Improving Indoor Air Quality

Feb. 20, 2012
The issue of poor indoor air quality has received significant attention lately, especially in K-12 academic environments. Poor ventilation, mold and dust – along with fumes and chemicals from paints, cleaning agents, furnishings and other building materials – can all degrade indoor air quality.

When we think of poor air quality today, the term often conjures images of sputtering exhaust pipes and inefficient vehicles, factory smoke stacks and heavy layers of smog. But in addition to these visible outdoor pollutants, it’s also increasingly important to consider indoor air quality – and how often-invisible agents can affect the health and well-being of building occupants. According to the EPA, levels of indoor air pollutants may be two to five times – and occasionally more than 100 times – higher than outdoor levels. (Before you draw a gasp at that statistic, pause to consider what you might be breathing in!)

The issue of poor indoor air quality has received significant attention lately, especially in K-12 academic environments. Poor ventilation, mold and dust – along with fumes and chemicals from paints, cleaning agents, furnishings and other building materials – can all degrade indoor air quality. Results can include the triggering or worsening of allergies and chemical sensitivities among staff and students. At a time when asthma rates continue to escalate – as the CDC now reports that this respiratory disease affects one in 10 children – it’s especially vital for schools to have clean, healthy air. It’s also important to note that the consequences of poor indoor air quality aren’t just health-related – as student well-being is often intimately connected to attentiveness, attendance and academic success. According to the American Lung Association, students with asthma miss a combined total of more than 14 million school days every year due to illness.

Air quality concerns affect us all, and the recent media spotlight has brought much-needed attention to this problem across all industries, not just academics. With Americans spending 90% or more of their time indoors, it’s important to address indoor air quality across all types of buildings.

Here are some seemingly innocuous but common culprits that may degrade indoor air quality, along with tips to help building occupants breathe easy:

Furniture and design elements: 
Vanquish VOCs – When making furniture selections for building interiors, beware of materials that contribute to off-gassing, which occurs when volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as formaldehyde are released into the air. Instead, be sure to select furniture that contains safer, low-emitting materials, including pieces with water-based finishes and/or zero-VOC paints.  

Third-party certifications can point you toward low-emitting, environmentally preferable furniture. For example, products that are GREENGUARD-certified improve indoor air quality, while reducing individuals’ exposure to chemicals and other pollutants. Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) also defines and issues certifications such as Indoor Advantage for low-emitting furniture that improves indoor air quality. 

Focus on fabrics – Look at alternatives to traditional vinyl and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) materials to prevent their associated environmental and health hazards. Bio-based fibers and solution-dyed fabrics are responsible choices for projects, while natural fibers and recycled-content products are also proving to be popular, sustainable choices.

These types of PVC-free upholstery materials can be easily cleaned with appropriate agents, and help eliminate stains, deposits and contaminants – contributing to a healthier building and healthier tenants. Plus, as technology advances, many of these textiles are produced in a more energy-efficient way. 

Hone in on finishes – In addition to eliminating harmful chemicals, the use of formaldehyde-free furniture finishes can often result in increased durability. Emerging technology is also being used in finishes to inhibit the growth of contaminants by more than 99%. 

Pay attention to paint – Interior paints can also be a significant source of VOCs. You can reduce the risks from off-gassing by ensuring that newly painted areas are well-ventilated and by choosing low- or zero-VOC paint options. 

Cleaning routine:
Use sustainable cleaning solutions – Traditional cleaning chemicals can emit unwanted vapors and contaminants, requiring those who administer the solutions to wear protective gear such as gloves, goggles and respirators. In addition, according to the American Lung Association, scents from items such as cleaning supplies can also negatively impact people with asthma. To better protect building assets and help preserve indoor air quality, it’s important to select sustainable and safer cleaning solutions that do not emit these unhealthy fumes, vapors and contaminants. Use cleaning products with low to zero VOCs, and low to no odor.

When looking for environmentally preferable cleaning solutions, it’s important to select products that have been certified by credible, independent, third-parties to meet green standards. These independent bodies typically have product information on their websites. Several of the more well-known certifiers and verifiers include Green Seal, UL Environment (formerly EcoLogo) and the EPA’s Design for the Environment (EPA DfE).

Administer with a cloth – To prevent or minimize airborne droplets of a cleaning product from entering the surrounding indoor area, apply the product from a spray bottle or aerosol can directly onto an absorbent cloth or wiper, instead of onto the surface to be cleaned. This will reduce the amount of chemicals released into the building air.

Concentrate your cleaning – When purchasing cleaning solutions for your building, look for those that are highly concentrated. These will introduce lower levels of chemicals into the building, and minimize unwanted and unpleasant chemical odors and vapors in the air.

There are concentrated general-purpose cleaners that are certified green and can be diluted at one part general-purpose cleaner to 256 parts water, without sacrificing cleaning performance.  In other words, one gallon of the concentrated general-purpose cleaner will make 257 ready-to-use gallons (or 1028 ready-to-use quarts) of general-purpose cleaner. Not only will this help eliminate empty plastic bottles from the waste or recycling stream, but the cost per ready-to-use gallon or ready-to-use quart will also be substantially reduced for your facility.

Highly concentrated and green-certified glass cleaners, floor cleaners, washroom cleaners and finish removers are also available. Ask your suppliers about available options.

Clean up your act – It’s clear that improper and poorly thought-out cleaning practices can contribute to poor indoor air quality. To clean up your act and the inside air, keep these additional tips in mind when establishing a cleaning routine:

  • Avoid using wax strippers and finish removers that contain ammonium hydroxide or other chemicals that can trigger asthma or irritate the respiratory system.
  • Never mix one cleaning chemical with another unless it is instructed on the product label.
  • Accurately dilute cleaning products according to label directions.
  • Avoid the use of cleaning tools that dislodge dust from surfaces into the surrounding air.
  • Steer clear of using dispensing devices that generate fine mists, vapors or particles that can become irritants to people with respiratory problems.
  • Avoid over-wetting surfaces to prevent water damage or mold and mildew growth.
  • Remove mold and mildew deposits promptly.
  • Provide good ventilation wherever cleaning products are stored, applied or used.
  • Keep cleaning equipment and tools clean, and well-maintained.
  • Use burnishing equipment and vacuum cleaners equipped with good filtration.
  • Install adequate lengths of entrance matting to catch soils and contaminants before they enter the building.
  • Clean up fluid spills promptly to avoid slip-and-fall accidents and prevent the spread of these contaminants into other parts of the facility.
  • Routinely clean air vent covers, filters and floor drains, which can harbor contaminants that can get into the indoor air.

When there’s a problem, sometimes it helps to clear the air – in this case, literally. Selecting environmentally preferable furniture and design options, and incorporating sustainable cleaning practices are two important ways that building owners can improve indoor air quality. With the right know-how, making air quality improvements is often easy and cost effective – contributing to healthier and more productive building occupants.

Roger McFadden is vice president and senior scientist, Staples, Inc., and Karen Edmundson is furniture sales executive, Business Interiors by Staples

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