Is Going to Work Making You Sick?

Is Going to Work Making You Sick?

Is Going to Work Making You Sick?
Commercial Indoor Air Quality

American adults spend an average of 90 percent of their time indoors, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which lists poor indoor air quality as the fourth largest environmental threat to health in the country.

Indoor environments are often contaminated with pollutants sourced from allergens from outside air or indoor materials, chemicals such as radon, and moisture such as mold. The LEED rating system dedicates an entire section of its guidelines to "Indoor Environmental Quality," which encompasses several aspects related to indoor air quality or IAQ. And a number of health conditions are a result of poor IAQ in commercial buildings.

Sick Building Syndrome, or SBS, is the name given to the condition in which individuals suffer from health problems or symptoms associated with the building in which they work or live. Typically, the problems are more acute when the person is inside the building and subside when they leave. Common symptoms include headaches, fatigue, coughing, dizziness and nausea. People with asthma are especially prone to SBS.  According to the National Academy of Sciences, more than 20 million people in the U.S suffer from asthma, which accounts for nearly 2 million emergency room visits a year. Other contaminants such as tobacco smoke and radon are leading causes of lung cancer.  

If IAQ is not maintained up to federal standards, companies may face costly litigation from employees suffering from SBS and have to contend with diminished worker productivity.

Employee complaints about indoor environments are becoming more common due to increased awareness of the risks associated with poor IAQ. The number of lawsuits related to IAQ are mounting as well.

The suits cover a variety of complaints, many of them related to exposure to substances ranging from mold to toxic paint. In a closely watched case, J.J. Acquisition Corp. v. Pacific Gulf Properties filed in September 2000, a group of employees at a California newspaper company sued their building management company for $10 million. The workers claimed the company failed to prevent or eliminate severe mold growth which they said caused them to suffer from lung and sinus infections.    

In terms of productivity, the EPA estimates that poor indoor air costs the U.S. tens of billions of dollars each year in lost productivity and medical expenses.

Building management companies and employers are increasingly willing to spend the time and money to create and maintain a healthy indoor environment to improve employee productivity and avoid costly lawsuits -- a situation that often makes facility managers the first line of defense for IAQ complaints.

However, according to industry experts, despite an expressed desire on the part of companies to be proactive, many facility managers lack knowledge of IAQ procedures. For example, when an employee complains about thermal discomfort or health conditions that may be caused from SBS, investigations should be conducted to identify the source of the problem and address it as soon as possible. But some facility managers ignore complaints. Others fail to detect or anticipate problems. All of which can lead to costly and extensive renovations — in addition to litigation and lost productivity — because issues are neglected for so long.
Industry professionals urge property management companies to provide education and training to managers as well as allocate a reasonable budget for IAQ maintenance. The Indoor Air Quality Association offers an IAQ Manager Certification course geared towards facility managers to teach them the various disciplines of the industry.   

Publications and guidelines issued by government, trade associations and green advocacy groups have played a major role in increasing IAQ awareness.

Resources include "An Office Building Occupant's Guide to Indoor Air Quality" from the EPA. The American Lung Association, the World Health Organization and the American Heart Association publish statistics and other information on various health conditions developed in workplaces due to poor IAQ, as well as develop guidelines for improving IAQ.

In the area of green building, standards such as the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy Environmental Design, have also furthered awareness of IAQ. Its inclusion in green building guidelines and the importance placed on attributes affecting IAQ have contributed to increased knowledge about the subject.

The three main factors to managing IAQ are source control, air cleaning, and proper ventilation.  Air cleaning — use of filters or air purifiers — and ventilation products can improve IAQ as well as reduce energy costs. Ventilation rates can be accelerated to increase air flow and thus improve the quality of air.    

When poor IAQ is recognized in any building, increasing ventilation rates is one of the first steps that can be taken to reduce indoor air pollutants, say industry professionals. They also say that poses one of their largest challenges with IAQ in maintaining green buildings: increasing ventilation rates without escalating energy use. Solutions can include Energy Recovery Ventilators, called ERV, and Heat Recovery Ventilation, or HRV, systems, which can reduce energy loads from those associated with traditional air conditioning systems.  

Industry experts say the market for ERV and HRV systems in commercial buildings has grown 25 percent in the past five years and it's estimated that the market will double by 2012. Stepped up green awareness has been the primary driver in market growth, said Jeff Harnett with Lennox Industries, who added that increased awareness in IAQ has been an indirect factor.

Among air filters, High Efficiency Particulate Air, or HEPA, filters are considered to be the best on the market. They can remove at least 99.97 percent of airborne particles as small as 0.3 microns from indoor air.  Other filters on the market usually capture 80 to 95 percent of air particulates.  

Leslie Smith of American Air Filter International, a manufacturer of air filtration products, said her company has seen a significant growth in air filtration products as result of new LEED guidelines, but minimal growth from 2004 to 2008 in the market for commercial HEPA filters. Products sales are the highest in the manufacturing sector, including specialty manufacturing of pharmaceuticals, and healthcare specific applications.

The greatest market challenge for HEPA filters is price and the filters have a high initial cost. Although increased awareness of green building and IAQ have helped to raise recognition of HEPA filters, the degree to which they filter the air exceeds current green building and IAQ standards. Smith said the future market for the filters is likely to depend on whether guidelines for commercial HVAC applications are upgraded to meet the HEPAs' level of filtration.  

Although the future prospects for specific products remain to be seen, industry experts say in general that the outlook for increased IAQ awareness and green building continues to be strong and provide a good foundation for increased worker well-being, more efficient and environmentally friendly buildings, and more effective products to make that possible.


Alexis Huggins is a Market Analyst for Global Market Consultants, Inc. The author based this article on her white paper on IAQ. The white paper is available in full here