The Growing Concern over Indoor Air Quality

Risk Management, June 1994 | Go to article overview

The Growing Concern over Indoor Air Quality


Two recent lawsuits alleging health problems from poor IAQ are being viewed as precedent-setting, giving rise to speculation that such suits will increase in number.

One pending lawsuit in the fledgling field of "sick building syndrome" litigation involves the Du Page County courthouse in Illinois. More than 400 of the 700 employees who worked in the new $53 million structure built three years ago reported that they felt ill and could not determine why. Their symptoms ranged from respiratory difficulties, such as sore throats and sinus congestion, to fatigue, headaches, dizziness, nausea, skin rashes and even numbness in their extremities. The 400 plaintiffs filed suit in 1992 against the building's architects and contractors, which is pending.

A more recent case involves a lawsuit filed by 19 plaintiffs against the owner-operator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) building headquarters in Washington D.C., where the plaintiffs had worked. A jury awarded $950,000 to five of the 19 plaintiffs (the cases of the other 14 have not yet been tried). The plaintiffs had reported vague health problems following the installation of new carpet in portions of the building. "Over the past five years, there has been an explosion of complaints, claims and litigation resulting from unacceptable indoor air quality in buildings," says Jack Halliwell, president of Halliwell Engineering Associates Inc., a national indoor air quality consulting firm based in East Providence, Rhode Island.

Although it is unknown today just how many buildings are sick, the problem is generally regarded as widespread. The World Health Organization, for example, estimates that 30 percent of all new and remodeled buildings suffer from sick building syndrome. EPA studies indicate that the air inside buildings is often as much as 100 times more polluted than the air outside. With people spending more than 90 percent of their time indoors, it is inevitable that sooner or later employees will begin reporting health problems.

CAUSES OF POOR IAQ

IAQ problems can result from a variety of causes. "Poor IAQ is usually the result of a multitude of contaminants that build up because of inadequate ventilation," says Richard Silberman, technical project manager for Fairfax, Virginia-based Healthy Buildings International Inc., which has performed air quality investigations in more than 1,000 major buildings worldwide since 1980 "Poor ventilation allows contaminants to accumulate and may result in sick building syndrome," he notes.

There are thousands of pollutants that can be found at any time in today's indoor environments, Mr. Silberman points out. "Among gases and vapors, the EPA has studied over 300 volatile organic compounds in the indoor environment," he says. "Inorganic compounds include carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, ammonia and radon. Fibers in the air can come from clothing and other textiles, cotton, fiberglass insulation and asbestos. Dusts comprise common household allergens, house mites, pollens, dander, and smoke from tobacco, wood or coal." Finally, with the combined presence of dirt and stagnant water in the indoor environment, microbes such as bacteria, protozoans, fungi and viruses can flourish, he adds.

Modem building interiors, supplies, equipment, furnishings, detergents, pesticides, paints and lacquers, and even humans themselves can all contribute to the buildup of pollutants, Mr. Silberman claims. "You can't see this happening around you, but the problems are there," he says. Jack Halliwell agrees: "While in the past IAQ was overshadowed by concerns with the outdoor environment, today's focus is shifting indoors."

COMBATTING IAQ PROBLEMS

IAQ lawsuits against corporations are, for the most part, covered by either workers' compensation insurance or products liability policies (some suits claim the building is a defective product manufactured by the owner/corporation). …

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