Indoor Air Quality

Indoor Air Quality

Authored by: Evan Christian, Senior Department Manager

Often when we think of air quality, our focus is on the outdoors – carbon dioxide, smog, allergens, the list goes on. But human beings spend as much as 90% of their time indoors. Your indoor environment can have wide ranging physiological and psychological effects and our vulnerable populations (young, ill, elderly) are most impacted. Good indoor air quality (IAQ) can lead to happier and more productive lives, and it is important that it is not overlooked when considering our wellness.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates 30 percent of the non-industrial buildings in the United States have indoor air quality problems resulting in documented occupant complaints and medical symptoms. The effects of poor IAQ can lead to acute or chronic health problems. Acute health effects can range from irritation of eyes, nose, throat to headaches, fatigue, breathing problems, dizziness. Chronic health effects manifest in the form of respiratory diseases, heart diseases, and cancers. Consultation with your physician or health department should be a first step for those experiencing symptoms.

It can be difficult for occupants without training or analytical tools to tell if there are air quality problems in their indoor environments, but some noticeable signs can be moldy or musty odors, moisture, damaged building materials, peeling paint films, or poor air movement/ventilation.

So, what causes poor IAQ? In most cases, poor IAQ comes from a pollutant source within the home or building, poorly functioning or maintained building systems, or incorrectly designed spaces. What are the sources of poor IAQ? A variety of pollutants or conditions can affect IAQ including but not limited to:

·        Asbestos – a mineral fiber commonly used in building materials for much of the 20th century to increase material strength and durability and improve insulating and anticorrosive properties. Asbestos can be found in insulation, flooring materials, wallboard, plasters, and many other building materials and can lead to cancers and other respiratory problems.

·        Radona colorless, odorless gas released from the soil and rock in the ground that can infiltrate our homes and buildings. Long term effects of radon exposure include lung cancer.

·        Indoor moldspores from fungi (mold and yeast) are commonly present in the outdoor air and soil, particularly in warm weather seasons. Because spores are prevalent in the outdoor air, spores are found in the indoor air in all homes, schools, commercial and industrial buildings. Moisture infiltration and poor ventilation can lead to increased levels of mold indoors and can lead to health effects including upper respiratory irritation, aggravation or development of mold allergy, asthma, or lung infections in susceptible people like those with weakened immune systems.

·        Carbon monoxide – carbon monoxide is a common air pollutant and is produced during the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels (e.g., heating oil, natural gas, propane, gasoline) and other organic matter.  At low concentrations, carbon monoxide produces fatigue and increased chest pain in people with heart disease.  Higher levels produce headache, dizziness, nausea and weakness.

·     Carbon dioxidea normal constituent of the atmosphere and is a by-product of respiration and the combustion of organic materials. Carbon dioxide levels are used as an indicator of ventilation adequacy because elevated levels are often an indicator of inadequate fresh air supply.  Elevated carbon dioxide can produce occupant complaints of odor, fatigue, sleepiness, and irritation.

·        Particulate matter (dust) – ubiquitous in the earth’s atmosphere and is also produced from motor vehicle exhaust, cigarette smoke, and industrial sources such as coal-burning power plants.  Exposure to airborne particulate matter is associated with irritation of the upper respiratory system and may aggravate or promote the development of lung diseases such as bronchitis and asthma.

Monitoring and investigations from trained professionals can help us better understand what is in our indoor environment by identifying what, if any, pollutants are present and their sources, how to remediate them, and how to maintain our living or working spaces so we can live happier, healthier, more productive lives.