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Healthy Buildings: How to Improve Indoor Air Quality

Wednesday, August 12, 2020 By Ariana Thorn

Maintaining healthy buildings through this time, and moving forward, can have great effects on the health, well-being, and functionality of occupants. We began our blog series with How to Reduce the Risk of Infection in Your Buildings. Now, let us start breaking down the 9 foundations of healthy buildings – starting with the impact of indoor air quality, ventilation, dust and pests.

What exactly is indoor air quality (IAQ)? This is a major factor when it comes to healthy buildings – according to the EPA, indoor air quality refers to the quality of air within and around buildings and structures, especially as it relates to the health and comfort of building occupants. IAQ is dependent upon the overall presence and amount of pollutants within an indoor environment that may cause harm to humans. Being aware of pollutants that may be present, where they can originate from, how to identify poor IAQ, how to improve air quality, and how ventilation can be used to benefit your space will be helpful to ensure you have a healthy building.

WHAT CAUSES POOR INDOOR AIR QUALITY?

Overall, people tend to spend the majority of their time indoors – whether it be at home, work, shopping, and etc. With air quality having such a large impact on a healthy building and its occupants, it is important to understand what could cause poor air quality and how to detect these issues. We know that IAQ is dependent upon pollutants that adversely affect people, but what are these pollutants and where do they come from?

There are two main categories for the sources of pollutants that may be present and affecting your healthy building – indoor and outdoor.

 

INDOOR SOURCES

Indoor sources that could affect your building’s air quality release pollutants in your building from the inside.

Some of these indoor sources can be heating (wood or coal) and cooking appliances, a fireplace, and tobacco – all combustion sources that release combustion byproducts like carbon monoxide or particulate matter. Carbon monoxide (depending on the concentrations) can cause fatigue, impaired vision, reduced brain function, dizziness, confusion, nausea and can be fatal under high concentrations.

Cleaning supplies, paints, insecticides, and other commonly used products used indoors introduce chemicals such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) directly into the air. Examples of these compounds are formaldehyde, limonene, and benzene. With such high concentrations of these and similar chemicals, people may experience irritation of the eyes, nose, throat, headaches, nausea, loss of coordination, cancer, liver, kidney and central nervous system damage.

Building materials are another indoor source that can affect your building’s IAQ. Asbestos fibers can be released from new building insulation and chemical off-gassing can come from new materials, like pressed wood products. Exposure to asbestos can cause asbestosis, which is a buildup of scar-like tissue in the lungs causing loss of lung function and can worsen to disability or fatality. Breathing in these fibers can also cause lung cancer and other diseases affecting the lungs or stomach.

Lastly, mold, dust, pests, and pet dander are naturally originating substances that can stem from inside a building and affect the air quality.  These can cause breathing issues, irritation to eyes nose, throat, asthma, and allergies.
 

OUTDOOR SOURCES

Pollutants that come from outdoor sources can enter a building through open windows, open doors, ventilation systems and cracks in structures.

Radon is a radiological hazard and occurs naturally when uranium in rocks and soils decays, it enters a building through gaps or cracks in building structures. In the United States, radon is the #2 cause of lung cancer after smoking, and it is estimated to cause over 20,000 deaths each year.

Smoke from chimneys can reenter buildings, whether it be the building from which the chimney is used or neighboring spaces, as well. Breathing in smoke can cause asthma flair ups, as well as emphysema.
Volatile chemicals can come from outdoor sources, just as much as it can come from indoor sources. These can enter buildings through water supply being used by occupants – i.e. through showering, washing hands, and washing dishes. Health effects may include irritation of the eyes, nose, throat, headaches, nausea, loss of coordination, cancer, liver, kidney and central nervous system damage.

Lastly, people can carry soil, dust, and pollutants into buildings from outdoors just by adhering to particles on clothing, skin or hair. Carrying these into a building will taint the IAQ and can cause occupants to experience breathing issues, eye, nose and throat irritation, and nausea.

The effects of pollutants on IAQ causes a myriad of health issues, but there are ways to prevent, improve and notice if your healthy building is being compromised.

HOW TO IMPROVE AIR QUALITY FOR A HEALTHY BUILDING

Many pollutants affecting air quality are invisible to the naked eye. Although occupants cannot necessarily see the pollutants causing harm to their healthy building there are ways to recognize their presence and reduce the emissions.

