- THE MAGAZINE
While discussions of poor indoor air quality (IAQ) seem to go in and out of vogue, the problem persists whether the discussions are in style or not.
Case in point: Nicholas Wiseman, a Malibu, Calif., high school junior, has suffered from asthma and migraine headaches for years. During this time, his family has removed shrubs and other vegetation around their home thinking this might be causing his problems. They have also taken down walls and looked high and low for mold and other contaminants that might be the triggers, but they have found nothing.
Now the family suspects Nicholas’ school rather than his home is possibly the source of his health problems. Sure enough, teachers at the school have been complaining to the local school district about a variety of illnesses they have experienced while at work. Some teachers have reported that when the district moved them to another building or another school, their health problems went away.
While nobody is yet certain what specifically is causing these health problems for Nicholas and his teachers, it is suspected the illnesses are related to an indoor air quality issue that has yet to be determined.
According to Dr. Sanjay Gupta, an assistant professor of neurosurgery at Emory University School of Medicine and a medical correspondent for CNN, studies indicate that at least one-third of U.S. schools have mold, dust and other airborne contaminants that contribute to poor IAQ. While only about one-third of the U.S. population have mild to severe reactions to poor IAQ, “for those who [do], the symptoms get increasingly severe.”
Finding the Real Culprits
Although mold, mildew and dust are typically blamed for poor IAQ, many healthcare officials believe there are other potentially more significant contributors to IAQ problems. These are formaldehyde, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and radon. Of these three culprits, the problems that formaldehyde and VOCs can cause are well known to those who advocate for a greener and more sustainable environment. Some, however, may not understand the dangers of radon as well.
Radon is a radioactive gas. We cannot see, smell or taste it, but we know it is found in homes, offices, schools and other facilities throughout the country. As uranium found in soil and rock decays, radon is released. It often accumulates in the indoor environment, polluting the indoor air and potentially causing an array of health-related problems.1
Formaldehyde is most often found in building materials, wood products, flooring materials, fiberboard, furniture and other products used in residential and commercial facilities.
VOCs are released from scores of different products. In schools specifically, some of the main sources are often the conventional chemicals used for cleaning and maintenance.
When it is suspected that poor IAQ is causing health problems in a facility, one of the first steps to solve the problem should be attempting to determine exactly what the source might be. Forty years ago, when what was later termed “sick building syndrome” was first discovered, IAQ tests pointed to a variety of sources—everything from carpets to the lack of fresh air circulating in HVAC systems.
After identifying the source, the next step is to eliminate the source or reduce its effects. While removing the carpets in a facility or fiberboard containing formaldehyde can be costly and difficult, it is possible to ensure that future products purchased for the facility have reduced amounts of formaldehyde or VOCs or that they are made from alternatives. This way, we are at least not adding to the problem.
However, much more direct, relatively easy and certainly less costly steps can be taken to help improve a facility’s IAQ, and many of these relate directly to the cleaning products used in the property.
Among these steps are the following:
Use less. Using fewer cleaning chemicals in a facility, whether conventional or green, helps reduce the impact of the chemicals on the indoor environment. Custodial workers have a tendency to mix too much chemical with water. One way to eliminate this problem is to install automatic dilution systems that more precisely dilute the chemical.
Use green-certified cleaning products. Some cleaning products may claim to be VOC-free or to have a reduced impact on the environment, but there is only one surefire way to make sure this is true. Look for products that have been independently tested and certified and display certifications such as UL’s ECOLOGO, GREENGUARD certification or the Environmental Protection Agency’s Design for the Environment program.2
Check vacuum cleaner filters. If there is one cleaning tool that can most contribute to IAQ problems or can help protect IAQ it is the vacuum cleaner. Most facility managers and cleaning workers are well aware of the importance of selecting systems with advanced air filtration filters. However, they must change those filters regularly. An easy way to remember to change filters is to do so when Daylight Saving Time starts and ends each year. In most facilities, installing new filters twice per year is adequate.
Learn the process of green cleaning. We have learned throughout the years that while many facilities have transferred to green and sustainable cleaning products, custodial workers may not be using the products in a way that best derives all of their benefits. Many green training programs are now available and suggest the process of green cleaning is just as important as green green products themselves; consequently, these processes must be taught.
IAQ and Building Users
There is one more piece to the puzzle when it comes to resolving IAQ issues, and that is the people using the facility. Healthy IAQ depends on the actions of everyone visiting and using the building. In many cases, such as office rental properties, facility managers have only limited control over how people use their spaces. In such situations the best step to take is education. Educating everyone in a facility about the harmful effects of poor IAQ and the important role occupants can play in keeping indoor air clean and healthy for everyone very often produces surprisingly positive results.