Indoor Air Quality:
An Old Problem Reappears
UE News, March &
By David Kotelchuck
Problems with polluted air and poor indoor air quality have
been known for decades. But in the past few decades these problems have
grown much worse, especially for workers in offices, whether in office
buildings or in-plant offices. And some of these problems, such as toxic mold
growth, can affect people at any worksite.
What are some of the symptoms of poor indoor air quality?
They can be general, like headaches, unusual tiredness,
dry or irritated throat, coughing, itching or burning eyes, skin
irritation, or even dizziness or nausea. (Sometimes these symptoms are
lumped together and called Sick Building Syndrome.)
They can be highly specific, like chest tightness, fever,
chills, or muscle aches and pains. Some give rise to diagnosed illnesses
or conditions such as Legionnaire’s Disease, occupational asthma and
other respiratory diseases. (These are called Building Related Illnesses.)
What can cause these symptoms?
Toxic chemicals used in the workplace.
Toxic molds, which can grow in warm, moist areas, such as
basements and air ducts.
Poorly designed or poorly maintained HVAC systems
(heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems).
Let’s look at the above causes one at a time:
Formaldehyde is a common
office pollutant. As a chemical agent used to make plastics, synthetic fabrics
and plywood, it is emitted by new rugs (at home as well as in the office), new
office furniture, and partitions made with plywood. At low levels it causes
eye, nose and throat irritation, and is particularly noticeable in poorly
ventilated rooms in which new furniture and rugs have just been installed.
When new items are installed in the office, open the windows and let the air
out overnight or over the weekend, maybe even put an exhaust fan in the window
to help ventilate the room. If the odor or irritation persists, insist that
management get professional help, since formaldehyde is regulated by OSHA as a
possible cancer agent.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
can build up in the workplace air and cause symptoms of Sick Building
Syndrome. These can include, for example, solvents used in inks, paints,
glues, rubber cement, felt pens and white-out fluids. In almost all cases the
exposure levels of each of these compounds will be far below the individual
levels permitted by OSHA (called PELs, permissible exposure levels). But
remember, if the building managers don’t let in enough fresh outside air,
these can persist in the building air, and eventually build up to bothersome
levels. One way to avoid these buildups is to put particularly toxic
operations like painting in separate, closed-off areas with their own exhaust
ventilation systems (and with full protection for those doing the painting).
Another helpful action is to put lids on all solvent containers when they are
not in use — even small containers can emit lots of vapor when they are left
open for a long time.
Rug and Floor Cleaning Chemicals:
Many rug and floor-cleaning agents are sold in concentrated form, and have to
be diluted before using. If they are not diluted properly, and used in more
concentrated form, they can cause eye, nose and throat irritation. Also if not
properly mixed, some rug cleaners can leave a coating of dust on the rugs. One
such dusty chemical, sodium lauryl sulfate, causes an allergic response in
many people. If you notice health problems soon after floor or rug cleanings,
speak with the cleaning staff and see if the cleaning compounds are being
diluted or mixed in the proper proportions.
Molds exist throughout the natural environment. To reproduce
and live they emit tiny spores, which travel in outdoor and indoor air until
they land on a nice damp indoor surface. If the surface they land on also
contains materials they can digest, such as wood and wood products, carpets,
ceiling tiles, paints, wallpaper, drywall, fabrics and foods, they have found
a happy home and they grow and thrive.
Since molds can feed on such a wide range of materials, the
key to mold control is moisture control. If moisture problems remain
undiscovered or un-addressed, for example in the basements of buildings (or of
homes), mold growth will often follow. When areas become water damaged, it is
important to clean them up within 24 to 48 hours to prevent mold growth. Often
absorbent materials, such as rugs and ceiling tiles, have to be replaced.
Leaky plumbing needs to be fixed, and mold has to be cleaned off of hard
surfaces with bleach and water (1 part chlorine bleach to 10 parts water —
and don’t ever mix bleach with ammonia).
Most important of all, on a long-term basis, is to keep the
humidity of all areas of the building low, say in the range of 30 to 50
percent humidity. This means improving ventilation in all parts of the
building, particularly in potentially moist areas like basements; greater use
of humidifiers and air-conditioners there; reducing condensation on cold
surfaces like pipes, exterior walls and roofs by better insulating them;
venting shower rooms and at home venting moisture from clothes driers.
A particularly dangerous type of mold, which has increasingly
been found at many workplaces in recent years, is the mold called Stachybotrus
chartarum (pronounced Stacky-bot-rus chart-a-rum). Sometimes it is also called
Stachybotrus atra - the two are just different names for the same mold. This
greenish-black mold releases a so-called mycotoxin into the air, to which many
people are allergic. Many develop symptoms of hay-fever (nasal stuffing, eye
irritation and wheezing) in its presence; others who already have asthma or
some other chronic respiratory disorder can have trouble breathing and become
infected and disabled from it. People who are under treatment for AIDS or HIV
infection are also at risk of infection from these molds.
Stachybotrus likes to grow on high-cellulose, low-nitrogen
materials like fiberboard, gypsum board and paper. So it is often found in
libraries and rooms where papers are stored. If you find molds in your
workplace, clean up the areas and reduce moisture levels, as suggested above
— you really don’t need to identify the particular mold you are dealing
with, they should all be treated as potentially dangerous.
