For many of us, the end of October means apple cider, pumpkin carving, and trick-or-treating. But this year, the most frightening thing that fall has brought is not Halloween – it is the dramatically worsened air quality after several months of sustained wildfires. The continuing wildfires in California have sparked widespread concern about air quality in general, and Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) in particular. Depending on monitoring and building management systems, buildings might not be providing clean, filtered air. In the worst cases, poor IAQ can cause long term health problems for building residents. Additionally, misconceptions about IAQ might make it difficult to implement constructive changes in your building.
In order to create the best case scenario: a truly safe facility with organization-wide awareness of pitfalls, up-to-date technology, and, of course, excellent IAQ is imperative! Read on for the spookiest facts about IAQ that you should know.
1 – Indoor air pollution is one of the top environmental dangers
When it comes to air pollution, many of us immediately think of car exhaust and the above-mentioned wildfires. Building owners, managers, and residents alike may consider indoor air to be cleaner than outdoor air. It’s only natural; when it’s smoky and hazy outside, many people turn to an air-conditioned building for relief. This assumption ignores the fact that: indoor air is actually much more dangerous than outdoor air. The United States EPA has ranked indoor air quality as one of the top five environmental risks to public health, stating that it is five times dirtier than outside air. Although IAQ can suffer more due to location (homes near wildfires, for example), no building is entirely immune. This is due to lower quality building materials, paint, flame retardants, poor ventilation, chemical cleaning products, chemical air fresheners, organic matter, and outdoor pollutants that make their way inside.
It’s a spooky thought, but remember that forewarned is forearmed! With awareness comes the power to make positive change. While indoor air pollution is a big problem, many of the following facts point to specific issues that can be targeted in order to make poor IAQ a ghost of the past.
2 - Indoor Air Quality can be negatively affected by external factors
Because IAQ deals with indoor air, it is easy to forget that it can be affected by what is happening outside of the building. The California fires are a relevant example. Unless a building is hermetically sealed, there’s no way to prevent outside air from getting inside. Additionally, building inhabitants and users bring in pollutants on their clothing. These factors can have a cumulative negative effect on IAQ. In closed buildings with reduced airflow and poor ventilation, pollutants build up over time, which compounds their negative effects on building inhabitants.
Though the fires in California are almost all contained, it is likely that they will reoccur. Fires and other catastrophic events are just the tip of the iceberg. Every day, run-of-the-mill pollution has the ability to upset the delicate balance of a building’s IAQ. This means that building managers and owners need to be proactive about creating strategies that address what to do with toxins once they’re in the building, not just focus on keeping them out.
3 - Poor IAQ is bad news for children and the elderly, and those with asthma
The very young, the elderly, and those with respiratory conditions are among those who are most vulnerable to poor IAQ. When it comes to indoor pollutants, secondhand smoke is one of the top offenders, not to mention the hundreds of harmful chemicals that are released through air fresheners, building materials, cleaning products, solvents, and paint. All of these chemicals have been proven to worsen certain respiratory conditions, as well as to have a negative effect on the development of babies and children. A recent study found that these chemicals interact with ozone to form carcinogenic formaldehyde, which can cause airflow limitation, and exacerbate respiratory sensitivity in those with conditions such as asthma.
The elderly, who spend the majority of their days inside are the most affected by poor IAQ. Whatever is inside these buildings, whether it be chemicals, smoke particles, or fungus, the elderly average the most exposure. Because of the high occurrence of immune sensitivity among this group, such exposure can lead to serious long-term health problems.
4 - Air-conditioning and fans can make IAQ even worse
Depending on the configuration of your building’s air conditioning, running these units can bump air quality from mediocre to poor. Some air conditioning units don’t purify outside air before bringing it into the AC system, meaning that countless outdoor pollutants are making their way into the building under the guise of cooling it down...now that’s a scary Halloween costume! Likewise, fans positioned to draw cool air from outside into the building can inadvertently suck in pollutants. If a building’s monitoring systems don’t react quickly enough to these outside pollutants, the air-conditioning system can distribute them throughout the building before anything can be done to fix the problem.
For example, in areas with persistent fires or other sustained outdoor pollution, smoke and toxic particles enter a building. An HVAC system that isn’t sensitive enough will not be able to stop the distribution of particles throughout the building. This is doubly bad--first, because of the distribution, and second, because the air conditioning itself will intensify the negative effects of the smoke. The cold, dry air will allow the particles to spread even faster, while creating additional irritation in the lungs of building inhabitants.
5 - Some air cleaners generate pollutants
A good solution to this can be to integrate an air cleaner into your HVAC. Air cleaners are intended to filter out particulate and gaseous matter from the building’s air. However, not all air cleaners are created equal, and some may actually cause more harm than good. Certain air cleaners are actually ozone generators, which use UV light or an electrical discharge in order to intentionally produce ozone. Ozone is ineffective at removing most indoor air contaminants when used at levels that do not exceed public health standards. Moreseo, the resulting ozone can act as a lung irritant, causing chest pain, coughing, shortness of breath, and lowered immunity. The fact of the matter is that exposure to ozone can have both short- and long-term negative health effects. Air cleaners should be chosen carefully, so that they do not create more problems than they correct.
6 - IAQ can be impacted from a distance
There is no safe way to estimate how far pollutants can spread. This means that, even if your building is miles away from a fire, chemical spill, or other potentially harmful event, it could still suffer some of the consequences of pollution. So even if your building is constructed with non-toxic materials, uses eco-friendly cleaning supplies, and routinely checks for pollutants such as funguses and molds, it is still a good idea to stay on top of preventative methods. Depending on your building’s needs, these might include keeping building managers up to date on best-practices in the event of pollution events; ensuring your systems are operating optimally; monitoring your building’s IAQ data to ensure that you have and understand the reliable baseline; and making sure the entire organization is on the same page with regards to best practices.
All of these issues are ghoulish enough to cause real fright, but a combination of the proper HVAC systems, monitoring systems, and effective preparation, can eliminate most, if not all, of them. There are a variety of proactive steps building owners and managers can take to ensure excellent IAQ and a safe and productive work environment.
The best strategies are:
- Remove sources of contaminants where possible (for example: building materials, cleaning chemicals, toxic air fresheners).
- Improve ventilation (to ensure that dangerous build-up is not occurring.
- Optimize your HVAC (make sure your building’s HVAC sensors are sensitive enough to handle monitoring for potential pollutants and polluting events. Install retrofits where necessary).
- Make sure owners, managers, and building users are all up to speed on best practices.