- What are indoor air pollutants and where do they come from?
- How can these pollutants affect my health?
- What can be done to reduce pollutant exposure in the office?
- Where can I get more information about indoor air, ventilation and related topics?
According to a number of national organizations, including the American Lung Association, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the Environmental Protection Agency, studies have shown that air pollution in our indoor settings, including offices, may be more of a health concern than air pollution outside. Indoor pollutant levels may, in fact, be two to five or more times higher than outdoor levels.
There are three main reasons why indoor air is becoming more of a health concern.
- Compared to many years ago, we spend more time indoors. In the United States, it is estimated that people today spend up to 90 percent of their time indoors.
- There has been a large increase in the use of manmade building materials and furnishings, as well as household cleaning, personal care, and pesticide products that contain potentially harmful chemicals.
- Over the past few decades, homes, offices, and other types of buildings have been made “tighter” to save on energy use and costs.
With potentially less fresh air and more time spent indoors, people can be exposed to more pollutants.
What are indoor air pollutants and where do they come from?
An indoor air pollutant is a substance in the air that may affect the health of office occupants. Pollutants could come from outside of the office, such as an idling car engine or a delivery truck near an open window, doorway, or air handling unit, or from radon entering the building from the ground below.
An air pollutant could also come from inside the office. Some examples of indoor sources might be:
- office equipment
- cleaning or deodorizing products
- mold growth from damp or wet porous areas such as carpeting, ceiling panels, and sheetrock or from poorly maintained HVAC (heating, ventilating and air conditioning) systems
- chemical leakage from the coolant in water coolers or fuel oil containers
- contamination from nearby renovation or construction within the work area or office setting.
Indoor air pollutants may include:
- tobacco smoke
- vapors and gases such as ozone or VOCs (volatile organic compounds)
- particulates such as airborne fiberglass, carpet and partition fibers
- combustion pollutants such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide
- bacteria, viruses, mold, and insect parts (especially of dust mites).
Chemicals found in some office or personal care products are also potential indoor air pollutants.
How can these pollutants affect my health?
Breathing air pollutants can lead or contribute to allergies, infections, asthma, and other health problems that involve the lungs, nose and throat. For example, mold and pollen can trigger allergic reactions or asthmatic symptoms in some people.Exposure to other indoor air pollutants, such as high enough levels of carbon monoxide, can result in headaches, nausea, vomiting, brain damage, and even death.
In a poorly ventilated office setting, increased airborne levels of viruses and bacteria can result in higher incidences of respiratory illnesses. Exposure to radon may increase the risk of lung cancer. Exposure to VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) may affect the lungs, brain, and nervous systems.
The possible health effects depend on the amount of pollutant inhaled, the length of time the person is exposed, family history, and age and general health of the person. Senior citizens and people with compromised immune systems may be more sensitive to certain pollutants.
What can be done to reduce pollutant exposure in the office?
These are actions that you, the employer, or management can take to reduce exposure:
- Reduce or eliminate the potential source or activity. Use products or methods that do not have the potential for releasing or stirring up high amounts of particulates or VOCs. For example, liquid correction fluid may be replaced by dry correction tape. Using water-based markers or markers with little or no odor may help decrease potentially harmful vapors. Strong perfumes may be physically irritating to some people, so consider limiting its use.
- Choose the least toxic product when you have a choice between two products that produce the same cleaning results. Look at ingredients on the label, or obtain an MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) from the company. For example, among the aspects to consider is using the product with the lowest Health Hazard Rating that does not have any special ventilation recommendations.
- Store chemicals properly in an area not normally occupied by people, and mechanically vent the storage area directly to the outside of the building.
- Read and follow directions for use on the label. Do not mix any cleaning products unless directed on the product label. If the product is used inside the building, increase ventilation by opening a window and using exhaust fans.
- Control exposures at the source before indoor air becomes contaminated. A person’s exposure to VOCs, particulates, and ozone can be decreased by installing a mechanical exhaust vent directly over a highly used piece of office equipment such as a large copier. In addition, such equipment usually has filters that need periodic examination and/or replacement. A maintenance schedule for the office equipment should be closely followed.
- Increase ventilation (fresh air). Generally, a well designed, maintained, and functioning air handling system can serve to dilute many of the potential pollutants within an office setting. Sometimes, merely opening windows can help. In a building that has more than one type of work activity, general air movement should be from areas of non-contamination and into areas of potentially higher levels of contamination (such as a print shop or copying center).
- Also, by having the general air movement and introduction of fresh air be from areas of lower levels of contamination and into areas of potentially higher levels of contamination (such as a printing shop or a “copy division”), office or building occupants (who are not directly involved with such activity) can have cleaner air to breathe in their immediate area.
- Filter the air before it is inhaled. Use devices, equipment, or appliances that filter the air in an adequate way.
Examples of objects that have filters are:
- vacuum cleaners
- portable in-place air cleaners
- air conditioners
- office equipment like copiers
- large air-handling units that are part of a building, like a unit ventilator or central air handling system.
- Stop or reduce pollutant pathways. Physically separate areas of occupancy from areas where high levels of pollutants may be generated. This is especially important when renovation or construction is occurring in an occupied building. Another example of “separation” is a situation within in an office building where a large group of computer equipment (mainframes, etc.) is located in a separate, large, and separately ventilated room.
- Keep your office setting or building in good repair.
- Prevent or repair roof, pipe, and basement leaks.
- Limit the use of humidifiers and maintain and clean them regularly and frequently. Using a dehumidifier in high moisture areas such as the basement can help.
- Carefully remove and discard water-damaged materials (sheetrock, paneling, carpets, fabric-covered furniture, etc.), especially if repeatedly dampened or wet for more than 24 hours.
- If a drip pan exists under your office refrigerator, clean it regularly.
- Limit the use of carpeting, an easy gathering and possible growing place for biological pollutants like mold, dust mites, and bacteria.
- Do not use carpeting directly on cement floors or in damp areas like the basement, and consider limiting it especially in high traffic areas.
- Use a very good filtering HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) vacuum cleaner daily.
- Do not saturate your carpeting if wet-cleaning it.
- Use 140o F water with an extractor to reduce the amount of water remaining in the carpeting.
- Limit or do not use high solvent cleaners when cleaning the carpet.
- Use fans and a dehumidifier in the carpeted office area or hallway in order to dry it within 24 hours.
Note: If you are working in a building that houses an industrial type of indoor business (with occupational exposures), The Vermont Occupational Safety and Health Administration (VOSHA) standards limit the amount of pollutants to which an employee may be exposed. Call 800-640-0601 for more information.
Where can I get more information about indoor air, ventilation and related topics?
For more information, visit our Indoor Air Quality Resource Guide.