Indoor Air Quality

Indoor air quality is affected by both what happens inside the building and what goes on outside. Pollutants inside the workplace include gasses coming from the glues used to install new carpets and pesticide residues. Outdoor pollutants include fumes from idling cars or trucks and dusts from nearby construction sites.

Health Effects

There are three types of health problems related to poor air quality:

  • Sick Building Syndrome (SBS)
  • Building-Related Illness (BRI)
  • Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS)

Sick building syndrome describes buildings in which the occupants suffer a variety of symptoms when they spend time in the building. Symptoms include:

  • Headaches
  • Throat Irritation
  • Watery Eyes
  • Stuffy Nose
  • Lethargy, Drowsiness
  • Skin Rashes

There is no specific illness --no medical diagnosis-- and these symptoms often disappear when the employee leaves the building.

Building-related illness is a medically-diagnosed illness usually attributed to airborne building contaminants. The most common building-related illness is Legionnaires' Disease, which is caused by bacteria present in the water which cause a respiratory problem.

In 1991, Legionnaires' Disease killed two people and infected 13 employees at the Richmond, California Payment Service Center. The infected employees did not know that they had it. They assumed they had a cold or flu. Symptoms include coughing, sneezing, shortness of breath, chills and muscle aches. People with low immune systems and smokers are more susceptible to Legionnaires' Disease.

Multiple chemical sensitivity develops after repeated exposure to chemicals which trigger allergic reactions. After a while, the individual becomes so sensitive that they have a reaction when they are exposed to almost any chemical in their environment.

Causes of Poor Air Quality

Poor indoor air quality may be caused by:

Insufficient Fresh Air. Building problems often result from stale air within a facility and closed-off building air intake. When the amount of fresh air is less than what is required for the space and number of people in the building, people may start experiencing symptoms of sick building syndrome.

Air Contaminants. Most chemical air contaminants come from inside the building. Carpeting, upholstery, cleaning agents, copier toner, and manufactured wood products can emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as formaldehyde.

There are also air contaminants that come from outside the building. For example, car exhaust and combustion products. Air contaminants may be gasses, vapors, dusts, fumes, mists or fibers. Neighboring businesses can also impact office air quality. For example, an SSA office in Oregon was affected by a nearby beauty salon. The odor from the nail removal chemicals entered the office through the HVAC system and caused employees to become ill.

Biological Contaminants. Bacteria microbes can grow in HVAC systems and places where dirt and water have accumulated. Places such as ventilation system drip pans, roof leaks, and wet wall surfaces. When bacteria become airborne, they can enter the building's ventilation system and spread from worker to worker.

Microorganisms thrive in:

  • organic nutrients
  • moisture
  • growing surface
  • dark environment

The mold grows in this habitat and releases spores that are then carried throughout the structure by the HVAC system. Microbes can contaminate wall surfaces, ceiling panels, or air ducts. Keeping the HVAC system in good working order will eliminate these four ingredients for microbes growth.

Improper System Balancing. The construction of new walls, the installation of new furniture cubicles, and office expansion can create a need for a larger system. Signs of problems can be hot and cold spots within an office area.

The EPA has published a booklet on what building occupants can do to work with building managers to resolve indoor air quality problems. The booklet, An Office Building Occupant's Guide to Indoor Air Quality, is available from EPA (202) 564-9370 or on the Internet at www.epa.gov/iaq/pubs/occupgd.html.

Investigating the Problem

If you suspect there is an indoor air problem in your facility, work with your agency through your local to investigate the problem and to find a solution. The investigation will likely include:

Walkthrough: Basic investigation in which you walk around the building looking at the general condition of the building. You should look at the mechanical system of the building and look at air intakes and exhausts. Talk to employees about the problems they are experiencing. Talk to building personnel about the system maintenance and areas where they've seen problems.

Preliminary Investigation: This may include some air testing to measures the levels of carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and microorganisms.

Baseline Evaluation: This is a more in-depth investigation that will show the status of the building. It can be used to compare to measurements after abatement and to monitor changes in the future.

Periodic Evaluation: Helps to make sure things are working right. This evaluation should be on a regular basis and compared to the baseline measurements.

Employee Complaints: Always ask people about their experiences.

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