An Environmental Issue: Something in the Air?

Indoor air quality (IAQ) is a growing concern for many companies. Whether you are a business owner or building owner, you should take potential IAQ problems seriously. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), poor ventilation, exposure to air pollutants, and inadequate amounts of fresh, outside air could put your employees or occupants at risk for a number of well-identified IAQ-related illnesses, including asthma, Legionnaires’ disease, and pneumonia. In addition, employees may experience symptoms that are difficult to trace to a specific source, such as fatigue, sneezing, headaches, dizziness, nausea, irritability, or forgetfulness. Known as sick building syndrome, these could indicate serious health problems related to IAQ.

If left uncorrected, air quality problems could prove costly for your business, resulting in lost productivity, increased absenteeism, and decreased employee morale. In addition, you should be aware that if a serious problem arises, employees might turn to litigation.

Even New Buildings Can Be at Risk

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that up to 30% of new or remodeled commercial buildings have high rates of health and comfort complaints from occupants that could be related to IAQ. The following factors are the major causes of unhealthy indoor air in commercial buildings:

1) Air pollutants. Commonly found sources of office pollutants include building materials, pressed wood products, furnishings, cleaning supplies, water-damaged walls, paints, adhesives, copy machines, photography and print shop chemicals, and pesticides.

2) Poorly designed, operated, and maintained air conditioning and ventilation systems. Problems may arise when ventilation systems do not circulate an adequate amount of outdoor air; when outdoor intake vents bring in air contaminated by automobile exhaust, tobacco smoke, and other fumes; and when polluted air is circulated throughout the building. Poorly placed or blocked air vents may also contribute to these problems.

3) Unintended or poorly-planned uses of buildings. When offices are added to buildings used for specialized purposes, such as restaurants, dry-cleaners, and print shops, air pollutants travel into these parts of the building. Also, when specialized buildings are converted into office space, air quality problems may remain if ventilation systems are not properly modified. Underground parking garages can also contribute to poor IAQ when exhaust and carbon monoxide enter the building through stairwells and elevator shafts.

With the pervasive potential for poor air quality, what can you do to make your workplace environment safe? Here are some steps you can take:

  • Keep a record of all reported health complaints.
  • Be alert for clusters of similar health problems. Contact your state or local health authorities to discuss the symptoms and possible causes.
  • For help in identifying, correcting, and preventing IAQ problems, visit the EPA’s website,  There you can also obtain free, printable copies of Building Air Quality: A Guide for Building Owners and Facility Managers and Building Air Quality Action Plan.
  • For a health hazard evaluation, contact the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) at
  • If you hire a professional company to conduct a building investigation, make sure they have experience identifying and solving air quality problems in situations similar to yours.

By meeting IAQ problems head-on, you’ll be taking action that will help control potential health hazards. In doing so, you are contributing to a safer and more productive work environment, as well as a happier workforce.


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