As of this writing, we are 2+ years into a Global Pandemic. Mask requirements and keeping your distance have become ingrained in our way of thinking. Outdoor events, including dining and weddings have become a readily accepted approach to social gatherings. And many quickly adapted to working from home, not having been back to office since early March 2020.
But as we move into Spring 2022, many businesses are once again re-opening their Corporate Workspace, transitioning some employees back to either full-time on-site or a hybrid model, with a certain number of days per week back in the office.
Many jurisdictions are lifting indoor mask mandates, some of which have been in place since March 2020. The air we breathe, indoors especially, is certain to be top-of-mind of most returning workers.
According to the EPA …
Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) refers to the air quality within and around buildings and structures, especially as it relates to the health and comfort of building occupants.
But there are many factors that will influence and affect the quality of the air in a Commercial Building.
This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but let’s start here:
- Temperature, and what is being done to regulate it
- Humidity, or lack thereof, and how it’s being addressed
- Particulate matter … those furnace filters do NOT change themselves
- Air infiltration from outside the Building Envelope:
- Is it from unwanted air infiltration, aka, leaks?
- The penetration of unwanted outside air is unfiltered, so any pollutants, contaminants, or moisture are coming along for the ride.
- Is it from natural ventilation, like windows, doors, or vents?
- Doors and windows and often vents can be closed if the outside air is found to be unacceptable, like in the event of “Code Orange” days
- Is it from mechanical ventilation, like fans?
- These can be shut down and generally have louvres that shut as well.
- Airborne irritants/allergens from building materials used.
- Formaldehyde in formed wood products, for example, is slowly released over time and some people are more sensitive to it. As of June 18, 2018, it is illegal to manufacture or import composite wood products in the United States if they contain excessive amounts of formaldehyde. (Source, EarthJustice.Org : https://earthjustice.org/news/press/2018/june-1-no-more-formaldehyde-in-wood-products-made-sold-in-u-s)
- Airborne irritants/allergens/toxins from chemicals used in the workplace in the line of work.
- A Commercial Solvent & Chemical Manufacturing Plant will almost certainly have greater concerns than the average Accounting Office will.
- Bio-hazards, like microbial growth.
- Bacterial and Viral issues. Often carried by the people in the building, and sometimes spread to others through the air droplet transmission when a person coughs or sneezes
- Radon, which is a gas that occurs naturally in soil, due to the breakdown of radioactive elements. Is it being monitored and if present, is it being mitigated?
- Asbestos, and has it been encapsulated or removed from pipes and in building materials such as dry wall, ceiling tiles and flooring.
- Ventilation and Circulation. Know the difference.
- Prior to the 1970’s, airflow in most buildings was three times higher than what it dropped to in the 70’s. (Source, EPA.org, https://www.epa.gov/sites/default/files/2014-08/documents/sick_building_factsheet.pdf)
- Why? The Fuel Embargo and rising costs of heating & cooling.
- During this era, there was rapid growth of SBS, or Sick Building Syndrome. In short, choking off the free exchange of air, indoor for out and vice versa, in an attempt to conserve energy. This caused many people to adversely react to this stale, poorly vented air. There’s a big difference between “refreshing” the air and simply recirculating the same, stale air around you.
- Lighting, and how it can affect indoor air quality (IAC).
With so many potential sources of “bad” air, let’s dive-in to topics that can be more readily diagnosed and addressed.
First and foremost, if you believe that you already have unhealthy Indoor Air Quality (IAC), your first step is to contact a qualified HVAC company to inspect your Heating Ventilation & Air Conditioning system. If you don’t already have a preferred vendor, reach out to us and we can make a qualified recommendation. Your problem may simply stem from clogged filters and/or ducts or outdated equipment that is no longer capable of effectively recirculating the amount of air inside your Building Envelope or drawing in enough fresh air from outside. Interior renovations (new walls) or additions to your building made without expanding your HVAC system could also be a source of poor IAC.
The next step forward, if it’s more than just your mechanical systems, is to employ the services of an Industrial Hygienist. This is an individual or company that’s qualified to thoroughly examine your building and to obtain air samples for lab analysis. They will develop a comprehensive plan to diagnose and address your IAC.
