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According a study conducted by US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA), there is a huge risk associated with indoor air quality(IAQ) and our health. Exposure to radon, environmental smoke, thousands of chemicals and biological pollutants have shown that health risks associated with indoor air quality in buildings is substantial. They have also been known to contribute to asthma, cancer, developmental defects, and effects on cardiovascular system and might also include reproductive and immune systems. Some of the toxic chemicals like carbon monoxide (CO) can also result in death. Since we spend about 90% of our time indoors, these risks pose a huge threat to our health and hence cannot be taken lightly.
One of the challenges of maintaining good IAQ arises from the fact that there are a wide variety of causes of indoor air pollution. They range from bad construction materials, outside climate, pollutants sources (e.g., building materials and furnishings, moisture, processes and activities within the building, and outdoor sources), as well as the activities of the building’s occupants.
This has led to building professionals paying attention and implementing good indoor air quality policies and procedures. The economic value of improved health and productivity of occupants help buildings in a substantial manner. US EPA proposes risk reduction through various means like better building design, use of green products, construction and operational procedures like commissioning and mitigation of exposure of occupants to contaminants in the indoor atmosphere. By implementing better ventilation and other systems, we should be able to create healthy building environments that can not only increase IAQ but also reduce energy and create a noticeable increase in productivity.
Strategies to maintain health and wellness in the buildings:
Since we now know that healthy buildings equal healthy occupants, the secret to maintaining health and wellness to buildings to maintain good indoor air quality.
Most buildings aiming to create an indoor air quality policy focus on operational efficiencies like preventing stuffiness or adjusting temperatures but the best place to start with an IAQ policy is to consider all factors, both outdoor and indoor environments. This includes outdoor climate, the age of the building, the design and operational practices, the patterns of occupants, energy performance and all building systems as well as the technologies used. Add to these some other actionable strategies like contaminant source control, occupant awareness, and health and safety legislation.
You can also use the IAQ guidelines provided by individual countries or WHO that defines the maximum allowable concentration of pollutants. For example, IAQ in the USA relies on the individual states using the United States EPA guideline limits, whereas Australia has adopted a National Health and Medical Research (1993) limits, and in Canada residential occupants are protected by Health & Welfare (1987). Elsewhere, in the UK, Local Air Quality objectives and health & safety legislation form major IAQ enforcement routes.
The action plan to implement this policy would consist of a range of tools and techniques as well as processes and procedures. Some of them include the following:
- Monitoring: Scheduled or ongoing monitoring for indoor air quality uses sensors and other systems is important to maintain and detect for any odors, pollutants, biological contaminants, air drafts and humidity. Most of the monitoring systems to measure IAQ use sensors that can accurately and autonomously detect indoor air quality in various areas of the building. They use low cost sensors that use low bandwidth network to collect data continuously as well as store the data on the cloud that can be accessed in real time.
- Health Impact Assessment: Monitoring the health effects related to the indoor air as well as environmental health impacts. This involves activities like where occupants are located and what is their pattern of movement. If they have any experience of symptoms due to indoor air quality, then an in-depth assessment is made. An experience is something that is a noticeable pattern of health issues among a group of occupants.
- Mitigation Plan: Ensuring that mitigation effects are in place whenever an issue had been detected to curb the source and reduce the affect of pollution. Some of the main tasks in this plan are facility operations and maintenance, staff training of IAQ policy, documentation of the IAQ policy and maintenance schedules.
Other strategies include the following:
- Control: This includes efforts to identify and control pollutant sources. This includes areas like smoking lounges, greener cleaning products and barring any materials that produce contaminants. For example, the materials that are used in furnishings have been improved to include fire-resistant as well as less harmful formulations are being used. Benzene, formaldehyde, phenolic, polyaromatic and chlorinated compounds within formulations are being less and less used. Other methods for removal of air-borne particles are using electronic air cleaners that use special precipitators, particle filtration devices as well as specialized filters like polypropylene gas filters. Sealing of surfaces of building materials that emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as formaldehyde are sometimes the most effective.
- Ventilation: This is generally used where there is under-ventilation or you are unable to find the source of contamination. The ventilation measures improve air circulation and dilute the contaminants or remove it to the external atmosphere. Improved mechanical air ventilation in the HVAC systems can help with specific air quality issues. Sometimes local authorities get involved for e.g., if the air borne particles are present in schools or hospitals, then the traffic in the area can be diverted to reduce the harmful affects to children and healthcare patients.
- Preventive Maintenance: Cleaning of ducts, pipes and air is an effective strategy especially when dealing with air particulate matter or suspended solids in the air. Particulate filtration process removes these particulate matters with a range of efficiencies for the different sizes present. US EPA recommends using the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) and the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) to prevent any harmful pollutants from entering the indoor environment. These acts require that manufacturers disclose any health risks associated with the products or materials they use so that the risk is minimized as well as measures are in place to reduce exposure or sometimes event prevent the substance altogether if there are no workaround solutions.
- HVAC Maintenance: Frequently scheduled maintenance procedures on HVAC systems ensure that the system is functioning as designed. This includes temperature settings and cleaning of its ducts and internal components. The output of these activities can be list of things that need repair or replacement, adjustment or cleaning. A record of the control units, settings as well as operating schedules has to be made.
- Inspections: Inspections of all equipment, systems and even rooms in the buildings will help with taking timely actions whenever air borne particles, bad odors or other overly crowded areas are detected. For example, any combustion emissions are inspected so that human exposure to carbon monoxide is limited as it increases the potential risk of legal liability. Performing annual building safety inspections as well as inspection of crucial systems like the ventilation are mandatory to obtain high IAQ. A thorough walkthrough of all occupied rooms, storage and mechanical areas is important. Having an inspection checklist helps to identify areas that might be otherwise omitted. This can include things like visible growth of mold or fungi, discoloration of buildings, presence of unusual noise levels or evidence of leaks or spills.
In conclusion, we spend 90% of our waking time indoors. Multiple studies have proven that the health and wellness of the occupants in a building is largely dependent on the air they are exposed to inside. This air that we breathe indoors can often be contaminated with a wide variety of contaminants, pollutants, biological chemicals and other toxics suspended in the air. There is an increased emphasis across all the buildings to address IAQ problems by adopting effective strategies to maintain good indoor air quality. Some of these include inspections, source control mechanisms, ventilation and performing frequent preventive maintenance activities.
Looking to implement an Indoor Air Quality strategy in your building? Listen to our webinar and learn about the New Indoor Air Quality Trends.