Environmental Permitting

IAQ and Your Workplace

What are the causes of unhealthful air? What are the effects on worker health and productivity? What can you do to reduce the risk? Would cleaner, greener building might also save you money?

What Is IAQ?

IAQ is the quality of the air inside buildings as represented by concentrations of pollutants and thermal conditions like temperature and humidity. These affect the health, comfort, and performance of people who work in those buildings. Light and noise are also considered IAQ factors.

According to EPA, air quality problems are a result of conditions including the following:

  • The increase in chemical pollutants in consumer and commercial products
  • The tendency toward tighter building “envelopes” and reduced ventilation to save energy (Envelope refers to the elements that make up the shell or skin of the building’s exterior.)
  • Pressure to defer maintenance and other services in order to reduce costs

Air quality may be influenced by a building’s site, design, renovations, maintenance of air-handling systems, occupant density, activities conducted in the building, and occupants’ satisfaction with their environment.

Many IAQ problems are associated with improperly operated and maintained heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems.

Other contributors include moistures, radon, presence of outside pollutants, internal contaminants like cleaning and disinfecting supplies, and use of mechanical equipment.

Eyes, Nose, Throat … And More

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most Americans spend about 90 percent of their time indoors. OSHA says a sign of poor IAQ is that people feel sick inside buildings, but symptoms subside soon after leaving or on weekends.

Health effects vary widely and can be mistaken for symptoms of other conditions such as allergies, colds, the flu—and even stress.

Among diseases linked to poor IAQ are asthma and hypersensitivity pneumonitis, an inflammation of the lungs.

Symptoms may include irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat; headache; dizziness; rashes; and muscle pain and fatigue. These typically disappear soon after exposure ends.

However, exposure to biocontaminants like fungi, bacterial, and viruses can cause serious, sometimes life-threatening, respiratory diseases that can lead to chronic conditions.

Acute effects occur within 24 hours of exposure. Chemicals released from building materials can cause headaches, and mold spores may result in itchy eyes and runny noses in sensitive individuals soon after exposure.

Chronic effects are lasting responses to long-term or frequent exposures. Long-term exposure to even low concentrations of some chemicals can cause serious problems.

Cancer is the most commonly associated long-term health risk of exposure to indoor air contaminants. Long-term exposure to radon, asbestos, benzene, and tobacco smoke is linked to an increase in cancer risk.

OSHA notes that good IAQ “contributes a favorable and productive environment for building occupants, giving them a sense of comfort, health, and well-being. Significant increases in worker productivity have also been demonstrated when the air quality was adequate.”

When building managers fail to resolve IAQ complaints, absenteeism, work performance, and employee morale can be affected. But that’s not all—EPA estimates performance loss due to poor indoor air at 2 percent to 4 percent.