(For more information on molds and Stachybotrus, go to the
following CDC and EPA websites: www.cdc.gov/nceh/asthma/factsheets/molds/default.html
CHECKING OUT YOUR HVAC SYSTEM
The heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) system of
any plant or office building is the collection of heating, cooling and
ventilating equipment for that building. When properly designed and operated, it
Control the temperature and humidity in the building to
provide a decent, comfortable human working environment,
Distribute enough clean outdoor air to meet the ventilation
needs of the people working inside, and
Remove odors and pollution from the air in the building.
During the past thirty years or so, many plants and office
buildings have had troubles with this system, leading to drowsiness, headaches,
allergies, respiratory and skin conditions. Above,
we discussed some of the sources of indoor air pollution. Now we need to discuss
the HVAC system, how to determine if it’s operating properly, and how to get
it fixed. Remember, you don’t have to be an expert to decide if the system is
doing its job, even though you may need one to get the system back in proper
working order and replace worn-out or defective equipment.
Below are some questions to ask, and problems to look out for in
your particular workroom, office or area of the plant:
Does your workplace have a ventilation system?
Many workplaces have a ventilation system which is not so much
designed, but just sort of happens. This is especially true if the plant or
building you are working in was built for another purpose, and then converted or
adapted to its current uses. If you are working in a large plant area, with few
or no walls or partitions, look at the number and sizes of exhaust fans along
the walls and in the ceiling, and look at the number and sizes of the windows
and doors which are supposed to let air in? Are there enough of them? Are they
properly placed so that everyone working on the shop floor can get enough fresh
If you are working in a closed office or workroom, look around
the room for air vents, usually small grills on the walls or floorboards, or
diffuser panels in the ceiling. There should be two vents in each room, one to
supply air and one to remove it. If you don’t have any vents then the only air
movement and air replacement in the room has to come from open windows and open
If you have only one vent, look for the other. The other one may
be in the room next door with a small opening for air, say next to the window
panel, connecting the two rooms. Or maybe there is only a partial barrier
between offices and the air flows around or above the partition(s) from one
office to the other. Or, of course, the other vent may be down the hall, and of
no help for your room when the door is shut. Remember, air is a fluid which
flows from one place to another — it can’t just enter or leave from your
room through one single vent and stop there. If it really has no place else to
go, it will just sit as stagnant pool with no air movement until the door or
Are the room vents supplying or removing air?
For the two vents in your room, or the two working together in
connected, neighboring rooms, one (the supply vent) should be supplying air to
the room(s) and the other (the exhaust vent) removing it. How can you tell which
is which? Just put a piece of tissue paper up to the vent and see which way the
air there is flowing. For the supply vent, it’s often useful to just tape the
tissue to it, so you can always just look up and see if air is being supplied.
(Some air-supply systems in large buildings are timed to go off after working
hours. Make sure they don’t go off at 4 or 5 pm, when you or others are
scheduled to work until 6 or when you have to work overtime or on Saturdays. If
this is happening, speak to the building staff [or building health and safety
person, if there is one], and if that doesn’t bring results, bring the problem
to the attention of your local’s health and safety committee or your local
Are the supply and exhaust vents right next to each other?
If this is the case, the air flow can get
"short-circuited," that is, the air can flow out of the supply vent
and go immediately into the exhaust vent without adequately circulating in the
room. If this is the case in your workroom, one of the vents needs to be moved.
Usually it is easier to move the exhaust vent, since this vent often returns the
air through the dead area in the false ceiling above the room. So to change its
location, the building staff may only need to move the diffuser panel in the
ceiling from one place to another. (The supply vent is usually fed by an air
duct made of sheet-metal pipe, and so is more difficult to move.)
Are the vents blocked in any way?
If file cabinets or bookcases or just piles of paper block any
of the room vents, then of course they are going to block air flow. Also partial
room barriers, designed to give you some privacy, block air flow. So check out
your office or workroom, remove any blockage you can and ask for help through
your health and safety committee get file cabinets, etc., moved.
Are there dead spaces in your workroom or office where
people regularly work?
In dead spaces air pollutants can accumulate and the air becomes
stale and uncomfortable. Check for these by looking at your workplace and
figuring out how air usually flows. If you feel or suspect that there is a dead
area in the room, you can then get an inexpensive smoke tube, break off the tip
in the suspected dead area, and see if the smoke drifts up (bad, no circulation)
or moves out of the area (a positive sign of air movement). Also, if there are
no flammable materials in the area, you can just light a match or a cigarette
and see whether the air flows.
Are the temperature and humidity adequate?
Most government agencies and professional groups recommend that
air temperatures in an office or workroom remain between 65 and 75 degrees
Fahrenheit throughout the year. In plants with large open areas and in some
offices, temperatures may drift below 65 degrees in the winter, and space
heaters may need to be supplied. They also need to be placed away from flammable
materials, so that they do not become fire hazards.
The humidity in all areas should be reasonably low, to prevent
mold buildup, but high enough to avoid dry noses, headaches and susceptibility
to colds and flu. Guidelines vary, but most groups recommend a range of indoor
humidity of between 20 and 50 percent, or perhaps 30 to 50 percent.
It’s useful to install a wall device which measures both
temperature and humidity, and to use it as a basis for getting building staff to
improve indoor air quality. If you don’t get satisfaction, record room
temperatures and humidity at regular times during the day, and report these to
your local’s health and safety committee.
(Some of the above questions and answers have been adapted from
a factsheet on indoor air quality by NYCOSH, the New York Committee for
Occupational Safety and Health. For the complete factsheet and other useful
weblinks, go to www.nycosh.org/onthejob.html.)
(This article was originally published in