DO YOU SUSPECT YOUR OFFICE HAS AN INDOOR AIR PROBLEM?
Indoor air quality problems are not limited to homes. In fact,
many office buildings have significant air pollution sources. Some of these buildings may be
inadequately ventilated. For example, mechanical ventilation systems may not be designed or
operated to provide adequate amounts of outdoor air. Finally, people generally have less control
over the indoor environment in their offices than they do in their homes. As a result, there has
been an increase in the incidence of reported health problems.
A number of
well-identified illnesses, such as Legionnaires' disease, asthma, hypersensitivity Pneumonitis, and
humidifier fever, have been directly traced to specific building problems. These are called
building-related illnesses. Most of these diseases can be treated, nevertheless, some pose serious
Sometimes, however, building occupants experience symptoms that do not
fit the pattern of any particular illness and are difficult to trace to any specific source. This
phenomenon has been labeled sick building syndrome. People may complain of one or more of the following
symptoms: dry or burning mucous membranes in the nose, eyes, and throat; sneezing; stuffy or runny nose;
fatigue or lethargy; headache; dizziness; nausea; irritability and forgetfulness. Poor lighting, noise,
vibration, thermal discomfort, and psychological stress may also cause, or contribute to, these
There is no single manner in which these health problems appear. In some
cases, problems begin as workers enter their offices and diminish as workers leave; other times, symptoms
continue until the illness is treated. Sometimes there are outbreaks of illness among many workers in a
single building; in other cases, health symptoms show up only in individual workers.
In the opinion of some World Health Organization experts, up to 30
percent of new or remodeled commercial buildings may have unusually high rates of health and comfort
complaints from occupants that may potentially be related to indoor air quality.
What Causes Problems?
Three major reasons for poor indoor air quality in office buildings are the presence of indoor air
pollution sources; poorly designed, maintained, or operated ventilation systems; and uses of the building
that were unanticipated or poorly planned for when the building was designed or
Sources of Office Air Pollution
As with homes, the most important factor influencing indoor air quality is the presence of pollutant
sources. Commonly found office pollutants and their sources include environmental tobacco smoke; asbestos
from insulating and fire-retardant building supplies; formaldehyde from pressed wood products; other
organics from building materials, carpet, and other office furnishings, cleaning materials and
activities, restroom air fresheners, paints, adhesives, copying machines, and photography and print
shops; biological contaminants from dirty ventilation systems or water-damaged walls, ceilings, and
carpets; and pesticides from pest management practices.
Mechanical ventilation systems in large buildings are designed and operated not only to heat and cool the
air, but also to draw in and circulate outdoor air. If they are poorly designed, operated, or maintained,
however, ventilation systems can contribute to indoor air problems in several ways.
For example, problems arise when, in an effort to save energy,
ventilation systems are not used to bring in adequate amounts of outdoor air. Inadequate ventilation also
occurs if the air supply and return vents within each room are blocked or placed in such a way that
outdoor air does not actually reach the breathing zone of building occupants. Improperly located outdoor
air intake vents can also bring in air contaminated with automobile and truck exhaust, boiler emissions,
fumes from dumpsters, or air vented from restrooms. Finally, ventilation systems can be a source of in
door pollution themselves by spreading biological contaminants that have multiplied in cooling towers,
humidifiers, dehumidifiers, air conditioners, or the inside surfaces of ventilation duct work.
Use of the Building
Indoor air pollutants can be circulated from portions of the building used for specialized purposes, such
as restaurants, print shops, and dry-cleaning stores, into offices in the same building. Carbon monoxide
and other components of automobile exhaust can be drawn from underground parking garages through
stairwells and elevator shafts into office spaces.
In addition, buildings originally designed for one purpose may end up
being converted to use as office space. If not properly modified during building renovations, the room
partitions and ventilation system can contribute to indoor air quality problems by restricting air
recirculation or by providing an inadequate supply of outdoor air.
What to Do if You Suspect a
If you or others at your office are experiencing health or comfort problems that you suspect may be
caused by indoor air pollution, you can do the following:
- Talk with other workers, your supervisor, and union representatives
to see if the problems are being experienced by others and urge that a record of reported health
complaints be kept by management, if one has not already been established.
- Talk with your own physician and report your problems to the company
physician, nurse, or health and safety officer.
- Call your state or local health department or air pollution control
agency to talk over the symptoms and possible causes.
- Encourage building management to obtain a copy of Building Air Quality: A Guide for Building Owners and
Facility Managers. Building Air Quality (BAQ) is simply written, yet provides comprehensive
information for identifying, correcting, and preventing indoor air quality problems. BAQ also provides
supporting information such as when and how to select outside technical assistance, how to communicate
with others regarding indoor air issues, and where to find additional sources of information. To obtain
the loose leaf format version of the Building Air Quality, complete with appendices, an index, and a
full set of useful forms, and the newly released, Building Air Quality Action Plan, order GPO Stock #
055-000-00602-4, for $28, contact the: Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office
(GPO), P.O. Box 371954, Pittsburgh, PA 15250-7954, or call (202) 512-1800, fax (202)
- Obtain a copy of "An Office Building Occupant's Guide to Indoor Air
Quality," EPA-402-K-97-003, October 1997 from IAQ INFO at 1-800-438-4318.
- Frequently, indoor air quality problems in large commercial buildings
cannot be effectively identified or remedied without a comprehensive building investigation. These
investigations may start with written questionnaires and telephone consultations in which building
investigators assess the history of occupant symptoms and building operation procedures. In some cases,
these inquiries may quickly uncover the problem and on-site visits are unnecessary.
- More often, however, investigators will need to come to the building
to conduct personal interviews with occupants, to look for possible sources of the problems, and to
inspect the design and operation of the ventilation system and other building features. Because taking
measurements of pollutants at the very low levels often found in office buildings is expensive and may
not yield information readily useful in identifying problem sources, investigators may not take many
measurements. The process of solving indoor air quality problems that result in health and comfort
complaints can be a slow one, involving several trial solutions before successful remedial actions are
- If a professional company is hired to conduct a building
investigation, select a company on the basis of its experience in identifying and solving indoor air
quality problems in non-industrial buildings.
- Work with others to establish a smoking policy that eliminates
involuntary nonsmoker exposure to environmental tobacco smoke.
- Call the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
(NIOSH) for information on obtaining a health hazard evaluation of your office (800-35NIOSH), or
contact the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, (202) 219-8151.