Symptoms of a problem might include visible mold, or just plain unpleasant odors in the workplace, or employees complaining of feeling ill while at work, but feel better often within minutes of leaving the building.
In May 2000, Baltimore County Government received complaints of worker illnesses about one of the buildings in Towson with poor air quality and building issues.
TEMPERATURE. We spoke in our last blog about the importance of proper building temperatures as it relates to freezing pipes. For the health of your building and the people who work there, it’s important to maintain proper temperatures as well. Wildly varying temperatures can adversely affect build materials and contents, and certainly have adverse effects on humans. Too high temperatures, combined with too high humidity can contribute to the growth and spread of bacteria and mold.
HUMIDITY. As noted above, the combination of warmer temperatures and higher humidity will contribute to bacterial and microbial growth. The Mayo Clinic recommends a range between 30-50%. Keeping your building too “dry” … low humidity … is also unhealthy to humans, making us more susceptible to airborne illnesses.
PARTICULATE MATTER. Follow your manufacturer’s and/or installers recommendation for how often to change filtration and what MERV (Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value) you should be using.
AIR INFILTRATION. Again, this is the unwanted intrusion of unfiltered outside air into your building. Seal cracks and other breaches, especially around foundations and pipes that pass through your exterior walls. Check door sweeps. Inspect your windows. These are the common culprits.
AIRBORNE IRRITANTS/ALLERGENS/TOXINS are a complicated matter and often involving the EPA, OSHA, and other Federal and State Agencies. You are advised to work with qualified professionals in these areas of specialty if you have one of these concerns.
BIO-HAZARDS, like mold. Are best addressed by an Industrial Hygienist.
BACTERIAL and VIRAL issues. These are complex matters, as they often relate to person-to-person transmission. As the old expression goes, “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link”. When you have sick people in the workplace, they tend to spread the love. Temperature screenings, facial coverings, proper handwashing, and sanitizer can be a part of the mitigation process. A generally “healthy” workplace, as it relates to all the other points discussed here, will also contribute the overall air quality impacting the health and well-being of your staff and guests in your building.
RADON. A colorless, odorless, invisible, naturally occurring gas that seeps up from the ground. Certain parts of the country are more vulnerable than others. Test kits are available. Remediation, if necessary, can be done by working a qualified contractor.
ASBESTOS. In older commercial buildings, asbestos is most likely to be found as pipe insulation. It’s mere existence in your building, around pipes is not necessarily a hazard. It’s when it deteriorates, flakes, and then becomes airborne that’s a cause for alarm. The fix is removal or encapsulation with 3 mil. or greater plastic and tape. It is required if asbestos is found, a qualified company must be contracted for the removal before repairs or construction can continue, as it requires proper safety gear, including a respirator, for those doing the work. Asbestos can be found in many building materials. If suspected, testing is required.
VENTILATION and CIRCULATION. First, let’s be clear about terms. Ventilation refers the exchange of air to and from inside and outside your building. Circulation refers to the redistribution of air already inside your building. While circulation can improve IAC by passing the air through filtration media, it should be combined with adequate ventilation, so that you are not contributing to SBS, or Sick Building Syndrome as mentioned above. A qualified HVAC company can best assess and address concerns here.
LIGHTING. It may not seem like this would have an effect on the quality of the air we breathe, but it does. We’ve all heard the old expression, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant”. Turns out, it’s not just a quaint, outdated saying. Ultraviolet radiation in sunlight does work as a natural disinfectant (Source, Slate.com), even through windows. (Source, ScienceDaily.com). So depending upon the construction of your building, something as basic as opening the curtains or blinds can have a positive impact on your Indoor Air Quality.
In a future blog, we’ll dive deeper into a variety of solutions for building managers to consider from air ducts cleanings, changes to airflow to increase the inside/outside airflow, air scrubbers, ultra-violet ray devices for air handlers, maintenance, etc.
As with any issue that can contribute to or detract from the Health and Human Safety of employees and guests in your building, you are always advised to work with qualified professionals on these matters.
For further reading: https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/indoor-air-quality-offices-and-other-large-buildings
Author: Bob Sansbury, Commercial Account Partner