Since the beginning of the pandemic and the confirmation that airborne transmission is the main pathway for spreading the COVID-19, much attention has been focused on improving air quality through better ventilation. And while governments have struggled to provide guidance and leadership, one group of citizens has taken it upon themselves to address the problem through an informal, distributed network for raising awareness about air quality issues. They call themselves the CO2 Guerrillas.
The concept began with David Berger, a GP and emergency doctor working in remote Australia. Berger has previous experience in advocacy.
“At the start of the pandemic it became absolutely clear that we had a huge problem,” says Berger. “This was a classic airborne illness that had been aerosolised. And I started advocating extremely strongly in my workplace for airborne mitigation.”
Around the same time, Berger obtained a CO2 monitor from the US and started taking readings. The results, Berger says, were “crazy”.
“We are breathing stagnant air in our homes, hospitals, public places, and other enclosed spaces,” Berger says. “It’s no wonder we’re getting such high levels of transmission.
“It was obvious to me then, before we had the news of the vaccine success, that these non-pharmaceutical interventions were absolutely critical to controlling the reproductive number of the virus.”
Berger began posting his readings online, and found a huge amount of interest.
“I could see the light bulbs going on in people’s minds when they connected the relevance of exhaled CO2 as a proxy measure of indoor air quality,” says Berger. “And so I came up with the idea to get together 10 or 20 units and lend them out to people who would post traces of places that they’d been, showing poor air quality and the effect of interventions like opening a window, or switching car air off recirculate.”
He started a Twitter account for the readers, and named it the CO2 Guerrillas.
Berger says the intention was not to name and shame, but to educate.
“There’s no point naming and shaming people who don’t know they’re doing anything wrong,” says Berger. “It’s not like people have been deliberately concealing poor air quality. Nobody knows, that’s the problem. And so the idea was to raise awareness.”
Although the group was generating interest, Berger saw that it would require more resources to have a significant impact. Luckily, at that moment, the company from which he had bought the CO2 monitors invited him to become an Australian distributor. He accepted, and set up a website to sell the monitors and share information about CO2 and air quality. The initiative grew rapidly.
“We’ve got a lot of ordinary individuals, individuals who are immunocompromised or vulnerable in other ways, schools, private schools,” says Berger. “We’ve got small businesses – hairdressers, massage parlours, physios, dentists, doctors. So really the whole spread going across the population, from people just wanting to protect themselves, to people wanting to ensure a safe working environment for their businesses and customers.”
Mainstream media attention followed, and, Berger says, a growing awareness of air quality.
“The importance of CO2 monitoring as a proxy for IAQ rapidly became a common currency in Australia, and a lot of people really are understanding it,” says Berger. “So in that sense, the business evolved from CO2 Guerrillas, and has proved a really good way to disseminate the information.”
From awareness to action
Berger continues running the CO2 Guerrillas on Twitter, and the CO2 Radicals website, which sells monitors and also provides information and resources on air quality.
He is adamant about the need for a regulatory regime in Australia to support clean indoor air. He points to systems implemented overseas: CO2 monitors in cinemas in Japan, or railway stations in Italy. He highlights the work done in Belgium, where public places must have a CO2 level below 900ppm.
“If it’s above 900ppm, they have three months to remedy it,” says Berger. “If it’s above 1,200ppm they have to shut while they remedy it. So that will have a huge effect. I do think legislation and compliance are a significant part of the picture, because this isn’t going to happen voluntarily.”
Like others, Berger draws parallels between our current approach to air quality, and the changed approach to water quality in the 19th century.
“It took a long time after John Snow took the handle off the Broad Street pump, after Louis Pasteur postulated the germ theory of disease, for it become common currency that water needed to be clean,” he says. “And I think we’re at the time in history that is directly analogous to that.”
Berger also questions the sole emphasis on vaccination as a “silver bullet”, at the expense of non-pharmaceutical interventions such as improved ventilation, and points to the experience with cholera.
“There are effective vaccines for cholera, but they aren’t the whole answer,” he says. “The reason we don’t see cholera outbreaks everywhere in the world all the time is because we clean the water; it’s not because we’ve vaccinated the entire population of the world against cholera. Where there is a cholera outbreak, we go in, sometimes do a targeted ring vaccination of people in the affected area, but go and fix the water. And we don’t fix the air.”
To view the CO2 Radicals website, click here.
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