Though indoor air pollution rarely generates much publicity, risk managers should take heed: studies conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) indicate that human exposure levels for many pollutants may be two to five times higher indoors than outdoors. Considering that people spend an estimated 90 percent of their time inside their homes and offices, it is easy to see why the EPA has consistently ranked indoor air pollution among the top five greatest environmental health risks today.
Why has this issue surfaced only during the past decade or two? The EPA points to several factors, including the construction of well-sealed buildings (windows do not open), the use of synthetic building materials and furnishings, chemically formulated personal care products, pesticides and household cleaners. The agency further cited a 1984 World Health Organization Committee report suggesting "that up to 30 percent of new and remodeled buildings worldwide may be the subject of excessive complaints related to indoor air quality."
But perhaps the most important contributing factor to indoor air pollution over the past 20 years has been reduced ventilation rates. Before the energy crisis of the early 1970s, building ventilation rates averaged 15 cubic feet per minute (cfm) of fresh air per occupant, the minimum amount recommended by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and AirConditioning Engineers (ASHRAE); areas such as smoking lounges, ASHRAE advised, should have a ventilation rate of 60 cfm. In response to escalating heating, cooling and electricity costs, however, those rates have since dropped down to 5 cfm per person, according to Lynne M. Miller, president of Environmental Strategies Corp., an international environmental consulting firm headquartered in Reston, Virginia.
The harmful effects of indoor air pollution have frequently been divided into two categories. The EPA uses the expression "sick building syndrome" (SBS) to describe "situations in which building occupants experience acute health and comfort effects that appear to be linked to time spent in a building, but no specific illness or cause can be identified." The symptoms that may be experienced from SBS include: headaches; eye, nose or throat irritation; dry cough; dry or itchy skin; dizziness and nausea; difficulty in concentrating; drowsiness and fatigue; and sensitivity to odors. Often these symptoms disappear shortly after exiting the building in question.
By contrast, the EPA uses the phrase "building related illness" (BRI) when "symptoms of diagnosable illness are identified and can be attributed directly to airborne building contaminants." Symptoms of BRI may include complaints of persistent cough, tightness of the chest, fever, chills and muscle aches. Recovery from BRI symptoms may take considerable time after leaving the building.
Apart from worker health, there are economic reasons for ensuring proper indoor air quality. If you are an owner of a building that has been identified with poor air quality or has been the object of numerous SBS-type complaints, the value of the property could depreciate significantly. And as an employer whose business is located in such a building, the company may experience a decrease in worker productivity along with a rise in worker absenteeism. In a recent address to a meeting of the New York Chapter of the Society of Chartered Property and Casualty Underwriters, Ms. Miller noted that studies have shown absentee rates to range over 10 percent in a building with poor air quality compared to only a 5 percent absentee rate for workers in a "healthy" building. And a 1992 Louis Harris Poll of about 1,000 occupants of a number of buildings in Chicago found that over 60 percent felt that the indoor air quality caused them some ill effects, and about 20 percent felt that they had lost at least one day of work due to the poor indoor air quality, Ms. …