|AIHA Operation Outreach|
|American Industrial Hygiene Association|
Indoor air quality problems have been around for centuries, but our scientific understanding of the indoor environment is just beginning. Because of this, the knowledge and skills of individuals providing indoor environmental quality services vary tremendously. There are no federal regulations covering professional indoor air services (except where it involves asbestos, lead or radon). Some professional organizations, such as the American Board of Industrial Hygiene (ABIH) offer certifications in indoor environmental quality, but these are not required by law. So, if you have a suspected indoor air quality problem that you cannot readily understand and remedy, it can be difficult to decide where to turn.
This guide was written to help you:
Many indoor air quality (IAQ) problems can be detected and corrected by you or your building maintenance personnel. This section was designed to give you an overview of such IAQ problems. For more specific guidance in resolving the problem in-house, please refer to AIHA's Operation Outreach publication entitled Do I Work in a Sick Building? Also, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have developed Building Air Quality, a comprehensive guide for building owners and facility managers (see the additional resources section at the end of this booklet).
A typical IAQ investigation involves the following steps:
One key element in resolving problems is reviewing complaints and obtaining firsthand information from occupants. Occupant's experiences and observations may go a long way toward improving your understanding of the problem. Questions you pose should address symptoms reported, how many people have problems or concerns, where are they located, and when do problems appear, and general occupant observations about the indoor environment. Persons reporting specific medical problems should be encouraged to see a physican. Complaints may reflect individual medical conditions, work stress, office politics or other factors unrelated to air quality, but add to the overall perception of poor air quality and require investigation.
Inventory sources of airborne dusts, chemicals and allergens
Many sources of indoor pollutants are readily observable during an inspection in and around the building and their possible relation to the complaints should be noted. Inspect the general cleanliness of the area. A thorough cleaning of the surfaces, carpets and furnishings may alleviate occupant discomfort related to airborne dusts, fibers and allergens.
Consider the outdoor air as a possible source. Pollen and mold can aggravate allergies and result in air quality complaints. Vehicle traffic near HVAC system air intakes can add carbon monoxide and other contaminants to the indoor air. Workplace activities involving even small amounts of chemicals can lead to occupant discomfort if the area is not properly ventilated. Use your organization's hazard communication program as a starting point to list chemicals occupants use and don't forget to consider outside contractors' activities, such as cleaning crews, roofers and construction contractors.
Examine sources of moisture intrusion or water damage
Moisture intrusion can promote growth of mold (fungi) and bacteria. Bacteria are rarely a problem, unless there is a constant or pooled water source. Unusual types or high concentrations of fungi may be related to a significant portion of occupant symptoms, especially among persons with allergies. Sometimes you may not be able to see the impact of moisture on the building. It can be hidden by floors, walls and ceilings, and may require professional assistance and highly specialized testing to locate the problem.
Look for common HVAC problems
The HVAC system should be reviewed with the personnel responsible for its upkeep. Look for excessive debris or visible mold growth, pooled water and malfunctioning components. HVAC systems may affect air movement between rooms, and can direct air contaminants through various pathways.
After you have done all of the above with no apparent success, it is time to seek outside help. As a general rule, you should seriously consider calling a professional indoor air quality consultant if any of the following statements are true:
Indoor air quality consultants vary in their training and experience. For example, a consultant may be trained in architecture, heating and ventilation, medicine, engineering, microbiology, toxicology, ergonomics, environmental and occupational health, or industrial hygiene. The ideal consultant has a basic understanding of all of the above, with a specialized knowledge in the particular issues present in your workplace. The following discussion describes several types of professionals and how they can help:
Industrial Hygienists: Most industrial hygienists have college degrees in engineering or the natural sciences, such as biology, chemistry, biochemistry or microbiology. This is supplemented by specialized training in industrial hygiene. The science of industrial hygiene is dedicated to anticipating, recognizing, evaluating and controlling the causes of occupational illness. Since industrial hygienists are trained to evaluate environments for factors that affect health and comfort, qualified industrial hygienists are key members in most indoor air quality investigations. In addition, because industrial hygienists have fundamental training in ventilation engineering, environmental health, toxicology and microbiology, an industrial hygienists (IH) can assist you in determining when the input of other professions would be helpful.
Mechanical Engineers and Contractors: Engineers are invaluable in understanding the intended design parameters of HVAC systems. Their input is essential when it comes to designing retrofits to existing HVAC systems to improve indoor air quality. Many mechanical contractors (nonengineers) are helpful in implementing changes to air-handling equipment, but may not have the mechanical engineering background required to design effective solutions.
Architects: Architects are in a position to understand how building design can affect indoor air quality. They are also responsible for specifying interior building finishes and building components which are part of the total IAQ equation. Look for an architect with formal training or experience in preventing indoor air quality problems.
Medical Professionals: Occupational physicians and occupational health nurses have specific training in aspects of the work environment, and can help IAQ investigators target potential sources of health complaints. An occupational physician should be consulted whenever a specific disease (such as Legionnaires' Disease) is believed to be attributable to indoor air.
Other Professions: Building occupants often report nonspecific symptoms, such as headaches, eye discomfort or muscle aches. Although occupants may identify these symptoms as being related to building air quality, some of these reports may actually be associated with improper lighting, noise or poorly designed work stations. Many industrial hygienists have the expertise to assess and resolve most lighting, noise or ergonomic problems. If such problems require additional expertise, the IH can refer you to illumination engineers, acoustics specialists or professional ergonomists.
The Indoor Air Quality Team Approach: In larger indoor air quality assessments, it is important to form a team of professionals drawn from the appropriate disciplines. Through their professional training and broad practical experience, industrial hygienists are uniquely suited to the team approach. If lack of time or resources prohibits forming a team, an industrial hygienist with sufficient training and experience can provide the skills necessary to investigate and resolve most indoor air problems.
How to Find the Best Indoor Air Quality Consultant for Your Needs
It is far better to be prepared before an indoor air quality problem is reported. Proactive organizations develop an indoor air quality management plan that describes procedures for (1) preventing indoor air problems and (2) responding to problems as soon as they are recoganized. As part of your organization's plan, you may want to include a short list of consultants competent in indoor air quality-related issues.
The following are suggested steps in the IAQ consultant screening process:
Once you have chosen your consultant, it is up to you to make sure the occupants are kept informed of progress on the problem and involved in the process. Occupant involvement enhances credibility and helps to ensure success. It is important to accurately communicate the indoor air survey timetable and status. Communicating the limitations of current knowlege will help establish realistic expectations. Many consultants are experienced in this aspect of the project and can help you develop credible information for distribution.
Once you receive the indoor air quality report from the consultant, read it carefully, especially the conclusions and recommendations. It will often not be feasible to implement all the recommendations at once, so prioritize the response in a manner that suits the seriousness of your situation and level of resources. You may be called upon by upper management, the occupants or a regulatory agency to justify your actions or inaction. Try to get the support of all parties by informing them, stage-by-stage, of your progress.
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