IAQ Trends: Danger In The Air

By Jillian Ruffino
Published in the July 2006 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

People tend to think of dangerous air as something found outside. They close car windows to avoid inhaling exhaust and invest in expensive purifiers to rid the air of outdoor allergens that have somehow made their way inside. Few would imagine that the materials used to build their offices and manufacture the everyday products in their work environments could be health hazards. Indoor air quality (IAQ) is something that the average person rarely thinks about—until something goes terribly wrong.

Problems with IAQ can have severe effects on building occupants’ health, shown in immediate, irritating symptoms, and sometimes far reaching, fatal conditions.

There is no way to calculate how many productive work days are lost because of problems with IAQ. Complaints about IAQ can range from very simple concerns, such as unpleasant odors, to feelings of discomfort and even sickness, depending on the sensitivity of the individual. Many of the physical warning signs mimic those of everyday illnesses, so it is often difficult to distinguish between an acute IAQ situation and the common cold or other non-critical complaints.

But many experts today agree that there is a serious concern in the world of IAQ that needs to be addressed in order to avoid disastrous health consequences.

The Problem Is Volatile—Literally

When it comes to IAQ, there are a number of issues to examine. Mold is omnipresent, and nanoparticles have gotten some attention in the past. The latest IAQ area of concern is Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC).

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), VOCs can be defined as gases that are emitted from certain solids or liquids. They contain a variety of harmful chemicals that can cause both short-term and long-term health problems. VOCs are particularly dangerous in terms of IAQ, because concentrations are up to 10 times higher indoors than outdoors.

VOCs can be found in a plethora of common building materials and office related products. Dr. Paul Shipp, senior research associate for Libertyville, IN-based USG Research and Technology Innovation Center, explains, “The most common sources of VOCs are paints, ceiling tiles, carpets, and vinyl flooring.” Other substances containing these harmful gases include cleaning products and office equipment such as copiers and printers.

The immediate symptoms of overexposure to VOCs are disturbing. The EPA lists the following: eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, loss of coordination, allergic skin reaction, fatigue, and dizziness.

The enduring consequences are even more alarming. VOCs have been known to trigger cancer in animals. Some are recognized or are under suspicion for causing cancer in humans. Other possible results are damage to the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system.

One VOC that has been a source of concern is formaldehyde. Reed Larson, technical services manager for Denver, CO-based building products manufacturer Johns Manville, says, “An example of a hazardous chemical emitted from building materials is formaldehyde. It was added to the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s (IARC) list of known human carcinogens in 2004. Formaldehyde is commonly used in the manufacturing of many building products, including pressed wood, carpet, and insulation.”

The National Safety Council (NSC) warns that the risk of developing cancer due to exposure to formaldehyde is dependent upon the amount and duration of contact with this VOC. Since it is used in glues, wood products, preservatives, permanent press fabrics, paper product coatings, and insulation, formaldehyde exposure may be extended and frequent.

Immediate reactions to formaldehyde are similar to those found with VOCs in general. These symptoms are experienced when air levels contain .1ppm (parts per million) of formaldehyde. It is usually present at .06 ppm or lower.

To put that in perspective, most indoor air is quite close to having enough formaldehyde in it to cause acute health effects such as watery eyes, burning in the eyes, nose, and throat, nausea, skin rashes, and other irritating and possibly dangerous symptoms.

What Can Be Done?

Fortunately, decreasing the levels of formaldehyde in a facility is possible, particularly because it is one of the few indoor air contaminants that can be measured easily.

Recommendations from the NSC include avoiding the use of insulation containing formaldehyde, including urea-formaldehyde foam. Facility professionals can also store paints, solvents, and adhesives in well-ventilated areas.

The NSC also advises enclosing pressed wood surfaces with laminate or water based sealants. It is important to increase ventilation after bringing new sources of this dangerous VOC into a facility.

Larson explains, “IAQ can be improved in three ways: source reduction, air purification, or ventilation with clean outside air. Of these approaches, source reduction is preferred, because it is permanent and doesn’t require any ongoing, active controls.”

When facing construction, reconstruction, or refurbishment, facility managers should specifically choose products that are low in VOCs such as formaldehyde. According to Shipp, “These various indoor contaminants are emitted from a host of sources. Until we look at each one individually and develop strategies to minimize, if not eliminate, some of these pollutants, we will continue to have problems.”

When selecting building materials, it is advisable to choose products that meet or exceed the standard set by OSHA.

