The not-so-great indoors

Airtight, energy efficient offices have done wonders for conservation but not indoor air quality.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

This could come as a surprise to some but guess which health hazard has made the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s top five list of environmental risks to public health? The answer is the very indoor air you could be breathing right now.

Given this country’s massive investment in modern, well-apportioned office buildings, that sounds counterintuitive, but Americans spend 90% of their time indoors — 95% if they have achieved senior citizen status. While we automatically (and falsely) assume indoor air is cleaner than outdoor air, we actually run the risk of inhaling gases that make us sick or impair our ability to work and, in the case of students, our ability to learn.

There have been indoor air quality or “IAQ” studies galore, many of them done in conjunction with government agencies like the EPA and groups like the World Health Organization. The latest is a joint Harvard-State University of New York study titled, “Economic, Environmental, and Health Implications of Enhanced Ventilation in Office Buildings,” which explored the link between improved ventilation and stronger workforce productivity. It found that that doubling the ventilation rate in typical office buildings can be reached at an annual energy cost ranging between $14 and $40 per person, with the return on investment being as much as a $6,500 equivalent in improved productivity per person per year.

The study, done by the same research team that has also found a strong link between green building practices and improved cognitive function, was supported by United Technologies Corp. and its UTC Climate, Controls & Security business, a provider of heating, ventilating, air conditioning systems and building controls and automation. This study is consistent with research that finds a workplace productivity benefit to investing in better indoor air quality, especially improved ventilation and better maintenance of ventilation systems. Some of these same studies put the nationwide economic cost of poor IAQ in the hundreds of billions of dollars annually.

If your first impulse is to dismiss this as the self-serving research of the home or office products industry, Paul Graham, senior vice president Aprilaire, a division of Research Products Corp. in Madison, and Doug Steege, vice president of business development for RenewAire in Madison, assert these studies aren’t just blowing smoke.

Graham notes that people in the industry initially resisted regulations to incentivize energy efficiency because they drove up the cost of equipment. Steege, who spent nearly 30 years on molecular filtration and the impact of gaseous contaminants on people and equipment, says most indoor air quality studies are not promoted or funded by manufacturers such as RenewAire but initiated by government agencies like the EPA and the WHO.

In addition, the need for improved ventilation is partly the result of society’s growing success in addressing energy conservation. As recently as 30 years ago, Graham notes, nobody had ever heard the term Sick Building Syndrome because construction techniques allowed buildings to ventilate naturally and there was enough infiltration of fresh outdoor air to keep them healthy.

Since the oil embargo of the 1970s, the federal government has understandably promoted energy conservation, including more energy-efficient residential and commercial buildings, but the downside is that people get sick and business organizations suffer due to the resulting sick time off and loss in worker productivity.

“The building construction, both residential and commercial, has gotten a lot tighter,” Graham notes. “If you look at the techniques in any new construction, and the energy incentives that have been given to commercial builders and office owners to make their structures more energy efficient, the only way to do that is to cut off the infiltration of outside air into the building.”



Giving us gas

As a result, buildings aren’t “breathing” correctly and the best way to get rid of pollutants, whether they are the germs and bacteria that people produce or the chemicals and “off-gassing” of carpets and other materials, is through dilution and ventilation. Off-gassing, which occurs over a period of years, happens when a volatile organic compound (VOC) like formaldehyde, which is used as a binding agent in flooring products, is slowly released from materials such as wood or carpeting.

This is why indoor air is from two to five times more polluted than outdoor air, according to the EPA. Steege notes that at very low concentrations, we don’t smell gases like radon, carbon dioxide, or others that are off-gassed in an indoor environment. Under higher concentrations, they become an irritant. With extremely high concentrations, they become lethal. “There is an actual molecular weight of these gases that can be felt,” Steege says. “A lot of times we don’t realize that. There is cognitive dissonance with regard to people indoors because they feel that when they’re indoors, they’re protected.”

