To slow diseases, smarter environments are going viral

By design: Smarter planning and construction techniques can slow the spread of infectious diseases, according to top Long Island architects.

We send our children off to school every day with the understanding that our school facilities are safe, clean and secure environments. But if we don’t properly maintain these “controlled” environments, they may become examples of “great science experiments.”

Students spend up to eight hours a day indoors, with hundreds of other students in close proximity. Children are generally more vulnerable to environmental contaminants than adults, whether it be coronavirus, influenza, MRSA or the common cold – and the action plans implemented by school systems are essential to maintaining healthy facilities.

Any type of communicable infection causes public concern, but this is especially true when children are involved. In order to protect our students, government agencies and medical authorities, H2M’s technical staff of industrial hygienists and environmental scientists has been advising school districts on how they can make learning facilities as clean as possible, and so promote the health benefits to all occupants.

Although we are concerned with the possible exposure of students to several contagious infections, we are highlighting one of these health concerns here – MRSA.

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus goes by many names – including “staph” and sometimes even “superbug” – and has been a frequent headline in recent years. This type of Staphylococcus bacteria is resistant to many common types of antibiotics, so while all Staphylococcus bacteria may cause infections, MRSA is generally more concerning because of the difficulties in treating it.

Saverio Belfiore: Don’t mess with MRSA.

And it’s probably more common than you think. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 5 percent of U.S. hospital patients carry MRSA in their nose or on their skin (some may be “colonized,” meaning they carry the pathogen but aren’t necessarily infected).

The Staphylococcus bacteria are a common cause of skin infections resembling pimples, rashes, lesions or boils. The more serious blood stream infections could lead to pneumonia and other serious complications, but usually only in people who are already immunocompromised, sick or recovering from surgical procedures.

Thankfully, a lot can be done to reduce the spread of serious outbreaks. Since staph is often spread by skin contact, proper handwashing and personal hygiene is critical. More seriously, MRSA can be transmitted by secretions from infected skin lesions or wound, so skin infections must be properly dressed and covered by experienced medical professionals.

Healthy children are generally not at more risk than anyone else for developing MRSA. But if not properly managed, their environments may contribute to the rapid spread of a variety of communicable diseases, including MRSA.

Thomas King: Safety monitor.

Architecture and engineering services can help prevent the spread of diseases through forward-thinking design practices.

Installing the right number of sinks, in the right places, promotes frequent handwashing. The use of nonporous and easily cleaned construction materials in areas of frequent touching and skin contact helps slow the spread of bacterial infections. Other strategies – sizing spaces sufficiently to avoid overcrowding, utilizing proper ventilation equipment – also help.

H2M remains proactive during the design of all projects, specifically those in education facilities, to make sure the potential for the spread of illness is minimized, and provides environmental consulting services including awareness training for school staff.

It’s been shown that the proper environmental management of indoor spaces can significantly reduce the incidence rate of MRSA transmissions.  A recent CDC study on MRSA incidence rates in healthcare facilities showed a 54 percent decline in national hospitals between 2005 and 2011, an “encouraging” sign of better environmental management.

But MRSA remains “an important public health problem,” according to the CDC, “and more remains to be done to further decrease risks of developing these infections.”

Saverio Belfiore is deputy market director of education and vice president, and Thomas King is corporate health and safety manager, at H2M architects + engineers in Melville.