The past few years has seen an upward trend in the number of lawsuits due to poor indoor air quality (IAQ). These cases can prove to be very expensive and sometimes might not be even covered by your general liability insurance policy. As people are spending more and more time indoors, they are increasingly aware of the issues associated with poor IAQ and its affect on their health. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), indoor pollution levels are much higher than outdoor levels.
Causes of poor indoor air quality:
The factors that affect the indoor air quality are many and most liable cases are caused by mold/dampness, smoke, lead-based paint, pesticides, radon, formaldehyde as well as poor ventilation. This can be because the buildings have not been maintained or there is no indoor air quality policy and inspections or even still undetected indoor air quality issues.
Often times poor IAQ can be due to decreased ventilation that can result because of energy efficiency measures. The other unknown factors that can bring in external pollutants are cleaning products, furnishings that emit odors, the total number of building occupants as well as the equipment that are present in the building.
The other causes of poor IAQ include improper temperature and humidity that give rise to growth of mold and microbes, carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide emissions or gases entering from the neighborhood through air vents.
Symptoms of poor indoor air quality:
There are many symptoms that building tenants and occupants complain about. Some of these include irritable throat, burning sensation of eyes, nose and throat, headaches, drowsiness, dizziness and fatigue. Other serious diseases include asthma, lung disease, cancer, heart disease and stroke.
Sometimes these symptoms can show up immediately on entering the premises. Other times it is difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of the symptoms. You also have to consider the person’s pre-existing conditions when dealing with sick building syndrome, as some people are more susceptible than others. Paying attention to where the occupants are located and if the symptoms disappear in a different location will help in identifying the root cause of the poor IAQ issues.
Whatever the symptoms, it is important to take a close look at the actual issue at hand, the cause of the issue as well as whether it is related to the IAQ or not. Only then remedial measures can be taken.
How poor IAQ can cause liability:
1. Tenants complaints: Although there are steps that tenants and property owners can take to ensure good quality indoor air, there might be instances when issues occur. When issues arise, tenants should ideally refer to their lease agreement to understand how to notify a complaint and how much time it would take to fix the issue. It is generally the responsibility of the property owner or the property in charge to fix the issues, unless otherwise specified in the lease agreement. When complaints occur, it is important to make note of the event, time and location and send an investigation team sooner than later so that the issue does not escalate. Often pollutants in the air or water can increase with time and cause further damage both to the property as well as to the well being of the tenants.
2. Occupant’s health: The health of the occupants and tenants is an indicator of good indoor air quality. Often when more than one person in the location experiences sick building syndrome, it is related to a new move, remodel or refurnishing or recent procedures in the building. If there are complaints about the health of the occupants, it is important to point them to appropriate medical care or the local health department to understand if the issue at hand is caused by the indoor air quality. There are instances where you might need to bring in a board-certified allergist or an occupational medical specialist that can answer your questions and understand the true nature of the cause of the health issues.
3. Negligence: Negligence is defined as work that has been neglected despite complaints or work that is performed below the “standards” defined. The standards for indoor air quality are defined by ASHRAE and include ventilation rates, presence of acceptable air particles and volatile organic compounds. (These are often defined with respect to square feet of space). Acts of omission, not taking action on complaints received and incorrect reports of concentration levels of pollutants all fall under the category of negligence and can lead to increased liability.
4. Schools: It is all the more important for schools to focus on indoor air quality. According to research, there is a huge correlation between IAQ and the health and performance of students and staff in schools. Children are more prone to health and performance effects of poor IAQ because they spend more time indoors and engage in more hand-to-mouth behaviors. According to research by American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Environmental Health, a child’s respiratory, immune system, reproductive and nervous systems continue to develop throughout their childhood, most of which is spent in schools. Hence it is even more important that you focus on good IAQ in schools and maintain complaints to a minimum.
5. IAQ policy: Having an indoor air quality will ensure compliance with established standards and procedures and can be referred to in case of any legal cases. ASHRAE 62.2 defines the current standards for indoor air quality. It defines minimum maintenance activities like maintaining filter and air cleaning devices as per manual, visual inspection or remote monitoring of air dampeners and humidifiers, dehumidification coils, drain pans, mist eliminators etc. All sensors have to be verified every six months and recalibrated as necessary. Air handling systems have to be measured once every five years for the minimum quantity of outdoor air. Another important element is the ventilation rates. The below table describes the ventilation rates as per standards:
There are also standards defined for minimum acceptable level of air particles, gases as well as volatile organic compounds.
6. Investigating and fixing IAQ issues: If an IAQ problem occurs, it is important that repairs are carried out promptly and correctly. For most IAQ issues, there are well-established practices for fixing the problem and for protecting occupants while the work is being done. It is important that tenants and landlords – and the people hired to do the job – know about these best practices.
A comprehensive indoor air quality checkup and diagnostics consists of the following steps:
- Identification of the problem: Before jumping into source identification, it is important to start at the complaint .By interviewing the person who complained about their symptoms as well as their perceptions (of odor or other particles). This information will drive the other steps for testing and inspections.
- Source inspection: Based on the complaints and interviews of the occupants, a source inspection should be conducted. This involves a physical walk through of the building including all rooms, the ventilation systems as well as all outdoor locations such as parking garages and sewer vents. A detailed inventory of these should be maintained.
- Ventilation systems inspection: Inspection of the HVAC systems and the building ventilation systems is important to determine the concentration of any air borne pollutants. The rate of ventilation drives the amount of air from the outside that is let into the building. A successful understanding of the building ventilation system controls are greatly facilitated by communication with the building engineer.
- Measurements: It is very important to obtain contaminant measurements especially when dealing with litigation cases. Engaging the services of a sick building investigator is highly recommended. Since this involves cost, the measurements should be optimized to provide all the essential details of the case. There are many industry groups getting involved in providing professional indoor air quality advice including environmental consulting firms, ventilation system contractors, and duct cleaning contractors.
- Mitigation: Usually the sick building investigator provides a mitigation plan to address the issue. It is up to the property owner or the responsible party to make every effort to address the issues until a “clean health” report is established.
In conclusion it is important to take every precaution possible to reduce your IAQ liability. In order to avoid going to the court for litigation issues, you can address the indoor air quality issues by taking proactive measures such as understanding any complaints and addressing them immediately. It is good to maintain an IAQ policy and act on it in a periodic fashion to avoid any issues. If any issues have been reported for liability, there are steps that can be undertaken to achieve a clean and healthy environment.