Inside Your Building - What You Need to Know about Indoor Air Quality

Jul 07, 2015

Owners of buildings, including their representatives such as Property Managers may need to be concerned about quality of the air inside their buildings, which may adversely impact occupant and tenant health, safety and well being, as they can spend a majority of their work day in those environments. A number of factors can affect indoor air quality, such as the influx of fresh air into building and various work spaces, the presence or generation of various contaminants (e.g. carbon monoxide, tobacco smoke etc.), water damage or leaks that can lead to mould growth etc. Since indoor air quality inside a building can affect people’s health, safety and well being in potentially harmful ways, it's important to identify and understand some of the circumstances that can lead to these risks, and basic solutions that can help manage those risks.

In this post, we’ll go through a number of things your business needs to know about indoor air quality.

Ventilation and Temperature Issues

A building without proper (and required) ventilation is at greater risk of leading to poorer air quality than a properly vented building. Without fresh air (and make up air) ventilation systems, indoor air can become stale and dirty. The presence of contaminants (e.g. particulate matter etc.) might not even be noticeable at first, particularly if the build up is a gradual one. Unfortunately, energy initiatives intended to help reduce work space and building energy usage has inadvertently led to poorly ventilated areas and an unintended increase in contaminants within the air space (and on surfaces) of many buildings.

One simple solution to ensure proper air ventilation is to develop and implement a proper preventative maintenance program regarding the ventilation systems.  These systems should be regularly inspected, cleaned (that may include “dirty” filters being changed out), and maintained to ensure optimum functionality and operation.

Faulty or improperly functioning temperature control systems can affect the thermal comfort of building occupants and tenants.  Work spaces that are too hot or too cold may affect worker productivity and improper indoor temperatures (combined with poor ventilation) can lead to development of infections such as colds and flus.

Vehicle Exhaust and Carbon Monoxide

Carbon monoxide is an odourless and colorless gas that can cause headaches and dizziness. If airborne concentrations build up to higher and higher levels, carbon monoxide can lead to more deleterious health effects.  So where does carbon monoxide come from and how do you control potential sources? Carbon monoxide is primarily emitted through the combustion of fuels, and is a component of vehicle exhaust and other fuel-powered tools, equipment and machinery. Carbon monoxide often enters a building through open windows and doors, as well as ventilation fresh air intake systems, which can be, and is often, located in areas such as loading bays.

To limit carbon monoxide (and vehicle exhaust) within the building work environment, owners or managers should identify potential pathways into the building, and undertake actions to eliminate those areas as pathways; proper building ventilation will also help to minimize and dilute carbon monoxide levels in the air. If the pathways cannot be fully eliminated, consider implementing an “anti-idling” policy for vehicle operators to ensure they do not idle for more than a limited time period (e.g. 3 minutes, 5 minutes etc.)

What about Volatile Organic Compounds (“VOC”)?

Volatile organic compounds are organic substances that generally have a high vapour pressure at room temperature.  There are several types of VOCs, and can be generated from both man-made and naturally occurring compounds. While VOCs have their place in nature, some types can be dangerous to human health.  These “harmful” VOCs are typically not toxic acutely, however, some can have cumulative, long term effects.  VOCs in an indoor environment can be emitted from such items as construction materials, furniture, carpet, paint, curtains, copying machines and printers, as well as personal care products (such as scented sprays and perfumes) etc.

Those who may be more sensitive to various VOCs can experience health effects such as headaches, eye and skin irritation, dizziness, skin problems, nausea, irritation of the nose and/or throat etc. The presence of higher concentrations or prolonged exposure to some VOCs can even lead to damage to organs and systems such as the kidneys, central nervous system, or liver. Unfortunately, some VOCs are even considered to be potentially carcinogenic (cancer causing) in nature.

Controlling VOC levels in your building is not an easy task. However, you can minimize exposure to these harmful contaminants by increasing ventilation into work spaces (dilution effects) and choosing materials, cleaners, products and furnishings that contain fewer and/or lower VOCs (e.g. VOC-free paints, low emission carpeting etc.). Since building materials and furnishings may emit higher levels of VOCs when they are first used or installed, windows and/or doors should be kept open and ventilation to those areas increased for certain time periods to “flush out” contaminants that may be in the indoor air.

What about Biological Contaminants?

Biological contaminants are classified as either substances that are produced by living things (by products such as waste) or are living entities (e.g. bacteria, mould, viruses etc.). They include animal dander, mites, cockroaches, pollen, mould, dust, viruses, and bacteria. Depending on a person’s individual health status (e.g. hay fever, allergies), they may be more susceptible to exposure to these contaminants, and may experience symptoms such as difficulty breathing, headaches, wheezing, and coughing. When bacteria or viruses are present, they can lead to an infection that might require further medical treatments (e.g. antibiotics).

Mould can grow in work areas provided that there are the “right” conditions for growth: water source, temperature, and a source of food. It only takes approximately 24 to 48 hours for mould to growth after say, a pipe water leak that has damaged building materials such as drywall, insulation etc.

Controlling biological contaminants in a building environment can be a challenging task. However, improving fresh air ventilation in work spaces and increasing the number of air changes in the work environment can minimize build up of these contaminants.  Regarding mould growth, water leaks and related issues should be immediately addressed and controlled (stop the leak); where mould growth may have occurred, hire a properly qualified and competent Consultant to assess the situation and risks and determine proper courses of action, such as hiring an abatement company to safely remove the mould contaminated materials.

So What Can You Do Now?

Indoor air quality is usually not on the forefront of building owner’s or property manager’s minds, unless occupants and tenants complain and raise concerns.  So what can be done to prevent and maintain good air quality in your building? Here’s a summary of tips and tricks:

  • Establish an “Indoor Air Quality” Program for your building.
  • Develop a “Preventative Maintenance Program” for your building’s mechanical ventilation systems.  Ensure regular inspections, cleaning and maintenance is performed by qualified staff to maintain optimum operations and efficiencies.
  • Develop a “VOC Management Program” to indicate limitations on, and requirements regarding use of VOC-based or containing materials, products etc.
  • Develop an “IAQ” complaint logging system, to track which spaces and people are affected, their symptoms and concerns, and dates/times of those complaints.
  • Hire the “right” Consultants and experts to conduct building walkthroughs and inspections to identify potential indoor air quality issues and risks.
  • Have those same Consultants perform initial, baseline or preliminary indoor air quality testing to assess the current atmospheric conditions in your building.
  • Follow recommendations provided by the Consultant in a timely manner to prevent the issues from occurring, control the risks and/or minimize the impacts on your occupants and tenants.
  • Address water leaks and mould problems right away.  Undertake swift and targeted actions to rid work spaces of water-damaged and mould-contaminated materials, and ensure that sources of water are properly controlled and eliminated to prevent future mould growth.

In summary, many preventative measures can be undertaken to control IAQ issues before they become a problem, or larger issue.  Don’t wait for your occupants and tenants to complain. Undertake proper and timely actions to address identified issues, by using qualified, trained and competent resources to assist you with maintaining a healthy and safe work environment for all individuals.

About Craig Yee - Occupational Health and Safety Consultant in Vancouver

Craig Yee is an Industrial Hygienist and Principal of OHS Global Risk Solutions. He earned his Masters Degree in Occupational and Environmental Hygiene at the University of British Columbia. He has over 12 years of direct experience in the hygiene, health and safety industry in both public and private sectors. You can connect with him on Google+.

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