Clean Air and Coffee Shops

Ah, June. One of the nicest things about early summer is being able to sit outside a coffee shop, enjoying the sun and sipping a cold brew or iced latte.

But what’s this? Visibility is dropping and the air is getting thick? A sepia filter has descended over the world and turned me into an extra from Blade Runner 2049? There’s ash in my cold brew?

Last week the US east coast was blanketed in smoke from wildfires raging across Canada. New York City at one point had the second worst air quality in the world, and the Blade Runner memes were out in force. Wildfire smoke is really bad for your health—it contains carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, and particulate matter and is linked to higher rates of heart attacks, strokes, and cardiac arrests.

Wildfire season is just beginning in North America, and according to CNN it’s off to an “unprecedented” start. The Canadian fires have burned 15 times the normal area for this time of year, and it’s not the only part of the world to be scorched. 2023 has already seen fires in Spain, China, France, even here in Scotland, and we’re only halfway through June. As the planet heats these events will only get worse, so making plans to deal with the smoke is a necessity.

Air Quality is a Labor Issue

In New York City, despite the haze and the risk to health, life went on close to normal. People went jogging, dined outdoors, and went to work. Many workers didn’t have a choice, of course—delivery drivers cycled through the smoke, and the coffee shops, bars and restaurants that remained open needed staff.

Air quality is a labor issue—the UK’s Trades Union Congress found that around 75 percent of their reps reported member concerns about air pollution, and the US Department of Labor urged employers to protect outdoor workers from exposure to health hazards related to the wildfire smoke. Unionized Starbucks workers in New York asked management to shut down their store drive-thrus to protect those inside from exposure to the smoke, but their requests were refused.

Much of the advice during wildfire smoke emergencies is to stay indoors, but if you take your latte inside the coffee shop you might be swapping one danger for another.

Proper ventilation inside coffee shops would protect workers—and customers—from the effects of wildfire smoke. It would also protect against Covid, another deadly airborne risk that has rather faded into the background of late.

Walk around any city and look through the windows of the coffee shops you pass and you’ll see the same thing: people working, people talking, people queuing for another latte. Life has mostly returned to a pre-2020 version of normal and maskless indoor gatherings are the norm again despite the documented risk that surrounds it.

Back to “Normal”

According to the World Health Organization, the Covid-19 pandemic has killed nearly seven million people worldwide, although that is probably an undercount. Millions more suffer from the after-effects of a disease that can have a worse effect on patients’ lives than certain cancers.

“In a busy café with no ventilation, as we all saw with the pandemic, there is a risk of spread of respiratory disease,” Dr. Robert Ferguson from the School of Life Sciences at the University of Essex tells me. “This is true of any indoor space, but could be exacerbated by high humidity caused by a coffee machine, and/or poorly stored/disposed of food waste/wet coffee grounds.”

“Exposure to pollutants depends on both the concentration and time exposed,” says Dr. Abigail Hathway, senior lecturer in the Department of Civil and Structural Engineering at the University of Sheffield. “So, for customers popping in for a take out the risk is low, however for a member of staff in the café all day the risk is higher.”

Covid mainly spreads through the air, so ventilating indoor spaces and cleaning indoor air seems like a no-brainer, but this still isn’t happening at any scale. The CDC only just started recommending improved building ventilation in May 2023, the same month it essentially declared the pandemic over. This has left concerned individuals, businesses, and organizations to take whatever precautions they can.

A Worthwhile Investment

The Apricot Tree Cafe in Mississauga, Canada, made headlines last year for going above and beyond to keep its staff and customers safe as indoor dining reopened. After making contact with a team of experts who carried out an indoor air audit at the restaurant, owner Franz Hochholdinger installed four R2D2-sized purifiers. Purifiers using HEPA filters work to clean the air, removing dust, pollen, mold, bacteria and other tiny airborne particles—including, according to several studies, the coronavirus.

“We’ve always had a little more conservative way of doing business,” Hochholdinger tells me. “We always took steps further than what was required by the health department. So when somebody approached us and showed us that there's technology out there and there's more we can do, we decided it's a great idea. It's the best thing we can do.”

After a trial to make sure it was worth it, Hochholdinger bought the four devices at a cost of $15,000. Alongside high ceilings and a massive kitchen exhaust, they have kept the air quality in his restaurant at consistently safe levels. So much so that Hochholdinger is confident in his claim that no staff members have contracted Covid while at work. “We know that because working in the restaurant industry, you're working so close next to each other all day long, nonstop side by side whether it's in the dining room or in the kitchen. And if somebody is sick, it will spread like wildfire.”

Customers have been coming to the Apricot Tree specifically because of the precautions they take, Hochholdinger says. And while many restaurants are still struggling, at the Apricot Tree this past April was their best month in thirty years. “I think it's 100% because of what we do with indoor air,” Hochholdinger tells me. “We know our customers come because of what we do, and we are busy because of what we do. We can operate at full capacity, and everybody shows up to work and that plays a big part as well. If I'm missing two or three people on a regular basis, I'll have to close down a percentage of the restaurant.”

Obviously not every cafe or restaurant can afford $15,000 up front, although Hochholdinger insists the filters have paid for themselves several times over. “I know it's an investment, but work with the supplier and see if you can work out a deal,” he says. “Maybe they give you three months free to see if it works for you, or maybe you can lease them—you know, they’re maybe $150 a month but if an employee calls in sick the revenue you lose is far more than that.”

For cafes on a more limited budget it’s worth considering some cheaper options that can still make a difference. “In a small café, opening the door frequently can often provide plenty of outside air to dilute indoor pollutants,” Dr. Hathaway explains. “However, if the outside air is polluted such as during wildfires, or being located on a busy polluted road then letting in this air will create other health risks.”

Homemade air purifiers—made from three HVAC filters and a box fan and known as Corsi-Rosenthal boxes—have been used in schools, homeless shelters, and daycare facilities during Covid. More recently they have been utilized on the US east coast in response to the wildfire smoke engulfing the region. These are significantly cheaper than commercial purifiers, and studies show them to be comparable in performance.

Pressure from Above

Covid isn’t going away anytime soon, and the way the world is going neither is air pollution from wildfires and other sources. Covid was the fourth leading cause of death worldwide in 2022, while air pollution causes seven million excess deaths annually. We spend a huge portion of our time indoors—upwards of 90% in the US and Europe—so having good quality indoor air is essential.

It might be down to governments to force the issue. Dr. Ferguson points towards UK legislation such as the Clean Air Act and local initiatives like low emission zones in London and elsewhere as signs that progress is being made. “On an international level the UN recently adopted a resolution for a universal right to a healthy environment, which includes the right to clean air,” Dr. Ferguson says. “So improvements in air quality are very much on the agenda.”

Clean air is especially crucial for those who work in indoor spaces like coffee shops, where most of the time they can’t control the air quality in which they work. While individual employers like Hochholdinger and the Apricot Tree Cafe are out there, it’s the companies with thousands of employees that are going to have the biggest impact. So I reached out to a number of international coffee chains—Starbucks, Tim Hortons, Costa Coffee, Gloria Jean’s—to ask them what they are doing to ensure their employees have clean air at work. I have yet to hear back.