GMS Third Party Article – July 2020
Fifty years ago, President Richard Nixon shared a 37-point address on the environment with both chambers of Congress. He also convened a council to recommend programs to reduce pollution and pursue the goals he highlighted in his message. These recommendations led to the consolidation of environmental oversight to one Federal agency now known as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The EPA’s work to protect the environment from pollution threats to drinking water, the ozone, forested lands, and outdoor air is well known. But under its mission to “protect human health and the environment,” this regulatory body also actively promotes the protection of indoor air quality (IAQ). The EPA says “’indoor air quality’ refers to the quality of the air in a home, school, office, or other building environment. The potential impact of indoor air quality on human health nationally can be noteworthy for several reasons . . .”
What are these reasons, and why is IAQ more important than most of us think? Let’s consider five reasons why we need to consider indoor air quality and how poor IAQ can prove hazardous to our health.
- Risk from Higher Levels of Exposure
The EPA cites “Americans, on average, spend approximately 90 percent of their time indoors, where the concentrations of some pollutants are often 2 to 5 times higher than typical outdoor concentrations.” Poor air quality particularly affects individuals with sensitivities to pollutants and those who suffer from cardiovascular or respiratory diseases, the population group most likely to spend a higher percentage of their time indoors.”
With the advent of energy-efficient commercial and residential construction, pollutant concentration can increase unless builders incorporate sufficient mechanical ventilation to promote healthy air exchange. A move from natural to synthetic materials for building materials and furnishings increases the potential concentration of pollutants. The use of potentially hazardous chemicals in commonly used pesticides, personal care products, and commercial and household cleaners also adds to the risk.
- Risk from Outdoor Air
When looking at IAQ, we must also consider outdoor sources of pollutants affecting indoor air quality. How do these pollutants enter commercial buildings and homes?
- Pollutant-laden outdoor air enters through open windows and doors, and seeps in through cracks;
- Radon, an odorless, colorless gas, formed in the ground, as well as naturally occurring uranium produced in soil and rock decay, can pollute indoor air as these substances enter through cracks or gaps in building foundations;
- Chimney smoke and contaminated water sources can pollute the air seeping into a building with harmful chemicals;
- Individuals going in and out of a structure unknowingly carry pollutants from the outdoors on their shoes and clothing.
- Risk from Indoor Air
The major threats to indoor air quality come from sources inside commercial buildings and residential homes. Many of these threats, often hidden or difficult to detect, need the services of an HVAC professional with specialized testing equipment to assess.
- Dangerous gasses (Radon, Nitrogen Dioxide, Carbon Monoxide). Radon, an odorless, colorless gas can, in increased levels, contribute to lung cancer. Nitrogen dioxide, formed from the burning of fossil fuels, promotes asthma attacks and reduction in lung function. Carbon monoxide, also odorless, when released by malfunctioning HVAC systems, can cause fatigue, headaches, dizziness, confusion, and even death.
- Mold. Mold or fungi, growing in and around a building can release spores into the air, prompting severe allergic reactions in exposed individuals.
- Asbestos. This naturally occurring mineral, frequently found in older insulation, produces fibers which when released into the air and breathed into the lungs, can promote greatly diminished lung function and lead to lung cancer.
- Prior to 1978, this soft metal was a common ingredient in house paint. When inhaled, however, lead damages the nervous system, brain, blood, and kidneys.
- Secondhand smoke. The smoke produced by burning tobacco products and the smoke exhaled by smokers greatly lowers IAQ. The EPA cites the following health effects of secondhand smoke: “Secondhand smoke causes cardiovascular disease (heart disease and stroke), lung cancer, sudden infant death syndrome, more frequent and severe asthma attacks, and other serious health problems.”
- A photochemical reaction, a reaction of heat and sunlight with man-made air pollutants, creates ground-level ozone. Inhaling dangerous levels of ground-level ozone can damage an individual’s respiratory tract resulting in diminished lung capacity.
- Risk from Low Air Exchange Rates
The EPA working with ASHRAE (the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) defines air exchange rates as “the rate at which outdoor air replaces indoor air.” In its Standard 62-2019, “Ventilation and Acceptable Indoor Air Quality in Residential Buildings,” ASHRAE “defines the roles and minimum requirements for mechanical and natural ventilation systems and the building envelope intended to provide acceptable indoor air quality (IAQ) in residential buildings.”
Quite simply, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) in its publication, “The Inside Story: A Guide to Indoor Air Quality,” “when there is little infiltration, natural ventilation, or mechanical ventilation, the air exchange rate is low and pollutant levels can increase.”
- Risk from Outdoor Climate and Weather Conditions
Under normal conditions, the higher the altitude, the cooler the atmospheric temperature. However, under certain circumstances called temperature inversions, the mercury rises with the rise in altitude. This phenomenon, more frequent in winter, occurs when the air above the earth’s surface, the “troposphere,” warms faster than the earth’s surface.
Surface inversions inhibit normal convection currents and trap pollutants near the ground producing smog. Sunlight converts these substances into ozone which then reduces air quality. As mentioned above, the polluted outdoor air can seep into houses and commercial buildings through cracks in walls, windows and doors.
Extremely warm weather drives individuals indoors. Buildings, too, grow hotter and emit harmful chemicals from building materials. Hot wet weather increases the humidity and elevates the opportunity for mold growth in damp areas of homes and commercial buildings. And with higher outdoor temperatures comes an increase in pollens that prompt allergic reactions.
Why is indoor air quality more important than you think? Consider the risks from greater exposure to indoor air, outdoor as well as indoor air pollution, inadequate air exchange rates, and increased presence of pollution due to climate and weather conditions. To properly assess and minimize risks of poor IAQ, have a licensed HVAC professional test your home or business’ IAQ and recommend actions you can take to improve it.