Indoor air quality (IAQ) matters. The negative effects of poor indoor air quality on building occupants have been known for some time, and when the pandemic struck, discussions around poor IAQ became a hot topic again.
While the pandemic has receded, buildings and facilities owners and operators remain keenly aware of indoor air quality—not just because poor IAQ adversely impacts people’s health, but also because of its impact on business’ bottom lines. In fact, according to the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF), inadequate IAQ costs the US economy more than $10 billion a year due to lower staff productivity and increases in sickness.
So, what factors contribute to the deterioration of indoor air quality, and what can be done to improve IAQ for occupants? To help answer these questions, we delve into some of the hazards and offer steps you can take to keep your building and its occupants healthy and happy.
Understanding Your Building’s Indoor Air Quality
The first step in improving indoor air quality is understanding its current condition. Just as outdoor air quality is tested and monitored to provide information for public health, IAQ testing and monitoring are crucial for ensuring that a building is safe and comfortable for its tenants, occupants, and visitors.
Fortunately, indoor air quality can be tracked and tested easily with handheld devices that show real-time component (pollutants and particles) levels in the air. What’s more, several devices can relay this information to mobile apps, providing actionable information to facilities management personnel.
Subpar IAQ can be attributed to a range of pollutants and the possibility of several being present simultaneously—all with hazards. Some indoor air pollutants can be two to five times worse than outdoor pollutants. That’s why the EPA’s Science Advisory Board rates indoor air quality among the top five environmental risks to public health.
It’s important to note that there are no definitive standards for indoor air quality. However, the CDC, ASHRAE, OSHA, and the WHO provide guidelines for maintaining clean air in buildings. And there is widespread agreement when it comes to bad-air culprits.
Hazardous Measurable Pollutants to Monitor
Here are some of the more dangerous pollutants that building operators should monitor and test for.
- Particulate Matter (PM): Some particulate matter or PM— dust, dirt, soot, or smoke—can be seen with the naked eye, but that which is too small to be seen can be even more hazardous. PM is measured by size: PM2.5/PM10 (particles with a diameter of 2.5 or 10 micrometers, respectively). To get an idea of how small particulate matter is, the average human hair is about 70 micrometers in diameter. These particles can get into the lungs and potentially cause damage to the respiratory and cardiovascular systems.
- Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs): VOCs are gases that are emitted from everyday products. Some may be harmless, such as the terpenes that come from cutting into an apple or peeling an orange. However, many—glues and adhesives, building materials, and even cleaning fluids—contain VOCs that are hazardous to human health, especially over the long term. Studies at Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health show that occupants exposed to high VOCs had significantly lower cognitive function scores, echoing other reports showing that low IAQ can cost businesses through reduced productivity.
- Carbon Dioxide (CO2): CO2 is measured in parts per million (ppm), and increased levels can cause discomfort, fatigue, and reduced cognitive function. CO2-producing culprits include burning oil, gas, and coal. But human beings also produce CO2 with every exhale, so a combination of high occupancy and low ventilation in a room can mean less oxygen, resulting in the symptoms mentioned above.
- Mold: It’s well known that mold spores can produce allergic reactions or even severe respiratory infections. Although spore measuring systems can detect spore counts around visible mold, they do not capture the full range of exposure. A better way to approach potential mold growth is to measure relative humidity (RH) and take proactive measures to reduce levels if they are too high. In addition to RH, dew point is another important measurement. If the indoor air temperature drops below the dew point temperature, condensation can occur on surfaces, leading to moisture accumulation with the potential for mold growth. Visual inspections and identifying musty odors are also important and reliable ways to identify the presence of mold.
Maintaining Good Indoor Air Quality
Once you have tested your building’s indoor air quality, what are the best ways to maintain good IAQ? Whether you are starting with a good IAQ report card or find your facility’s IAQ lacking, here are key considerations to keep the good air flowing:
- Air Filtration: For optimal filtration, install the highest-rated filters your HVAC will allow, preferably MERV 13 (or better) and HEPA filters that can effectively manage PM2.5. Your circulation rate is critical, too. Air should have a constant flow through the filters, even without cooling or heating being on. Changing filters frequently and regularly is also vital, especially if your system is carrying a lower MERV-rated filter.
- Adequate Ventilation: Increasing the amount of outdoor air ventilation can dilute and remove VOCs by delivering a sufficient supply of fresh outdoor air while effectively removing stale air. To make this process energy efficient, utilize energy recovery ventilators (ERVs) or heat recovery ventilators (HRVs) to enhance ventilation. Ramping up ventilation rates can raise concerns about energy consumption and cost. Studies show that doubling the ventilation rate recommended by ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air-Conditioning Engineers) incurs a cost of less than $40 per person per year in various climate zones (and with ERVs can be as little as $10 per person). Meanwhile, the resulting productivity boost equates to $6,500 per person per year.
- Proper Cleaning Practices: While regular cleaning can minimize dust, allergens, and pollutants, there’s a paradox: Some cleaning fluids emit VOCs. If possible, rely on low-toxicity, environmentally friendly products. If there is ever a need to use fluids with high VOCs, ensure adequate ventilation is in place. Additionally, make sure your cleaning crew is knowledgeable about VOCs, following effective cleaning protocols.
- Regular Facility Maintenance: Maintaining your HVAC systems, including cleaning and inspecting air ducts, coils, and vents, will go a long way toward better IAQ. Address leaks and water intrusion as they arise, and monitor humidity levels to avoid mold growth. If humidity is high, humidifiers or dehumidifiers can maintain optimal RH levels.
- Indoor Plants: Plants aren’t just aesthetically pleasing. They also boast IAQ benefits. Not only will indoor plants brighten your building’s interiors, but they can also help absorb certain VOCs and reduce CO2.
Improved indoor air quality is not only crucial for occupant health and safety, but it also provides tangible benefits for building owners and managers. Contrary to the belief that improving IAQ comes with high costs, the reality is that investing in IAQ improvements can result in better productivity and increased tenant retention, ultimately outweighing any initial expenses. By committing to a comprehensive IAQ strategy, commercial building owners and managers can create a healthier, more productive, and more attractive environment for their occupants, leading to long-term success and satisfaction for all stakeholders involved.