Alphabet Soup

Dec. 10, 2001
The Key to Achieving Better Indoor Air Quality: Do Something! (Part 2 of 5)

Phrases and acronyms such as IAQ, IEQ, Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) and Building Related Illness (BRI) are tossed around so much that most building owners and managers shrug them off. Symptoms associated with SBS include: headaches, nausea, dizziness, respiratory problems, coughing, wheezing and eye, nose or throat irritations, just to name a few. Of course, there are many other reasons why persons might fall prey to these symptoms, and many of the causes are created outside the workplace. However, the workplace is also the culprit in creating many of these conditions, or at least aggravating existing conditions.

BRI, a more serious condition, is brought on by exposure to the building air where symptoms of diagnosable illness are identified (e.g. certain allergies or infections) and can be directly attributed to environmental agents in the air. BRIs account for a 69 percent increase in requests for investigation by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health over the last fifteen years.

For years the focus of pollution prevention has been on the outdoor variety, and rightfully so, with cars, buses and factories spewing out toxic gases. Much has been accomplished over the past 30 years to reduce and limit the factors that cause "smog alert days" in many urban areas. On these days, people with breathing difficulties are warned to stay indoors, which tends to make us believe that the indoor environment is better for us than the choking, eye-burning mixture outside. Yet, indoor air can often be a hundred times or more polluted than the outside air. But this simple fact tends to be ignored because office space is often at a premium and it's no simple task to find another place to work, or to move an office. And you really can't see the effects of poor indoor air the way you can recognize poor outdoor air. Unless of course, you look closely at ceiling tiles, heating and air conditioning ducts, or the dust particles settling on the floor and furniture. A picture of health it often is not.

Since the nation's first energy crisis of 1973-74, the amount of fresh air in modern offices has been limited to save energy. Poor air circulation is another major contributor to the problem. At the same time, there are hundreds of toxic chemicals used in cleaning products, perfumes, paints, carpets, computers and furniture. Add to this mix the ozone generated by laser printers and photocopies, and you have indoor smog, containing Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). Yet no one reports on "indoor smog days." Basically, a person lands a job, goes to work at that job, and the last thing on their mind is the "health" of the building. By the time they find out the building is making them sick, it's too late. They learn to compensate for it, perhaps take sick time, or leave the office to - ironically - catch a breath of fresh air outdoors. But if it's really bad, they have to leave the job altogether. If enough of their co-workers are having similar problems, maybe the whole office relocates. Either way, if you're a building owner or manager, that's bad for business.

Although "worker productivity" and "workplace health" are buzzwords today, few workers or their management decision-makers understand the quantitative connection with indoor air quality. For example, if sick buildings can be remedied then sick days and lost time (doctor's appointments, etc.) can be avoided, and ultimately the cost of health insurance can be reduced, adding to the employer's bottom line and helping the building owner better satisfy his customer. So there is a sound business case for avoiding or correcting SBS and BRI related problems.

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