Why Are Indoor Air Quality Problems So Prevalent Today?

An environmental engineer explains why a web of social and technological changes has caused an increase in concerns about indoor environments.

I often hear the question, "Why are we seeing such an increase in problems related to our indoor environment?" Usually, the question is posed in relation to some specific problem -- a series of serious illnesses linked to bacteria-contaminated water in drip pans, long-term health problems that are eventually traced to persistent mold exposure, or employee fatigue found to be related to improper distribution of fresh air. Because of these causal connections, the impacted individuals tend to be focused on a narrow aspect of the indoor air quality (IAQ) field.

In reality, it is not a single "thing" that has created more problems with our indoor environment, but a series of trends, decisions and changes that have brought us to the point where identifying and dealing with IAQ problems is now a necessary and legitimate industry. In a discussion such as this, it is also important to remember that a synergy can develop between a number of actions that results in an overall effect greater than one would expect just by looking at the individual pieces.

Lifestyle Changes

What are the factors causing indoor air quality concerns? It starts with a change in lifestyle that has resulted in a greater percentage of the population spending more time indoors. An often-quoted estimate used by the Environmental Protection Agency indicates that many Americans spend up to 90 percent of their time indoors. Even that statistic minimizes the impact of a general lifestyle change in this country over the past 30 to 40 years. It's not just the time inside that's different, but the air inside as well. People's houses and cars are now temperature-controlled to the point that it is unusual to see an open window.

In a very real sense, the changing nature of work has had a dramatic impact on potential IAQ problems. The move from an agricultural/manufacturing society to one where information-based technologies and services are paramount means that much more time is spent in office environments. Of course, the office has changed with computers, printers, faxes and photocopiers all adding their demands in regards to light, posture, ventilation and the like.

This move toward environmental control and information-based work has resulted in a third big change that affects indoor air quality: the increased sophistication of heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems (HVAC). Although this sophistication allows more precise control over our indoor environment, it also means that more things can go wrong. The potential for problems escalated as the increased mechanical sophistication of ventilation units forced the need to control unplanned adjustments. As such, operable windows, large window walls to provide natural light (and the associated thermal differences caused by such large areas of glass), began to disappear.

By design, architects and engineers moved away from personal control of occupant workspace to mechanical control. This trend provided for more consistent comfort levels when the system worked as expected, but severely limited the majority of occupants from responding to difficulties that arose.

In tandem with the development and installation of more sophisticated HVAC systems was the explosion of new construction materials and technologies. Metal, wood, nails, plaster and paint were integrated with, or replaced by, adhesives, plastics, urethanes, particle board and many other chemically based products. The use of new construction materials helped to resolve some indoor problems such as asbestos on pipe insulation and lead in paint, but in their place brought their own set of problems such as fiberglass shedding and off-gassing of volatile organic compounds.

There is no doubt that an awareness of energy costs has impacted indoor air quality in the past and will continue to do so. Many people are familiar with the stories of schools, factories and offices shutting or sealing the outside air intakes as an energy efficiency measure following the oil embargo in the mid-1970s. The desire to have more control over temperature fluctuations comes at the cost of more sophisticated equipment, but also typically brings higher energy bills as well. Architects, engineers and building managers often overemphasize energy efficiency to the detriment of occupant comfort and performance because the cost of electricity, gas or oil is easily quantified.

Productivity, on the other hand, is often more difficult to translate into numbers or dollars, particularly in office environments. Just because something is difficult to quantify doesn't mean it is unimportant. A number of rigorous studies point to the inescapable conclusion that poor indoor air quality can have a measurable negative impact on student performance, office productivity and production error rates. These costs, not to mention costs from increased sick time and associated higher insurance payments, can be much greater than any savings garnered by reducing outside air or otherwise impacting air quality.

"More" Factors

Three additional factors that are contributing to a continued emphasis on indoor air quality can be characterized by the word "more." There is more research being conducted on specific aspects of IAQ. There is more media attention paid to results of the research being conducted. This research and publicity generally results in more involvement of the legal community.

This pattern has certainly held true with indoor air quality as high-profile, multimillion-dollar judgments for sick buildings, mold-infested structures and improper restoration of flooding or other water intrusion situations have been sustained by the courts.

These three factors tend to work together to push the IAQ field up in a spiral. While it's true that research often leads to publicity and publicity can contribute to legal interests, the process can go in opposite directions as well. Questions left unanswered in a particular trial situation can spur research to answer the question. Large monetary awards often are the subject of media stories. Media stories about affected home or business occupants can encourage research and lawsuits.

Other interesting components that have recently been suggested as possible factors contributing to the increase in IAQ problems are health-related trends that one would believe would have a positive, rather than a negative, impact on our environment.

Some prominent researchers now speculate that the reduction of tobacco smoke in our buildings removed a deterrent that helped keep in check the growth of mold, bacteria and viruses.

Other research suggests that the substantial use of antibacterial products such as soaps and cleaners may be contributing to the onset of childhood diseases such as asthma. Although the jury is still out on whether there is any actual quantifiable impact from those two attempts to make our environment cleaner, it does point out how many actions in the IAQ field may produce unintended consequences.

The last two factors that I believe contribute to increased indoor air quality complaints are attitude and information accessibility. In general, people are not as willing to accept the contention that ill health is a normal part of the job. This intolerance of poor air quality in workplaces, public buildings, restaurants and even airlines fuels continued interest in identifying and resolving IAQ problems.

This attitude is reinforced by the ability of people to easily access information, which would have required a major effort just a few years ago. The power of the Internet and other electronic information sources to quickly educate individuals about a particular situation or set of circumstances has changed the entire dynamic of dealing with a building's air quality. People now have information (although not always accurate) to support their decision to improve their conditions or force their employer to take similar steps.

When taken as a whole, it's easy to see why the interest in indoor air quality has picked up over the past few years. Major changes in lifestyles, work habits, construction techniques, ventilation equipment, research subjects, media stories, legal cases, smoking, cleaning procedures, attitudes and the ability to access information resources are working individually and in conjunction with one another to keep IAQ in the forefront of our consciousness. Fortunately, as information on indoor air quality becomes more widespread, we can move from reacting to problems and complaints to proactively preventing problems from developing in the first place.

Michael A. Pinto, Ph.D., CSP, is chief executive officer of Wonder Makers Environmental. He has more than 20 years of safety experience from jobs in the private sector, the nonprofit arena and regulatory agencies. In addition to general safety and health consulting, Wonder Makers specializes in indoor air quality, asbestos and lead. Pinto can be reached at (616) 382-4154 or map@wondermakers.com .

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