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Indoor Air Quality: At Home and in the Workplace

Clean Air Month, also Asthma Awareness Month, is a time to recognize the American Lung Association’s efforts to ensure that the air we breathe indoors and outdoors is clean and safe from harmful pollution. It’s also a good time to remember the importance of indoor air quality (IAQ) in the workplace, as poor indoor air quality can have significant health effects.

As Americas spend about 90% of their time indoors, continued exposure to indoor air pollutants can affect all ages and be particularly harmful to those who have pre-existing health conditions such as heart disease and asthma. It’s also possible to develop adverse health effects such as asthma and other chronic lung diseases from repeated exposure to indoor pollutants.

While we often think about common pollutants such as smoke, dust mites, mold, pests, and pets, there are many other pollutants that can contaminate indoor air. These include pollutants from the building itself—asbestos, paints, fabric/carpet treatments, as well as from standard building operation—carbon monoxide, fuel emissions, nitrogen dioxide, and cleaning fumes.

To protect yourself from indoor air pollutants, the American Lung Association highlights three actions: source control, ventilation, and air cleaning. The most effective way to reduce exposure to indoor air pollutants is to eliminate, or significantly reduce, the pollutant altogether. Limit using materials that have scents, avoid the burning of candles and other scent/soot releasing items, reduce the amount of household cleaners and other products containing Volatile Organic Compounds, and eliminate as much as possible household furniture and other items that have been chemically treated. Regular dusting and vacuuming can also help reduce the number of allergens that accumulate indoors.

The second step is to increase ventilation in the home and to make sure that your current ventilation is effective. Regularly opening your windows can greatly help to add clean, fresh air into the home, provided that it is not a day with poor outdoor air quality. You also want to make sure that your cooking ventilation and bathroom ventilation systems are working properly in order to pull any smoke, particulates, and moist air out of the home quickly.

Finally, it is important that the air entering your home is properly cleaned. Check your HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) filters to make sure they are not clogged, and check the manufacturer’s guidelines on frequency of replacement. If you have a particularly dusty home, you may need to upgrade your filters to be more efficient.

IAQ issues can be found at home and where you work. While the above steps may be straightforward to assess and implement at home, that’s often not the case in the workplace. A more targeted review is often needed to identify the root cause of employee symptoms, such as headaches, eye and respiratory tract irritation, difficulty breathing, or generally just feeling “off.” Is there not enough ventilation to remove the carbon dioxide being exhaled from workers? Is there vapor intrusion from the building materials? Are fumes from the laboratory or facilities areas entering a space that they shouldn’t be?

An Indoor Air Quality Assessment can be done to target and mitigate or remove the issue. Depending on the situation, this may involve a facility inspection, air sampling and analysis, and an evaluation of the building ventilation and airflow.

For additional information on indoor air quality, or for assistance conducting an Indoor Air Quality Assessment at your workplace, please contact us.

This blog was written by Sara Evarts, CIH, Safety Partners’ Associate Director of Industrial Hygiene.

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