Blog Post

What You Can’t See Can Hurt You

Indoor Air Quality

Author: Steve Kooy

Forty years ago, if you didn’t see it, you weren’t worried. Today, given advances in science and technology, we now understand that gases and micro-pollutants in our air –even those we can’t detect by sight or smell –can impact our health and well-being. Air quality is no longer something we can judge by our senses alone, especially indoors. 

indoor air quality certified business office

According to a 2016 Newsweek article , indoor air quality “gets about 100 times less research funding than outdoor air, even though the average American spends about 90 percent of the time inside.”  Volatile organic compounds (VOCs), particulates, carbon monoxide, and radon are among the chief culprits for poor indoor air quality, along with dust, mold, and bacteria.

Building design, interior design, and building maintenance are key factors influencing your “micro-climate” – that is, the space in which you live and work, and specifically, the air you breathe. Optimizing your micro-climate involves smart design, purchasing, and an understanding of the air around you.

Building Design

Building codes include fresh air ventilation requirements to ensure that an adequate oxygen to carbon dioxide ratio. This is balanced with the need to save energy. A typical building recirculates air to reduce the amount of energy used to heat or cool outside air. In addition, filtration systems are installed, typically for particulate removal.  (As I describe below, however, they don’t always work as advertised.)


Also key to building design are the construction materials used.  Regulations, such as the US EPA’s new Formaldehyde Rule (Toxics Substance Control Act, Title VI), are aimed at minimizing formaldehyde emissions from composite wood materials, confirmed through third-party certification. (California’s Air Resources Board pioneered the first formaldehyde emission regulations for composite wood products in 2009 with ATCM 93120.)

LEED, WELL Building, BREEAM, Living Building Challenge and other voluntary rating systems have helped focus attention on “green” building design. These rating systems seek to balance energy efficiency, fresh air circulation, and indoor air quality.  

Interior Design and Maintenance

Interior design and purchasing also play a major role in dictating what we breathe. Your carpet, walls, desk, and the items used to clean and maintain the space all matter. Building products, furnishings, and cleaning products can all emit gases which contribute to unhealthy indoor air quality.

Seeking low-emitting products is crucial to create and maintain a healthy and productive environment.  This can be easier said than done, depending on the degree to which you control your work environment.  Fortunately, better productivity outcomes, such as those cited in a recent Harvard study, offer a great incentive for management teams to prioritize measures to improve indoor quality. That study linked volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and carbon dioxide levels to building occupant performance. Participants in the study who worked in “green” buildings meeting strong indoor air standards scored better in crisis response, strategy and information usage – 97%, 183%, and 172% respectively. These are amazing gains in productivity obtained simply by creating a better, healthier environment.

environmental health perspectives graph

Building owners and facility managers are also increasingly aware of low-emitting options, though you may need to make specific requests when it comes time for tenant improvements.  Innovative solutions, ranging from the installment of live plant walls to room-by-room sensors and apps, offer refreshing new ways to tackle the issue of indoor air quality.

indoor plants

From the Outside In

Indoor air can be severely challenged when outdoor air quality is compromised.  Such was the case in Napa and Sonoma counties over the past few weeks as fires burned through the area. Schools were closed in large part due to inadequate air filtration, and employees at the Napa County Health and Human Services Agency, which occupies two buildings in a large industrial park in south Napa, were wearing masks indoors even as they were tending to the needs of fire victims.   

Even under less extreme circumstances, there is no guarantee that fresh air is the same as clean air. For instance, as described in the 2016 Newsweek article, a school found its indoor air compromised by a recent cell tower installation. The cell tower required a diesel generator. Unbeknownst to the school, the exhaust from the generator was being sucked into the school building, increasing particulate, benzene and arsenic levels.  The problem was only detected because an enterprising science teacher happened to be using a Speck sensor, which measures airborne particulate pollution, as part of a science project.

Operational windows are always a welcome addition; however, outdoor air in urban areas, especially near vehicle exhaust, may adversely impact the indoor air quality. Just last year in Portland, an art glass manufacturer was found to be the source of excessive levels of the carcinogenic heavy metal cadmium. Typical filtration units (MERV 1-4 ratings) capture particulates above 10 microns in size, but fail to filter VOCs and finer particulates (especially those smaller than 2.5 microns, which can lodge in the lungs).

What You Can Do

Take these steps as applicable to improve your air quality at work and at home:

1. Purchase the best possible air filter (at least MERV 8 or higher), and change out filters regularly.

2. Look for products tested and certified to meet low emission standards, such as SCS Indoor Advantage and FloorScore®, containing no added urea-formaldehyde, CA 01350 compliant, or with health product declarations.  Many of these certifications are recognized under building rating standards.

3. Clean regularly to control dust, bacteria and mold, and choose cleaning products carefully to avoid unwanted chemical emissions.

4. Check the air outside before opening a window. Avoid adding unfiltered outside air in areas of high traffic or near manufacturing areas. The latter may require some investigation to determine whether manufacturers are generating particulates or other harmful byproducts when operating.

5. Ensure humidity, temperature, and air movement are maintained at correct levels. Mold enjoys humid, stagnant environments.

6. Speak to facility managers and your work management team about the importance of selecting interior design components that meet minimum indoor air quality standards.

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