The carpeting industry has made great strides in formaldehyde reduction. Diann Barbacci, vice president of sustainable design for Mohawk Industries, based in Kennesaw, GA, explains, “Today, there is no formaldehyde in our carpet products. As an industry we’ve done a number of things to reduce this VOC, and several manufacturers have eliminated it entirely.”

Choosing products low in VOCs isn’t always as easy as it appears. Barbacci advises, “Facility managers should be cognizant of asking all product manufacturers whether or not their particular standard tests for formaldehyde. For instance, there is a separate VOC test for furniture as opposed to carpet, so they need to ensure that the Greenguard test they have for furniture has at least looked at whether or not formaldehyde is present in their product. And if it is, at what level is it present? Does it meet the EPA limit for parts per million?”

Investing in materials that are naturally VOC-free, such as metal or solid wood furniture, is another strategy.

Beyond purchasing building materials and products low in VOCs, facility managers must also consider maintenance. Because cleaning supplies often contain these harmful substances, the entire life cycle of any acquisition should be taken into account before it is purchased.

“We are learning more about the impacts that daily cleaning has inside a building; there is the potential to add unnecessary IAQ problems by using cleaners high in VOCs,” says Steven Ashkin, president of the Bloomington, IN-based consulting firm the Ashkin Group, LLC. “When done correctly, cleaning can be an important strategy for controlling and eliminating IAQ problems.”

His advice? “Switch to green products—environmentally preferable cleaning products—that release fewer VOCs into the air.”

Furniture and carpeting specifically designed for maintenance with VOC-free products are ideal. At Mohawk Industries, Barbacci states, “We clean a lot of our products with just plain old water. From a staining and soiling standpoint, that’s the first thing we look at—how can we maintain our products without the use of any chemicals?”

Facility managers are constantly concerned about budgets, and many might wonder if seeking out VOC-free solutions is economically feasible. “A misconception for facility managers building a new structure or remodeling an existing building is that superior building products cost more,” explains Larson. “Oftentimes, products offering superior environmental or IAQ performance are available for nearly the same price. Usually, it’s a matter of researching a project’s needs and working with an architect and contractor to ensure that the products used truly offer the desired performance.”

Facility managers must remain informed in order to make sensible, cost effective decisions when purchasing with IAQ in mind. As Ashkin says, “I believe that facility managers will come to understand that one of the best strategies is upfront source control—selecting better materials, furnishings, cleaning, and maintenance options that minimize the contaminants in the first place.”

The Future Of IAQ

The future of good IAQ practices rests on education and consciousness of the various factors that can affect this important aspect of facility management. “As building occupants and owners become more aware of how IAQ directly affects their health and performance, concerns about the pandemic flu, programs such as LEED, and other emerging issues will all serve to increase occupant and owner expectations of facility managers on IAQ related issues. For a facility manager to succeed, he or she will need to become more educated and be prepared to address these issues proactively,” explains Ashkin.

Shipp echoes this statement: “Since most of us spend 90% of our time indoors, and people are becoming more conscious of the air they breathe, facility managers will face growing challenges to identify these exposures to indoor air contaminants whenever possible. Companies are always looking for solutions to help the industry, such as the formation of the Responsible Solutions to Mold Coalition. We hope to expand this effort in the years ahead so that facility managers understand the myriad sources for IAQ problems and can develop effective solutions.”

IAQ experts agree that this topic will become more important in the coming years as additional information becomes available. There was a time when nobody even thought about VOCs, but now, as Barbacci explains, there is, “…a continued emphasis on the various VOC emissions from products. There will be a continual push to reduce VOC emissions for all materials.”

Extending beyond the reduction or elimination of negative, harmful substances in the air, the future of IAQ is a world where programs are designed to increase the efficiency of a building’s occupants.

Larson says, “In the near future, all approaches of improving IAQ—reducing pollutant sources, designing better ventilation, and improving air purification—will become better understood by a wider audience, including facility management professionals. Additionally, IAQ will become a more important topic not only to avoid the pressing problem of potential health risks, but also to improve the general comfort and productivity of occupants in buildings.”

In the ideal scenario, the future of IAQ is one where the term VOC will never become a part of the average person’s lexicon. When facility managers have IAQ under control, building occupants never have to think about something as simple, and as complicated, as air.

This article was based on interviews with Ashkin, Barbacci, Larson, and Shipp.