STRANGE CASES OF IAQ MYSTERIES
While most indoor air quality issues are pretty straightforward, the mix of environmental factors and human elements can create some surprising circumstances. It’s not all mold from water damage or problems with the HVAC system. Just look at these strange IAQ mysteries we’ve solved over the years.
When the vice president of transportation at a large oil company began complaining of throat and sinus irritation after sitting in his office for just 30 minutes, we came in and ran all the usual tests. A laboratory analysis of the air samples we collected reported unusual bacteria in the office — the kind of bacteria usually found on the skin of dead animals. It’s not unheard of for invading pests to die in an office building, but an hour of searching above the ceilings, down the walls, and under furniture didn’t reveal any critters. What we did find was a taxidermy duck sitting on the credenza of the VP’s desk.
The duck had been perched in the office for at least 10 years. The VP believed the custodians were cleaning the creature, but a quick inspection revealed a thick layer of dust on the duck’s feathers. We sent samples to the lab, which confirmed the bacteria was growing on the trophy. Apparently the presence of dust can encourage the growth of bacteria on the skin or fur of trophy mounts. This bacteria can impact IAQ and lead to health issues.
Custodial services are rarely responsible for cleaning taxidermy, so unless the occupant can keep it clean themselves, the stuffed animal must be removed from the building.
How Does Antifreeze Get Into a Building?
The power of suggestion can go a long way. Just by asking other people, “Do you smell something bad?” a tenant can encourage others to complain about IAQ. This is what happened on the 13th floor of an office building when the receptionist began to complain about a “chemical-like” odor that permeated the floor two to three times a week. As the receptionist, she spoke with every person who visited the floor. At one point, she mentioned the smell to a company mechanic, who said, “You are probably smelling antifreeze. That’s something that should never be in a commercial office building.”
Believing there was antifreeze in the environment, the receptionist became more vocal and angry. We were brought in to run our usual investigation and found nothing out of the ordinary. At the same time, the tenant’s environmental health and safety department was running its own investigation for the staff. Even their expensive testing for volatile organic compounds found no problems. However, the receptionist continued to report the offensive odor.
In an attempt to channel her concerns, Travis West gave the receptionist his cellphone number to call the next time she smelled the odor. When she called about the odors one morning, Travis rushed right over. He arrived just in time to smell the “sweet, sticky odor” the receptionist had described. Following his nose, Travis found a young woman in a cubicle just about to head to the kitchen to clean an empty, sweet-smelling bowl.
The receptionist confirmed that the smell from the bowl was the same odor that had been making her sick. It turns out the other employee was heating up maple-flavored oatmeal in the company break room. Each of the mornings that she heated her oatmeal correlated to the receptionist’s complaints.
IAQ is a shared responsibility. It’s important to make sure everyone is aware of what they’re bringing into a space and how they impact indoor air quality.
And above all else, don’t give them maple-flavored oatmeal!