Breathing Easier over Indoor Air Pollution

Article excerpt

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.

Dire Consequences

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. Miller added.

Some common sources of indoor air pollution include tobacco smoke and biological organisms-microbes being circulated by heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as formaldehyde, which may be emitted from adhesives, carpeting, upholstery, high-density fiberboard, toners from copier machines, cleaning agents and pesticides, are another common form of indoor air pollutant.

But, indoor air pollutants can also originate outside the building and enter through poorly located air intake vents in the form of industrial pollution vehicle exhaust, odors from dumpsters, emissions from leaky storage tanks and pesticides. Or the building could be built on a former landfill site, or there could be a print shop or place of food preparation on the premises.

Be Proactive

How does one manage indoor environmental exposures? "Prevention is the key," Ms. Miller said, adding that a company should "have an open policy of communication with building occupants so that there is a mechanism for those in the building to lodge complaints. The EPA checklist forms for assessing indoor air quality can be used as a good starting point." She also advised adding indoor environmental issues (which also include asbestos, radon and lead in the water) to the purview of a company's health and safety committee, and establish in the lease who is responsible if there are problems related to indoor air quality.

One proactive measure that a risk manager can take is to run a building profile that asks the following: "Is the building being used as it was designed to be used? Are there signs of overcrowding? Have there been complaints of ventilation problems? What types of businesses are the other tenants conducting (are they using chemicals)?" You might want to survey the other tenants and have the water tested to make sure that the lead levels are acceptable, Ms. Miller added.

Conducting a building "walk-through"-looking for clues pointing to a potential indoor air problem-is another preventive measure Ms. Miller touts. Warning signs to look for include: ceiling tiles raised up in an effort to get fresher air; numerous personal/individual fans; blocked air vents; or a poorly located main air intake vent-is it by the dumpster or on the roof where standing water may gather to help spawn microbes.

If an indoor air problem is suspected and the problem is beyond the walkthrough phase, the remedy could lie with the building's HVAC system; simply increasing the ventilation rates may be all that is necessary to correct the situation. It may be necessary, however, to bring in experts, although Ms. Miller cautions that air sampling and testing may not be very fruitful due to the difficulty of identifying and linking any one specific substance to an occupant's illness.

When planning to purchase a building, determine whether there is any kind of indoor air program already in place and if there have been any complaints, Ms. Miller advised. Also, verify if the owners or any tenants are planning to do any renovations that could disturb intact asbestos or utilize building materials that give off VOCs. Moreover, ascertain any prior uses of the building by conducting title searches and obtaining old photos, and make sure there are no abandoned underground storage tanks or leaking heating oil tanks (which, Ms. Miller noted, "are often made from bare unprotected steel and pretty much unregulated"). All of these can present a real financial exposure to the building owner, she added.

Shifting Priorities

In the future, building occupants will increasingly want assurances that the air is clean. Ms. Miller forecasts that building and office managers will likely receive more complaints from workers and tenants regarding illness due to air quality. As a result, "indoor air quality will be looked at more and more as a function of environmental risk management," she said.

And because maintaining good indoor air quality may have a more direct impact on preserving human health, Ms. Miller predicted regulators will refocus their attention away from outdoor pollution to indoor air pollution. As evidence of this, she cited the EPA's declaration earlier this year that it considers tobacco smoke to be an environmental pollutant and a Class A carcinogen, in the same category as benzene and cadmium-an action that may prompt other governmental agencies to take a closer look at indoor air pollution.