A Proactive Approach for Managing Indoor Air Quality

By Greene, Robert E.; Casey, John M. et al. | Journal of Environmental Health, November 1997 | Go to article overview

A Proactive Approach for Managing Indoor Air Quality


Greene, Robert E., Casey, John M., Williams, Phillip L., Journal of Environmental Health


Introduction

A substantial body of literature shows that the factors most often implicated in indoor air quality (IAQ) investigations are ventilation and maintenance related (1-9). The attribution of sick building syndrome (SBS) primarily to insufficient or poorly distributed ventilation air is supported by the large number of studies conducted by the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) (10). Inadequate ventilation was a predominant feature in many of these building studies and in other published reports, which identify it as an important factor (5-10). Several heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning (HVAC) components are cited frequently as the loci of IAQ problems because they provide the opportunity for biological growth and bioaerosol generation in the presence of moisture. Such excessive moisture is often caused by poor design and poor control of humidity, as well as inadequately maintained cooling coils and drain pans. IAQ problems are exacerbated by accumulated dust and by the presence of fibrous insulation in the ventilation system (1).

"Psychosocial" aspects, which include lighting, ergonomics, acoustics, personal sensitivity, and social factors have also been shown to play a major role in IAQ (11-16). Complaints of thermal discomfort, inadequate ventilation, or indoor air pollutants may actually be caused or complicated by psychosocial factors (13). For example, poor lighting (glare, flicker, poor illumination) can produce symptoms such as eyestrain and headaches that are similar to symptoms resulting from IAQ problems (low humidity, volatile organic compounds [VOCs], formaldehyde) and can thus be misinterpreted as an IAQ problem. In many cases, psychosocial factors involve occupant distrust of building management that results from perceived inaction or insensitivity to complaints (6). An increased likelihood of complaints has been documented when occupants have little or no control over their environment (17). Furthermore, psychosocial factors may be the underlying reason many investigations conclude without identifying an exact cause for the complaint. For example, the Ontario ministries of Labour and Governmental Services have investigated more than 2,000 IAQ complaints since 1976. In many of these cases, the cause of the symptoms could not be found (18). Similarly, a NIOSH study of 446 building investigations found that in 13 percent of the cases the cause was unknown (19). Instead of identifying the true source of the problem, the investigator is often left with a long list of unsolved problems.

To compound the problem, currently used investigation protocols are often ineffective (20). Reasons for this problem include the lack of established IAQ exposure standards, insufficient research on low-level multiple contaminants, and the variety of building designs and ventilation systems. These kinds of difficulties result in costly studies that produce no conclusions and that may lead to irresponsible speculation.

Since many IAQ investigations are ineffective and fail to resolve IAQ problems, prevention would be the best solution. Specifically, a proactive approach is needed that addresses the two causes (HVAC and maintenance) most often implicated in IAQ investigations. The literature has suggested a limited number of proactive approaches that generally address both the ventilation system and occupant perception (2, 13, 21-23). In most cases, however, these approaches require technical expertise and generate excessive paperwork. The approach proposed below is designed to be implemented by a building manager and requires only a limited technical background.

Proactive Protocol Outline

The following outline for a proactive approach is designed to prevent IAQ problems. This protocol is empirically based on the causes most often implicated in IAQ complaint investigations, the HVAC system and psychosocial aspects, and is designed to be implemented by in-house personnel (i. …

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