In the United States, most people stay indoors for a good part of their daily lives, spending most of their time in an office setting. According to various studies, you can sometimes find higher levels of contaminants indoors than outdoors. This makes indoor air quality control a very important concern for building owners and businesses. It is also a concern shared by employees and tenants.
The fact is the quality of air that we breathe indoors is critical to our health and well being. Indoor air pollutants lead to an increased risk to illnesses and, thus, is identified by the scientific community as a crucial environment-related health problem. Air quality also has a significant effect in the comfort and productivity of occupants with improved air quality resulting in increased production and fewer sick days. Although most indoor environments do not have critical air quality control problems, even well-maintained buildings can still have poor air quality.
Air quality inside a building is a rather complex concept. Unlike pipe leaks or mold growth, there are more factors at play that contribute to indoor air quality and these factors are constantly interacting with each other. Aside from the obvious factor being the pollutants, the ventilation system of the building is also a major factor affecting indoor air quality, specifically, how the system is designed, maintained and operated. Other factors also include the level of humidity and moisture in the building as well as the susceptibility of the occupants to air pollution.
There are three major approaches to indoor air quality control. First, deal with the causes of the pollutants by eliminating them from the building or keeping them away from people by putting up barriers, controlling when they will be used or controlling air pressure. Second, use ventilation to remove pollutants from the building. Third, get rid of air pollutants through filtration.
Sources of Air Pollutants
Managing the indoor and outdoor causes of air pollutants is a fundamental step in air quality control. These sources may include activities such as housekeeping, building maintenance, pest control, renovations, and other activities of the building’s occupants. One important objective of air quality control is to reduce the exposure of occupants to the causes of air pollutants.
Some of the main types of air pollutants include:
1.)Particulates – These are the miniscule substances that you see floating in the air when a beam of sunlight gets through the window. Particulates can either be liquid or solid and the smaller ones, which pose more health risks, are not visible to the naked eye. Dirt, dust and other substances can get into the building from outside or they can be caused by indoor activities like smoking, printing, or sanding walls.
2.)Organic pollutants – Poor housekeeping or building maintenance can lead to the development or accumulation of biological pollutants like viruses, bacteria, mold, dust mites, pollen, and animal dander. Some of these pollutants can also be caused by water leaks and inadequate moisture and humidity control as well as poor ventilation and air filtration in the building. Sometimes, they can also be brought by occupants into the building.
3.)Chemical contaminants – Some of the causes of these pollutants are accidental chemical spills, gas leaks, cigarette smoke and emissions from chemical products used inside the building such as cleaning products, wall coatings, furniture coverings and products used to operate equipment.
Another important aspect of indoor air quality control is effective management of moisture and humidity levels inside the building. Molds and other organic pollutants can develop when dirt and a high level of moisture and relative humidity are present. These pollutants can also spread when water-damaged surfaces and materials are not dried properly and promptly or when equipment with drain pans like ventilation and refrigerators are not maintained properly. On the other hand, when the level of humidity inside the building is too low, it can lead to dry eyes, sinus problems and irritation of mucous membranes.
Good maintenance of the building’s HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) system as well as how the system is laid out and installed in occupied spaces are also very important parts of indoor air quality control. The HVAC system includes the ductwork and air filtration equipment so it has a major role on the proliferation of pollutants and, of course, their removal. The HVAC system can even be a source of air pollution sometimes such as when the air filters are dirty or damp or when the moisture in the ductwork is not controlled.
Because of the importance of the building’s HVAC system, a good indoor air quality control program should always consider the following:
1.)The design of the HVAC system should make it fully capable to deliver adequate conditioned air to all occupied spaces.
2.)Outside air should be adequately supplied into the building to dilute contaminants and ventilation air should be distributed properly throughout the building to ensure occupants’ comfort.
3.)Ensure proper installation and maintenance of air filters to minimize the pollutants that are brought into the building through the ventilation system.
4.)Keep air flow in mind when planning the office space layout so furniture and equipment does not create an obstruction to air delivery.
5.)Regular maintenance of the HVAC system and making sure it is functioning properly at all times is essential to the delivery of good air quality.
Even though there are numerous factors affecting indoor air quality, the good thing is that most air quality problems can be avoided or resolved through simple steps and collective effort. Here are some things that you can do to improve the quality of air inside your office:
First, make sure you do not obstruct air vents. If you smoke, follow the smoking policy of the building. Practice proper and prompt garbage disposal. If you bring food to the office, store it properly. Keep the pantry clean. Refrain from bringing anything into the building that could discharge unpleasant odors or harmful substances. If you suspect that there are air pollutants in your office and air quality control is needed, do not hesitate to bring it up to your office manager.
For office managers, set up the office in a way that the HVAC system is able to function and do its job properly. This means you should make sure that when you arrange office furniture and equipment, that they are not blocking the air vents or any other part of the HVAC system.
In addition, avoid using products and equipment that can contribute to poor air quality inside the office. Get rid of office procedures that do so and include air quality when making purchasing decisions. Moreover, enforce a smoking policy that ensures nonsmokers are protected from involuntary secondhand smoke exposure.
It is also important for office managers to be in partnership with the building’s management on issues regarding improving the indoor environment. There are a number of responsibilities that they share and several elements that they need to work on together in order to make an air quality control program effective such as the design and operation of the HVAC system, including its maintenance and the application of appropriate pest control methods, which should be organic as much as possible and done only when absolutely necessary.
If the office will undergo remodeling or renovation, the office manager should consult with the building’s management and the contractor to determine how to keep the occupants’ exposure to contaminants to a minimum and make sure that there would be no disruption in the distribution of air throughout the building. If the building’s management does not have an air quality control program in place, encourage them to establish one following the guidelines issued by concerned government agencies.
Sharing the responsibility
It is clear that air quality is affected by various factors from inadequate HVAC maintenance to poor housekeeping or using products or equipment that release pollutants. Some of these factors are fully controlled by the building’s management while others fall in the control of occupants. There are also factors that both sides can influence.
Because of this, it can be said that the responsibility of air quality control is shared between the people who manage the building and the people who occupy it. Therefore, effective indoor air quality control relies on the actions of every person in the building. The relationship between the two parties, however, will differ from one building to another.
There are buildings that are fully occupied by the building owner’s employees and in this case, indoor air quality control is usually the sole responsibility of a particular department or a central office. Meanwhile, in other buildings that lease spaces to different occupants, the daily activities of the occupants are not controlled by the building’s management. Similarly, the occupants have limited control over the main services of the building such as HVAC system operation, facility maintenance, pest control, and waste management. For this reason, the building’s management and the occupants should work hand in hand in coordinating their strategies to maintain an indoor environment that is comfortable and healthy.