Inspections can be done to measure the levels of pollutants in a building. Companies can come in and perform IAQ tests that will see if there are levels of concern. Carbon monoxide detectors can be installed to monitor its concentration – some utility companies or fire departments will test this. Water can also be tested, as this is a source of volatile organic compounds. Looking for signs of poor ventilation in a building can also provide insight on the air quality within your building. Signs that can indicate poor ventilation include mold, excess moisture, and stuffy air.

Along with tests, detectors, and inspecting the ventilation, paying attention to effects on health is another way to notice air quality issues within a space. Humans can absorb pollutants simply through breathing, swallowing and skin absorption. Individuals that are most susceptible to negative effects of pollutants include infants and children, older individuals, people who are chronically ill, or those with cardiovascular and/or respiratory disease. This could be because of weakened immune systems, but also these individuals tend to spend more time indoors than others.

Improving air quality can be done through preventative measures, thus having a greater impact your healthy building and occupants. Volatile organic compounds are used in paints and cleaning supplies. Storing these supplies in air-tight containers is one way to prevent excess exposure to the air. These supplies are often used in aerosol containers – avoiding the spraying technique can prevent compounds from being released and spread in the air. There are a few other options to consider using instead of aerosol including pump, roll on, liquid or gel forms. Also, painting can be done using a sprayer, but switching to a brush or roller will not release as many compounds directly to the air.

Dust and contaminants can linger in areas that have a lot of clutter, so clearing the clutter and dusting frequently is a way to start. Biological pollutants such as dander, pests, allergens, and other particles can cling to carpets or rugs. Vacuuming these areas can be of great help in reducing such pollutants. Hardwood floors could have a benefit on air quality, as this type of flooring does not have fibers for contaminants and particles to cling onto.
 

DUST & PESTS WITHIN A BUILDING

Dust and pests cling to fibers on clothing, carpets, hair, and skin which can impact a healthy building. People track debris and particles in from outdoors like fibers from building materials, chemicals, bacteria, allergens, and dander. Dust is a combination of dead skin, particles, and even harmful contaminants like those carried in from outside.

It is possible to ingest dust from hand-to-mouth behaviors, like eating or rubbing one’s face. Another way is through resuspended dust. This is the dust that moves through the air and is free floating due to typical daily activities. Ingestion of dust is inevitable, as it is all around us. On average an adult will ingest 100mg of dust, and 200mg for children – as they spend more time on the floor and in areas where dust may reside. It is also possible to absorb dust through skin, this is called dermal absorption. When dust is present on skin, it can absorb chemicals, allergens, or bacteria that can potentially cause health issues/irritations

Along with dust, pests are another concern in a healthy building. Pests and domestic animals, like cats or dogs, can introduce allergens to the air that are harmful to individuals. One type of pest that is common in buildings across the board is dust mites. Dust mites are microscopic pests that feed off dead skin cells found in dust. They live in bedding, mattresses, rugs/carpets, curtains, and upholstered furniture. Depending on the amount of exposure and individual – these can trigger asthmatic symptoms along with allergies.

Cleaning practices to remove dust and pests can be done to improve your healthy building. Using microfiber cloths to remove dust is one of the best practices, because it gets picked up rather than just moved around. Extension dusters also work to remove dust from hard to reach spaces. After dusting an area, vacuuming will help pick up some of the particles that have been dislodged or fallen. Pesticides, disinfectants, and insecticides can be used to remove pests from a building – it is important to use precaution with these cleaning agents. If using these agents in a space is necessary, opening windows for circulation and using a mask to prevent breathing treatments in will be beneficial. While it is not possible to remove it all – keeping the amounts low will provide better air quality.

Circulation is another effective method of improving IAQ. Opening windows allows for air circulation, thus contaminants that may be trapped can be pushed out. Air cleaners and air purifiers are another tool that can be used in common areas to capture some irritants that could trigger symptoms in occupants. One final way to better your building’s air quality can be through ensuring your ventilation systems are working properly – and if they are not, seeking out a professional to identify and fix leakages or other issues there can help, they can also assist in determining if an upgraded system would be the best option.

WHAT IS BUILDING VENTILATION?

Building ventilation is the overall air circulation in a building and is a method of improving air quality in a healthy building. The heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system of a building supplies air and removes it naturally or mechanically. It helps to provide air to occupants within a space that is a comfortable temperature and helps to maintain levels of humidity that do not contain harmful pollutants. Ventilation and air quality are very important because it can play a big factor in health, especially considering most people spend an average of 90% of their time indoors.

