Campus Health and Safety
April 2014
Dealing with Air Quality in a Natural Way
Over the past few years, many of us have noticed that the air pollution has steadily gotten worse in Hong Kong and around the region. With some new government policies – including an engine idling ban for vehicles and new pollution controls for taxis – there is some room for optimism. In fact, Under Secretary for the Environment, Ms Christine Loh, recently predicted that the air quality in Hong Kong will “dramatically” improve in the next five years because of ongoing efforts.
When the pollution index is high, the landscape disappears, and people feel the effects in their eyes, skin, and lungs.
But what does that mean for right now? Many of us suffer when the air quality index rises to the moderate or unhealthy levels, and we know that these conditions are dangerous for small children and the elderly. Bad air often makes us feel uncomfortable with itchy eyes, headaches, fatigue, and skin irritation. Some find it hard to breathe, which is particularly worrisome. 
Since we spend most of our time indoors – either here on campus or at home – it is important to think about ways we can do to improve the air for ourselves and our colleagues. The university is taking some steps. Five years ago HKUST became one of the first campuses in the world to ban smoking throughout the entire campus, and the HESO constantly monitors the air quality in office and classroom spaces to detect unhealthy levels of mold or other bacterial contaminants. You may also notice that when FMO installs new carpets, they have virtually no smell at all, and same for many of their paints, glues and other adhesives. FMO has made it a point to reduce the amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) – the harmful vapors that come from furniture, wall coverings, and other materials – during construction periods, which really makes a huge difference in indoor air quality.
Even with these changes, though, there are still days when the air is bad outside and only slightly better inside. That means we still have a way to go to make the UST workplace safer and healthier. There are some simple things we can all do to help: 
  • Since fumes come from printing and photocopying, make sure the machines are in well ventilated areas, and avoid printing unless absolutely necessary. (This helps save trees too.) 
  • Pay attention to where the vents are in the office space and make sure they are not blocked by furniture or equipment. Also, if you notice any discoloration around the vents, please contact FMO or HSEO immediately to check for mold or mildew.
  • Clean up spills and report water leaks before they become a contamination or mold problem.
Most importantly – and most refreshingly – consider plants for the office space. Lots of plants! Not only are plants beautiful and pleasant to have around, they are nature’s perfect air filters, and are exceptionally good at removing VOCs, dust, and other contaminants. Not only do they remove pollutants, they give back nice, clean oxygen in return. What a great exchange!
All plants can brighten up a space, but some plants are better than the others at removing airborne contaminants. Take a look at this list of 10 plants that research shows they are the best at purifying the air and are also good house plants that are easy to care for. For example, Peace Lilies are one of the best plants at removing VOCs and other contaminants. The Snake Plant converts CO2 into oxygen at night, so add a few of these plants to your office to make it nice and fresh when you arrive in the morning. If you have space near the photocopiers, consider Aloe plants, which are good at absorbing fumes from chemical-based cleaners, and also have the benefit of soothing your skin if you need it. 
Some plants need more sun than others, and some may be more suitable for an office environment, but there are a wide variety of plants that will work well in your spaces. Why not brighten your office today?