spaces (26%), and retail stores (25%). With 90% of those surveyed understanding the critical role that ventilation plays in preventing respiratory infections, two-thirds (66%) said they would spend more time in a building where they had access to air safety data. However, only 60% noted that their workplace has communicated air safety protocols and best practices to keep staff safe.

BreatheEasy virus transmission risk testing logo

BreatheEasy conducted citywide testing to evaluate ventilation effectiveness and virus transmission risk to inform FMs and help them communicate air safety. Image courtesy of BreatheEasy

As the temperature drops and people spend even more time indoors, building managers, occupants, and visitors have limited information about the safety of the indoor air in public spaces. To address this, BreatheEasy — a consortium of organizations that care about measuring indoor air safety — conducted what it calls the world’s first citywide program to test indoor air safety in public spaces where people work, shop, and gather in the downtown Toronto core to evaluate the risk of contracting an airborne illness such as colds, flu, RSV, or Covid-19.

Over six weeks, BreatheEasy Toronto (BreatheEasyTO) tested over 9 million cubic feet of indoor space across 119 locations in the 50 busiest blocks of downtown Toronto. From office towers and concert halls to restaurants and retail shops, private and public spaces in participating locations — which included landmarks such as Scotia Plaza, Atrium, RBC Waterpark Place, Richmond-Adelaide Centre, Meridian Hall, TIFF Lightbox, Little Canada — all received a free Rapid Air Safety Test. The program measured how quickly each space cleared viruses and bacteria using effective Air Changes per Hour (ACH), with the scores provided to each space so building managers and employers can better understand and communicate the air safety to staff and visitors, and take the necessary steps to improve ventilation if needed.

Air safety varies by a factor of 20X during a typical day

According to results from the BreatheEasy indoor air safety testing done to date, three-quarters (75%) of tested spaces had an Air Changes per Hour rate of 6 or greater, which is the equivalent of replacing the air in the room every 10 minutes. For context, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guides hospitals to maintain 6 ACH or higher to significantly reduce risk of respiratory transmissions indoors. Results from the testing also show that a person typically experiences a wide range of ventilation safety (from 1 to 20+ ACH) over the course of a day in the tested spaces. This includes the following ACH averages across all tests before November 1, 2022:

  • Taking a pedestrian walkway to work (3.1 ACH)
  • Working in an open office (10 ACH)
  • Lunch at a food court (6.9 ACH)
  • A quick shop (11 ACH) before going back to the office
  • Dinner at a restaurant (4.7 ACH) after work
  • Catching a movie (lobby 5.2 ACH; auditorium 12 ACH) or live performance (lobby 7.5 ACH; auditorium 7.3 ACH) before heading home.
BreatheEasy graphic

Graphic courtesy of BreatheEasy. Click to enlarge.

Measuring how well ventilation removes airborne viruses

The BreatheEasy initiative measures how efficiently a space clears airborne viruses and bacteria using a 20-minute Rapid Air Safety Test that uses a patented tracer-sensor system developed by Poppy Health, a San Francisco and Toronto-based indoor health data company.

Sam Molyneux, co-CEO, Poppy Health and BreatheEasy consortium member, explained:

Tracer technology has been used by researchers to validate aircraft safety and hospital ventilation effectiveness. And now it can be used every day in every space to answer a timely question for the public and building managers. This science-backed approach shines a light on the performance of each room and building for creating occupancy safety, which can be further improved by adding masking, for example, in high-occupancy venues.

Providing Toronto residents with access to ventilation information

Canadian private equity real estate investment firm KingSett Capital — whose property portfolio includes Scotia Plaza, 700 University, and Atrium — co-working operators iQ Offices, and construction services firm Govan Brown are among the participants in BreatheEasy Toronto that have made their scores publicly available.

William Logar, EVP Asset Management at KingSett Capital, stated:

The health and safety of our customers is key. We were very pleased to participate in BreatheEasyTO, which provides us with enhanced air quality metrics in our downtown Toronto office assets. Innovating for well-being is a core pillar of the KingSett EDGE, our program that focuses on delivering the best possible customer experience. And having measurable data enables us to ensure the best possible air quality for the wellness of our building occupants and visitors.

Testing in Toronto is being extended through the end of 2022. Commercial property owners, businesses, and not-for-profit organizations can now schedule their own free Rapid Air Safety Test from BreatheEasy.

Steve Horwoord, VP of Business Development, Ainsworth, and BreatheEasy consortium member, pointed out:

While the average person may drink two to three liters of water daily, we inhale about 11,000 liters of air each day. In the same way that water is tested by cities, businesses should ensure the air we breathe in their spaces is as safe as possible. We all know that we can’t manage what we don’t measure. As an active participant and sponsor of BreathEasyTO, we are not only raising awareness of the need to measure air safety but also collecting meaningful data that gives us the insight to improve indoor air quality.

Toronto residents also have a platform to ask specific businesses to test their air safety and share their scores by voting for any location in the GTA. Those who vote will be entered into a weekly drawing to win $250 to spend at the participating business of their choice.

BreatheEasy is a consortium of expert organizations who care about safe indoor air. The consortium provides free resources and insights to participating organizations to measure, assess, and communicate the indoor air safety of the spaces we inhabit every day. Members include Poppy Health, Ainsworth Inc. a GDI Company, Surgically Clean Air, and TSFV.