Indoor air quality hazards that ventilation and dilution can mitigate include mold and mildew, fungus, bacteria, chemical allergens, and VOCs. It doesn’t take much of any hazard to impact employee health and that’s especially true for people with allergies, asthma, and other respiratory conditions, which is about 30% of the U.S. population. With these conditions, the primary concern is fine particulate. To prevent equipment from breaking down, Graham says office air filtration systems are designed to keep out large particulate, not to remove finer particulate.

“VOCs are one that people with respiratory conditions react negatively to,” he says, “so through copy machines and other things that produce ozone, people are susceptible to that if they have respiratory problems. You just need to have a property ventilated office with good air filtration.”

It also helps to use low-VOC paints, water-based adhesives, abide by national standards for limiting the emissions of formaldehyde from building products, and make sure your building’s cleaning services aren’t introducing harmful chemicals to the office environment.

“Air quality issues have been with us for many years, predominately in residential buildings, office buildings, and manufacturing facilities,” notes Keith Kaetterhenry, president of Baer Insurance. “The development and increasing use of low-VOC in paints, floorcoverings, adhesives, and cleaners have been effective in reducing the problem.”

Moreover, human activity provokes poor indoor air quality and not just unhealthy personal habits. “Human beings are polluters as well,” notes Nick Agopian, vice president of marketing and sales for RenewAire. “If it’s not what from what we off-gas every single day as a bioproduct, it’s from what you carry when leaving your house in the morning. After you’ve put on a nice shirt and the suit that you got dry cleaned, you walk out and you’re constantly off-gassing.”

Dilution solution

When evaluating indoor air quality issues, Matt Gilmore, risk services leader-central region for HUB International, which includes The Murphy Insurance Group, says it’s important to understand what if any changes may have occurred in the work environment, building maintenance procedures, employee personal risk factors, and other causal factors that can help spotlight the source of contaminants that create employee discomfort.

“Besides the factors that directly impact the levels of pollutants to which people are exposed, a number of environmental and personal factors can affect how people perceive air quality,” he notes. “Some of these factors affect both the levels of pollutants and perceptions of air quality.”

Gilmore cited factors like odors, extremes in temperature, air velocity and movement (too drafty or stuffy), heat or glare from sunlight, glare from ceiling lights (especially on monitor screens), noise and vibration levels, and the selection, location, and use of office equipment.

There are monitoring tools on the market that can collect IAQ data over a period of days and print out a report on CO2 levels, particulate count, and VOCs in the air. Building managers can compare their IAQ with “built environment” standards established by ASHRAE, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, which is a governing body for indoor environmental control technology.

Once problems are detected, there are two basic ways to do improve poor ventilation. First, you can buy a stand-alone product that typically is designed around the number of people in the building and that draws air out of the building and replaces it with outside air. The most common way mechanical contractors meet the ASHRAE ventilation standards for a building is through modern heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) equipment such as the rooftop units typically seen on commercial buildings. Typically, they are set up on timers so that ventilation is provided during the occupied hours of the building.

Any of the large equipment carriers offers these units as an option for rooftop heating and cooling. They will produce heat and air conditioning, so they allow for year-round ventilation. “You can purchase an economizer — that’s what it’s called — an outside mechanical vent that will open up,” Graham explains. “So as the unit is heating and producing hot air into the building, this outside vent will open so many minutes per hour based again on occupancy and how it’s set up by the contractor.”

There are also energy recovery ventilation products that can exchange energy from indoor air that is exhausted and using it to condition incoming outdoor air as part of HVAC systems. During warm-weather months, outside air is pre-cooled and dehumidified; in colder months, outside air is humidified and pre-heated. These ERVs aren’t inexpensive to purchase and install, but they “would reduce the energy cost per employee considerably,” Graham says.

