Office air quality

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cites indoor air pollution as one of the top five public health threats in America.[1] In a recent study, the Berkeley National Laboratory concluded that 40 percent of all office sick days are related to poor indoor air quality (IAQ).[2] Their findings suggest that improved IAQ could increase productivity and reduce the occurrence of Sick Building Syndrome by 20 to 50 percent, with potential savings between $10 and $100 billion nationwide annually.[3][4]

Poor IAQ is the result of mounting air pollution, both inside and out, from substances which are either biological or chemical.[5] Factors can include any combination of the following:[6]

  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) resulting from computers, paint, adhesives and caulking, cleaning products, photocopy and print machine operation, and more.
  • Carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide primarily from combustion of fossil fuels (including car and truck exhaust).
  • Formaldehyde applied to wood, particleboard, furniture, carpets, carbonless fax paper, and in glues.
  • Particulates from copy paper, cleaning chemicals, HVAC filters, air intakes, and carpets.
  • Rapid changes in temperature or humidity, which can contribute to the growth of microbes and mold.

Very few buildings in the US are free from poor IAQ, and since adults spend up to 90 percent of their time indoors, the term Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) is being volleyed around with increasing frequency.[7] SBS (alternately referred to as Tight Building Syndrome (TBS), Building-Related Illness (BRI), and Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS) occurs when a building’s occupants exhibit illnesses such as dry, irritated eyes, nose, throat, and skin; fatigue; shortness of breath, coughing, and sneezing; dizziness and nausea; as well as headache and sinus congestion.[8]

Questions to get you started...

Evaluate the following practices to determine where you can potentially improve your office’s indoor air quality:

  1. Are you able to choose a green janitorial company or at least one that uses eco-friendly cleaning products?
  2. Can you control the temperature and lighting in the space you occupy?
  3. Does your building have any air filters and if so, are you able to gain access to them?
  4. Are you able to establish proper levels of fresh air intake into your office?
  5. Do you use integrated pest management for the building?
  6. Do you procure low or no-VOC building materials (paints, adhesives, furniture, carpet, and other furnishings and finishes)?


  • carbon monoxide: A colorless, odorless gas released into the air by the incomplete burning of solid, liquid, and gaseous fuels. At high concentrations this gas can cause headaches, dizziness, weakness, nausea, confusion, and disorientation in healthy people. The symptoms are sometimes confused with the flu or food poisoning.[9]
  • formaldehyde: A flammable reactive gas belonging to the VOC family of chemicals. It is widely used in personal care products, building materials, insulation, and home furnishings. Ingestion of the chemical can cause severe physical reactions, including coma, internal bleeding, and death.[10] The US Department of Health and Human Services considers it a probable human carcinogen.[11]
  • ground-level ozone: The main component of smog, ground-level ozone is formed when VOCs react chemically with nitrogen oxides (NOx) under hot, sunny outdoor conditions.[12] Many urban areas have high levels of this summertime pollutant, though rural areas can experience increased ozone levels too as wind can carry ground-level ozone hundreds of miles from where it originates.[13] Breathing ozone can cause a number of respiratory health problems. It also contributes to ecosystems and crop damage.[14]
  • particulate matter (PM): A mixture of dry solid fragments, solid cores with liquid coatings, and small droplets of liquid of varying shape, size, and chemical composition. PM of concern is 10 µm or smaller, less than one-sixth the size of a human hair (or 60 µm). Airborne particulate matter sources include burning fuels (gasoline, oil, diesel, wood) as well as fine powders such as carbon black toner. PM may cause health problems, particularly for the elderly, people with heart and lung disease, as well as children and infants.[15]
  • volatile organic compounds (VOCs): Gases released by a wide variety of products, including cleaning products, furniture, and dry-cleaned clothing.[16] Paint and coatings alone account for 9 percent of all VOCs emitted from consumer and commercial products in the US, according to the EPA.[17] VOCs can cause several health problems, ranging from headaches and respiratory inflammation to central nervous system diseases.[16] VOCs are also considered a possible carcinogen.[16]

External links



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