FAQs about Indoor Air Quality

Why is indoor air quality important?

Studies done by the US Environmental Protection agency (EPA) indicate that the indoor levels of pollutants may be 2-5 times, and occasionally more than 100 times higher than outdoor levels. These levels become a concern because it’s estimated that people spend almost 90% of their time indoors.

How long has the indoor air quality problem been with us?

Indoor air quality problems started when our ancestors lit fires in caves. More recently though, the issue of indoor air quality has been exacerbated by the energy crisis which we experienced in the early 70’s. Because of our need to save energy, buildings were built tighter. This resulted in a lower exchange of indoor air with outside air. Compounding the issue, most buildings contain a “chemical soup” brought in on fixtures, furnishings, and even building occupants. If these contaminants are not diluted, they can build up and cause allergic reactions. That’s when indoor air quality problems and complaints occur.

What kinds of problems can poor indoor air quality create?

There are short-term problems that can happen when an odor occurs. We’ve recently seen several cases in Texas where entire buildings were evacuated because of this. Then there are the long-term considerations involving exposure to a myriad of contaminants. Chemicals, particles, and molds can all cause the problem categorized as sick building syndrome.

Probably the most important issues involve productivity. We should consider the impact on an office building’s staff, the productivity of teachers, end even classroom or student learning environments, when discussing indoor air quality.

Some indoor air problems however, can be subtle and won’t always produce easily recognized impacts on health, well being, or the building.

What is sick building syndrome?

Sick building syndrome (SBS) describes a situation in which building occupants experience acute health and/or comfort effects that appear to be linked to time spent in a particular building, but where no specific illness or cause can be identified. The complaints may be localized in a particular room or zone, or may be spread throughout the building.

What kinds of buildings have indoor air quality problems?

No building is exempt from indoor air quality problems. Some problems that occur in educational facilities have different symptoms and affect different types of occupants versus problems which occur in an office building. Regardless of their age, size, or indoor activities, to those who are affected, a problem still exists.

Who is responsible for indoor air quality?

That really depends on who you talk to. Building managers understand that they carry some responsibility. Building occupants, don’t generally accept any responsibility. During the past ten years, we have seen problems which clearly involved management’s responsibility. It’s just as likely however, that indoor air quality concerns can be caused by something the building occupant is doing in the space. Ultimately, everyone shares in the responsibility for the indoor air quality of a building.

How do you find the source of problems?

Finding the source of an indoor air quality problem requires a good understanding of a building’s design, the heating, ventilating, and air conditioning systems, the processes or things that building occupants are doing, and the types of symptoms which are being reported. Sometimes it is possible to walk in and find a source within minutes, but that’s very unusual. Usually, indoor air quality investigations require several days of surveys, and may involve the assistance of industrial hygienists, building architects, chemical engineers, microbiologists, and other trained professionals.

How do you solve indoor air quality problems?

Ten years ago, our industry assumed that “Dilution was the solution for indoor air pollution!” That meant that bringing in enough outside air could dilute a contaminant and cause it to go away. We’ve realized now however, that source removal (identifying and eliminating the source of the problem) is the best way to control a situation. Sometimes, that’s literally as simple as taking out the garbage. In other cases it may involve changes in the way a building’s mechanical systems are managed, or a change in activities by building occupants.

What should people do if they think they have an indoor air quality problem?

Anyone who thinks they have an indoor air quality problem should communicate their concerns immediately. In a commercial office, that usually means, letting your supervisor know. Then it becomes the supervisor’s responsibility to notify the building manager. In a school district, teachers should tell building administrators. Parents who have legitimate concerns for their children’s health should also notify school administrators, and demand a timely response. Most building and facility management professionals are responsive and don’t want their tenants, students, or staff, to be unhappy in the building.