Building owners and managers have to be willing to accept higher energy and equipment replacement costs, but there is a return represented by higher employee production. “In the case of ventilation, it’s higher energy costs,” Graham says. “In the case of air filtration, it’s higher replacement filter costs on the equipment. A $5 filter can turn into a $20 filter or more, and filters have to be replaced more often. They are taking out more particulate, so they are going to load quicker.”

Agopian contends that with filtration, gas-based molecular filtration is used to remove gases. That’s not only more expensive but it creates pollution because “you’ve got this carbon media and aluminum media and chemical media used to remove these gases, it’s thrown out into waste dumps, and you have to service these every three months or six months,” he states. “They tend to be very, very expensive as compared to constant ventilation.

“We have a saying that there is no better solution to pollution than dilution, and it’s the most inexpensive way of ventilating space in comparison to the alternative technologies.”



Legal liabilities

While ASHRAE is the standard for building ventilation, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is the green building standard that governs other fixes. Under LEED, every material is rated for its VOC characteristics; to earn points toward LEED certification, designers might install hard surface floor that doesn’t off-gas.

Just be careful not to make the same mistake as Lumber Liquidators. Based on a 60 Minutes investigation, lawsuits have been filed on behalf of consumers who purchased and allegedly became ill as the result of Chinese-made laminate flooring sold through Lumber Liquidators. The flooring contained high levels of formaldehyde, a chemical linked to respiratory issues, cancer, and other health problems.

After what happened in the Lumber Liquidators case, there could be a growing amount of case law related to indoor air quality, so litigation could join lost productivity and insurance claims as the costs associated with poor IAQ. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, established to maintain safe workplaces, does not have indoor air quality standards but it does have standards for ventilation and some of the air contaminants associated with IAQ.

If residential construction is any guide, potential liability is a hot topic and it’s completely driven by potential litigation. “The biggest concern of homebuilders is that as they build a house, the materials they put in there are going to off-gas,” Graham says. “They are very concerned that if they don’t properly ventilate that house, they will take on some level of liability.”

Kaetterhenry says product liability claims for products causing the air quality problems remain an active issue for the insurance industry. “We also see workers compensation claims resulting from air quality problems in manufacturing facilities,” he notes. “Most manufactures are well aware of the problem and have taken many steps to eliminate the sources, maintain proper ventilation, or provide protective breathing apparatus for their employees as mandated by OSHA.”

Many times, easily identifiable sources are the culprit of IAQ complaints, Gilmore notes. “In one case, several employees were complaining of light head or noxiousness and the employer determined that a vehicle had been left running near the air intakes of the building,” he recounts. “In other cases the discomfort may be related to allergies or non-work related issues which compound the problem.”

An IAQ checklist

According to HUB International’s Matt Gilmore, an indoor air quality workplace survey should include the following tasks:

1. Define the scope of the problem: who, what, when, and where?

  • Which areas of the building are affected?
  • How many employees are affected?
  • How many employees are in the affected area?
  • When did the concerns arise (on which days)?
  • What time of day do they occur?

2. Assess the validity of the complaint(s). Are the complaints:

  • Similar to one another?
  • Associated with the building?
  • The result of employee stress?
  • Linked to pre-existing medical conditions?

3. Perform claimant interviews to determine:

  • Name of claimant
  • Work location
  • Symptoms
  • Awareness of other complaints
  • Pre-existing medical conditions
  • Frequency and timing of symptoms
  • Correlation with weather, office activities, etc.
  • Employee theories

4. Gather related information, including:

  • Material safety data sheets (MSDS)
  • Hazard communication program
  • Pesticide applications
  • How floors, work surfaces, and other areas are cleaned
  • Are office plants in the building? Who cares for them?
  • Have previous IAQ evaluations been performed?
  • Is the building humidified?
  • Recent renovations
  • What office equipment is used?
  • Are there activities not normally associated with the office?
  • What is the HVAC preventive maintenance schedule?
  • Are there building-use changes?
  • Are there any recent air-balance reports?
  • Review of air quality complaint log.

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