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Are you working in a sick building?
Courtesy of the American Lung Association
When you're at work, do you get headaches? Do you have difficulty breathing? Are you groggy or nauseated? Do your eyes burn?
Do you find yourself sneezing or coughing? And do you feel better when you leave the office? If so, there's a possibility that you are working in a sick building. The "sick building syndrome" is a recently recognized phenomenon, and, unfortunately, an increasingly common one. When a significant number of building occupants experience symptoms that do not fit the pattern of any particular illness and are difficult to trace to any specific source, the problem may be "sick building syndrome."
Sick building problems may arise because of improperly designed or maintained heating,ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) systems; office equipment, furniture and supplies; and operations in the building.
To save rising energy costs, new buildings are tightly sealed and modern ventilation systems recycle a large portion of inside air. Often, fresh air may not reach the worker. For example, use of flexible office partitions in large open spaces can interfere with the air distribution as it was originally designed.
|Energy costs in older buildings are reduced by adding insulation, caulking and weather-stripping. Windows are made air-tight, and outside air dampers are closed. Whether a building is old or new, the same recirculated air is breathed again and again by the people working in these buildings.
The problem is made worse by increasing numbers and varieties of pollutants from furnishings; air conditioning, heating and ventilating systems; modern office equipment and supplies; humidifiers and dehumidifiers; and secondhand tobacco smoke.
The result? Air pollution levels can be far greater indoors than outdoors.
Common indoor bacteria at extreme magnification.
|HOW BIG A PROBLEM IS OFFICE AIR POLLUTION?
A World Health Organization report suggests that as many as 30 percent of new and remodeled buildings worldwide may generate excessive complaints related to indoor air quality.
In a nationwide random sampling of office workers, 24 percent perceived air quality problems in their work environments, and 20 percent believed that their work performance was hampered accordingly.
|WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS
OF WORKING IN A SICK BUILDING?
The effects of office air pollution usually show up first as one or a combination of the following symptoms:
However, these symptoms may be a result of a variety of causes. Frequently, it is difficult to firmly establish the relationship between the symptoms and the work environment.
This is not the whole story. Germ-caused illnesses, such as Legionnaire's Disease, which can lead to serious infection or even death, are often the result of indoor air pollution.
|WHAT CAUSES OFFICE AIR POLLUTION PROBLEMS?
The major reasons for poor indoor air quality in office buildings are the presence of indoor air pollution sources; poorly designed, maintained or operated ventilation systems; and uses of the building that were unanticipated or poorly planned for when the building was designed or renovated.
|Major Causes of Poor Office IAQ:
Frequently, no single pollutant is present in unhealthy amounts, yet because there are so many pollutants present, the total effect may be unhealthy. Pollutants most likely to cause problems in the office are:
Biological Agents: Biological agents are present in the air almost everywhere, and are a common factor in office air pollution. They include bacteria, viruses, fungi, pollen, dust mites and other insects, animal dander (tiny scales from hair, feathers, or skin) and molds. Biological agents can travel through the air and are often invisible. They are usually inhaled, either alone or by attaching themselves to particles of dust and then entering the respiratory system.
Major sources: Offices can be especially vulnerable to microorganisms, because fungi and bacteria find nourishment in inadequately maintained air-circulation systems and in dirty washrooms.
Pollen at extreme magnification.
When biological agents are allowed to flourish in poorly maintained ventilation systems, severe health problems can result that can be experienced throughout an entire building.
Infectious and noninfectious diseases can be caused by various biological agents. They can make you sneeze, trigger allergic reactions, cause rashes, watery eyes, hoarseness, coughing, dizziness, lethargy, breathing problems, and digestive problems.
People with asthma are especially susceptible to allergic problems caused by biological agents. Their very sensitive airways can react to various allergens and irritants, making breathing difficult.
This odorless gas is a regulated outdoor air pollutant. It can be an even greater hazard indoors. In some office buildings, afternoon levels of carbon monoxide can be 10 to 20 times greater than the EPA's daily standard for outdoor air quality.
Garages and loading docks in buildings are a major source of carbon monoxide. If improperly vented, or if there is a leak in the duct work, the gas can seep into a building's offices in unhealthy amounts.
Carbon monoxide can produce fatigue, confusion, headache, dizziness,and nausea. It can impede coordination and worsen heart problems. Very high exposures can cause death.
Formaldehyde is a commonly used chemical compound found in as many as 3,000 different building products.
In office buildings, the major sources of formaldehyde are likely to be particle board, fiberboard and plywood in furniture and paneling; glues; and upholstery and drapery fabrics.
Exposure to formaldehyde can cause headaches, sore throats, and fatigue. Other health effects can include rashes, nausea, dizziness, and eye and respiratory tract irritation. Furthermore, formaldehyde has been found to cause cancer in animal research and industrial workers.
|Secondhand Tobacco Smoke
Secondhand smoke, the smoke from someone else's cigarette, cigar or pipe, contains more than 4,000 chemicals including nicotine, formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, and other known cancer-causing agents.
While smokers themselves face serious health risks from tobacco, it is now clear that even people who don't smoke may be threatened. Exposure to secondhand smoke, also called environmental tobacco smoke, may have certain harmful, possibly even fatal, health effects such as lung cancer and heart disease.
Tobacco smoke can irritate eyes, nose and throat and can cause headaches and nausea. The Surgeon General of the United States has concluded that secondhand smoke is definitely dangerous to human health. Involuntary smoking has now been established as a cause of lung cancer in healthy nonsmokers.
More than half of all U.S. employers have instituted restrictions on smoking in their facilities. A 1989 survey of Fortune 500 companies reported that at least 10 percent have smoke-free policies and almost 42 percent permit smoking only in limited, designated smoking areas.
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|Volatile Organic Compounds
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are released from certain solids or liquids as gases at room temperature. They include a variety of chemicals (benzene, carbon tetrachloride, styrene) which may have both short-term and long-term health effects.
Volatile organic compounds can be found in some furniture, paint,adhesives, solvents, upholstery, draperies, carpet, spray cans, clothing, construction materials, cleaning compounds, deodorizers, copy machine toners, felt-tip markers and pens, and correction fluids.
Short-term effects include eye, nose and throat irritation; headaches; and nausea. On a long-term basis, exposure to high levels of some of these substances may produce damage to the liver, kidney and the central nervous system.
Four basic requirements to restore health to sick buildings:
A smoke-free policy is the best way to protect the health of all employees. If that is not currently feasible, smoking should be allowed only in a separately-ventilated area reserved exclusively for that purpose, where no nonsmoker is required to enter or pass through. Your local American Lung Association can provide materials to help companies develop and implement no-smoking policies. Call 1-800-LUNG-USA (1-800-586-4872).
Guidelines for office buildings set by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and air conditioning engineers (ASHRAE) require circulation of fifteen to sixty cubic feet of outside air per minute per person, depending upon the activities that normally occur in that room. If air circulation in large open spaces is hampered by partitions, raise the partitions approximately six inches off the floor.
To assure adequate ventilation in a modern building, adjustments can be made to the ventilating system. In older buildings, windows can be opened, ceiling fans can be installed to help circulate the outside air, and humidifiers or dehumidifiers can be added. Relative humidity should be kept between thirty and sixty percent.
Regularly clean and disinfect every part of a ventilating, heating or cooling device or system, including humidifiers and dehumidifiers, air filters, air circulation pumps and blowers.
It is important to keep up to date with the chemical components and health effects from exposure to equipment, furnishings and supplies in your office. Change or remove sources that cause problems for workers.
Ask the building manager or other responsible person to:
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