Ventilation in a building has three basic elements:

  1. Ventilation rate

  2. Air flow direction

  3. Air distribution

The ventilation rate refers to the quality and amount of outdoor air provided into a space. This rate can vary over time because of normal wear and tear along with potential buildup in a system. There is evidence to show higher rates of ventilation can be associated with better productivity levels and a decrease in absences for occupants in schools or buildings, and better health.

Air flow direction is simply the overall direction air flows in a building space. It is important as it assists in maintaining a healthy building through moisture control, energy savings and occupant health. Determining air flow direction can be based on the climate and method being used. Using proper air flow direction depending on your building will benefit the overall transfer of clean air.

Finally, air distribution or airflow pattern is how external air should be efficiently removed of pollutants and delivered to each area within a space. When air distribution is controlled, it can assist in energy efficiency and allows a certain amount of air into a given space at a time. Controlled air distribution can control noise levels, as well. This distribution will push outdoor air through a space while conducting infiltration of pollutants – thus improving air quality to benefit a healthy building.

There are three methods that can be paired with the three basic elements when it comes to ventilating a building:

  1. Natural

  2. Mechanical

  3. Hybrid or mixed mode

The natural method of ventilation is dependent upon a few factors, including the overall design of the building, human behavior, and climate. To utilize this form, occupants can naturally ventilate a space through purpose-built openings such as windows, doors, solar chimneys, wind towers and trickle ventilators. This method is most economical and energy efficient, as it is natural.

Mechanical ventilation is a method driven by mechanical fans that are installed in windows, walls or air ducts and are meant for supplying air into or out of a room. With a mechanical ventilation method, filtration systems can be installed that remove harmful microorganisms and pollutants. Climate can also affect this form, as warm and humid climates may need infiltration to reduce interstitial condensation; and in colder climates exfiltration needs to be prevented to reduce that same condensation. Interstitial condensation takes place when warm, moist air from inside a building penetrates a roof, floor or wall and then meets a cold surface. This is a system that is deemed reliable and controllable for building spaces.

The final method of ventilation is the hybrid or mixed mode. This is a naturally driven method, however it uses mechanical ventilation when the natural ventilation flow rate is too low. It is important to ensure installation of exhaust fans are in spaces where air can be exhausted directly to an outdoor environment, such as through the roof or a wall.

Each of these methods are useful and effective in ventilating buildings and assisting with the air quality within a space. Proper use of these methods and maintaining a well working ventilation system can have a positive impact on IAQ, and even further the health of individuals.

VENTILATION’S IMPACT ON HEALTH

Ventilation systems that work properly provide good air quality. If the ventilation is low or poor, air quality can become compromised and unpleasant quickly. When proper methods of ventilation are not in place, pollutants can travel through air easier and cause harm to an occupant’s health.

Sick building syndrome is related directly to time spent within a building, symptoms of this are – headache, fatigue, shortness of breath, sinus congestion, cough, sneezing, nausea, dizziness and irritation to the eyes, nose, throat or skin.

Poor ventilation can cause buildup of pollutants like VOCs, radon, and carbon dioxide which in turn depletes oxygen levels. Low oxygen levels lead to adverse health effects like shortness of breath, fatigue, and headache. Poor ventilation can also trigger asthma and respiratory issues as pollutants, particles, dust, and pests linger. It has been seen that with poor IAQ and ventilation more absences arise, a decrease in productivity, and higher operational costs.

When ventilation systems are working properly, we see better air quality, and unhealthy symptoms are less likely to occur. Breathing becomes much easier for occupants when air is distributed and filtered properly through a space. Better breathing conditions in a healthy building will boost productivity levels as people are less likely to take short-term absences that correlate directly with the impact on health that air quality has.

MOVING FORWARD

A healthy building relies on good air quality, maintaining your ventilation system, and conducting proper cleaning to reduce dust and pests within your building. By taking these precautions, you will positively impact the health and productivity of your occupants, assist in ridding polluntants, and increase potential energy savings in your building.

We, at Illumetek, are here to help you! We have a highly qualified team, specialize in cost and energy savings, and we can assist in improving your healthy building through lighting installs – including germicidal UVC lamps, and touchless technologies or smart controls.  Please contact us here or at (800) 644-2566.


 

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Illumetek is a National Program Management company facilitating installs, updates, compliance and rebates for Lighting, Electrical, and associated Controls. If you have additional questions regarding LED lighting technology or design, please feel free to contact us anytime.


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Illumetek is a National Program Management company facilitating installs, updates, compliance and rebates for Lighting, Electrical, and associated Controls. Contact us today!