Indoor Air Quality – Part 1

The Value Of Good Indoor Air Quality

The term Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) refers to the “air quality within and around the building structure as it relates to the health and comfort of building occupants” and may include the work environment, home or other indoor locations.

Most everyone has experienced poor indoor air quality at one time or another. It is often linked to symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, asthma, sinus infections, allergic reactions and respiratory tract irritation, among others. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that Americans spend 90% of their day indoors. If you live, work or visit places that have poor air quality, it is likely that you will be affected.

Many factors affect poor air quality in the workplace or home – including poor or inadequate ventilation; poor control of moisture; failure to address water leaks on a timely basis; contamination that enters the indoor space from outside; use of cleaning supplies, pesticides and personal care items inside the home or office; radon, mold and other biogenic hazards; and environmental tobacco smoke, just to name a few.

The Impact of Poor Air Quality

The American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology states that as much as 50% of all illnesses are caused or aggravated by poor air quality. The World Health Organization estimates that in the United States, 20 million people (6% of the total population) have asthma, of which most are adversely impacted by the indoor environment. Allergies affect more than 20% of the population and are the sixth leading cause of chronic illness in the U.S.

Poor air quality does more than just make us feel bad. There have been many studies that look at the impact of air quality on illness and productivity at work and school. One recent air quality study demonstrated that poor quality affects cognitive functioning. (“Association of Cognitive Function Scores with Carbon Dioxide, Ventilation and Volatile Organic Compound Exposures in Office Workers: A Controlled Exposure Study of Green and Conventional Office Environments”, Environmental Health Perspectives, October, 2015.)

Historically, schools have deferred preventative maintenance and looked for ways to reduce operating costs. During the energy crisis of the 70’s, many schools enclosed fresh air dampers to reduce the amount of makeup air needed to heat their buildings. Heating equipment in many classrooms has passed the end of its useful service life, increasing operating and maintenance costs. In our practice, we have seen rooftop air conditioners with mounds of dirt caked on filters and coils and standing water with multi-color biofilm slime in condensate pans due to a lack of preventative maintenance on these systems.

In the hospitality (hotels and restaurants) industry, poor air quality has an estimated cost of four dollars per square foot on productivity – with impacts on sales, repeat customers and staff efficiency.

Absenteeism and “Presenteeism”

The cost of absenteeism to businesses is real. Studies have found that the total cost to the economy from lost wages and medical treatment resulting from poor air quality is as high as $168 billion annually. (“IAQ and Employee Productivity: A Guide to Understanding the Real Cost of Poor Indoor Air Quality”, Kimberly Clark Filtration Products.) The American Lung Association estimates that 15.5 million sick days result from people with asthma. For every ten workers, poor air quality caused six additional sick days per year.

Even more significant than absenteeism, however, is “presenteeism” – when people come to work sick, and in   doing so, lose productivity in both quantity and quality due to a lack of rest. Who hasn’t gone into work at some point feeling sick, in order to meet a deadline or complete a project, knowing they should have stayed home? In fact, presenteeism is 7.5 times more costly than absenteeism because one sick individual can spread illness among many healthy ones when the air quality in the workplace is diminished.

So why then aren’t there standards for indoor air quality? The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) and EPA have been investigating this question for many years with little success. The difficulty in  establishing uniform standards for the indoor environment relates to several factors including age, gender, pre-existing medical conditions, immune system, and general health. People react very differently when exposed to the same conditions. Some suffer in the Spring during allergy season, yet others seem to be immune to fungal spores. Do you set limits for the most susceptible group or for some lesser level? Should the workplace be held responsible for maintaining standards higher than most people maintain in their homes? So, the federal agencies have largely limited their involvement to education and sharing information on causes and corrective actions for poor indoor air quality.

Taking Action

To address these issues, many states have started to take on indoor air quality issues themselves on a state-by-state basis. Currently, there are proposed regulations on aspects of IAQ in California, Florida, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, Virginia and the District of Columbia. These rules cover a wide range of topics including mold, asbestos, lead paint, radon, Legionella, lead in drinking water, fuel alternatives, and cleanup of clandestine drug laboratories. The challenge to business is in the variability of the rules, as well as the aspects covered by them.

Businesses are starting to understand the impact and value of maintaining a good indoor environment – making changes to improve it by monitoring air quality and adjusting operation of mechanical systems, providing sufficient fresh outside air, and implementing preventative maintenance. These “high-performance” buildings have done much to enhance the quality of the built environment. There is a  widespread misconception, however, that these buildings come with a big price tag but produce few  benefits other than environmental stewardship.

So what is the answer? In a future issue of HETI Horizons, we will focus on actions that building owners and property managers can take to improve indoor air quality. The answer is not a “one-size-fits-all” approach. Some strategies require capital investment, while others involve assessment, monitoring and communicating to employees, tenants and visitors.

HETI…Helping Improve the Indoor Environment

HETI offers a staff of experienced engineers and industrial hygiene professionals with proven capabilities to deal with a full range of air quality issues. HETI has the experience and technical expertise to assist with hazard     recognition, assessment, and control development to improve the built environment.