The Importance of Indoor Air Quality

Posted by Mark Roman on March 3, 2020

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Of all the environmental issues surrounding facility management, one of the most important to keep an eye on is the indoor air quality of places where people live, work, and otherwise stay for long periods of time.

This might include office buildings, hotels, apartments or condos, shopping centers… and there are several elements that could lead to unpleasant odors or even hazardous air quality that could trigger complaints and force a facility to engage in costly assessment and cleanup.

With today’s well-constructed, super-insulated, and air-tight buildings meant to conserve energy, air quality issues can quickly worsen and can lead to health issues if not handled correctly. Issues that have always been there are more noticeable today because of our improved building construction methods.

As with anything, an awareness of not only your facility’s, but also your neighbors’ operations and its history, inside and out, can help you engage in preventative, rather than reactive, action.

From an air quality standpoint, here are some of the main items that can come up:

  • Asbestos
  • Mold
  • Vapor intrusion from subsurface contamination
  • Chemical exposures from materials used at a facility
  • Building construction materials

We’re seeing more and more of these types of complaints in recent years. Does the below example sound familiar?...

A worker files a complaint about a weird smell in the office… or maybe even trouble breathing, headaches, or other symptoms.

As you are aware, you can’t dismiss complaints without further investigation. You start by looking at the circumstances. As a manager, you need to know what can lead to an air complaint. If a complaint is issued, it is imperative to start documenting the issue.

You should figure out…

  • What day was it?
  • What time?
  • How long did the odor last?
  • Have you always had this issue… or was it temporary?
  • What was the weather like?
  • Was the odor inside or outside?
  • If it’s a multi-tenant facility, are people in only one location complaining?

All these factors can affect that odor and help you identify the source.

For example, we often find that with one-time complaints, it is often the result of an activity that only occurred once or seldom occurs; like the tenant next door or upstairs was painting the walls or refinishing something… and the odors from that activity entered the facility’s air handling system.

That’s why when you get a complaint, you need to take immediate action by implementing an assessment. Contact the other tenants in the facility to see what they’ve been up to lately. This often helps you identify the source quickly, determine whether or not it’s a simple – and temporary – matter, or if you need to conduct further investigation to find the cause of a more serious problem.

Some other potential sources of odors could originate from building materials, for example formaldehyde and sulfur emissions from drywall, pressed wood products, laminates and certain adhesives can contribute to indoor air quality issues. So, it’s important to understand the history of your facility, including historical chemical usage, production activities, construction materials used, etc.

It’s also of vital importance to document every complaint and how you addressed them. The last thing you want is for somebody to say, “I told you about this last year and you didn’t do anything about it”.

What’s Going on Outside?

In one facility we investigated, we found elevated levels of benzene in indoor air. There was no evidence of any materials containing benzene being stored or manufactured there.

What we did find was that the main intake for the HVAC system was on the roof… located within feet of an overpass for a major highway.

When we tested the air on the roof, we found elevated levels of benzene from vehicle exhaust on that heavily-traveled road. A great example of why it’s key to always look for potential sources of indoor air quality on the exterior of your building, as well as inside your building. In this case, simply relocating the intake for the facility’s air handling system resolved the issue.

Another quick example of how what’s happening outside can impact what’s going on inside.

Weather patterns and barometric pressure can have an impact and must be evaluated in any indoor air assessment. You can often get a bad odor during certain weather conditions, which could be from a sewage treatment plant miles away – that impacts your facility when the wind is blowing from a certain direction.

Mold

Mold tends to be a significant issue when it comes to indoor air quality. People in an office environment, for example, may complain of headaches, sinus issues, breathing problems, and other symptoms as a result of mold.

Mold can form from a variety of causes: leaky pipes, water accumulation in the HVAC system, issues with the water/sewer system to name a few. Even a slow leak or drip can become the cause of a major mold problem over time.

What you need to remember is to regularly inspect anywhere moisture can accumulate, especially where you can’t see it directly: plumbing, drop ceilings, ice makers, bathrooms, and on the roof (where leaks or loose shingles can let in rainwater). When water or moisture damage is identified, make sure it is addressed before mold starts to become a problem.

Older Buildings

In older buildings, the potential presence of PCBs, asbestos and lead-based paint in building materials may need to be assessed before you conduct any renovations, construction, or demolition for the safety of the contractors/construction workers, as well as anybody working in, or visiting, the building. You need special equipment and procedures when working with these materials, as they can cause major issues if they become airborne.

Check historical records or conduct an assessment to determine where you might have these building materials in your facility.

Vapor Intrusion

This is a hot-button topic across the country right now that originated with leaking underground storage tanks at gas stations and their effect on residential indoor air quality. In recent years, regulators have started to understand how far some of the impact from the leaking tanks can travel, depending on subsurface conditions, what material is released and how much is released.

For example, if leaking underground storage tanks are found at a gas station and it gets into the groundwater, the released material can off gas into the soil, with that vapor then getting into a building through cracks in the basement floor or walls or cracks in the building floor if there is no basement present. Vapor intrusion can occur as a result of any release of a volatile organic material to the environment, for example chlorinated solvents used at dry cleaners. We’ve even found some cases of an explosive atmosphere in the basement of an apartment building caused by vapor intrusion from a nearby gas station release.

If you find volatile organics in your indoor air and you do not use such compounds at your facility, look to your neighbors for the cause, including current and past operations. Is there an underground tank next door because it was the former site of a gas station or some other type of facility that stored potential volatile organic materials? You should be able to find records of these former uses, as well as documentation of historic releases.

Then, you need to conduct a thorough assessment to definitively determine the source of the air quality issue.

Next Steps

Indoor air quality is something you should always pay close attention to, even if the cause or effect seems relatively benign. Odors could be a symptom of a more serious underlying issue like mold or vapor intrusion of harmful chemicals.

Investigate every complaint of bad odors, health issues, or discomfort. It’s a key part of taking care of serious issues promptly – not to mention, finding the responsible party.

A great way to get started is to go through our Indoor Air Quality Issue Checklist when faced with an odor or indoor air quality complaint. It’s a free download here.

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