You may associate air pollution with smog-belching smokestacks or bumper-to-bumper L.A. traffic, but harmful air pollution can affect an ordinary home or office space. Although we don’t discuss it as frequently as outdoor pollution, indoor air quality impacts our lives just as much, if not more. Office managers shouldn’t underestimate the importance of indoor air quality. In your role, you need to know how to detect possible indoor air quality issues and prevent potential health hazards.
With more and more studies directly connecting the quality of a building’s air significantly to its occupants’ overall health and ability to focus, office managers need to be well-educated on the effects of indoor air pollution and the importance of air filtration. For those seeking to understand how to improve indoor air quality, this article will explain the health effects of poor indoor air quality, explore what causes poor indoor air quality and offer tips to improve indoor air quality in office spaces.
How Does Indoor Air Quality Affect Your Health?
Before we can understand the effects of indoor air pollution and why you should focus on indoor air quality, we must first answer the question: What is indoor air quality (IAQ)? As its name implies, IAQ refers to the quality of the air within and directly surrounding a particular building. The nature of indoor air quality and its link to individuals’ health, productivity, comfort and well-being make the quality of a building’s air a major concern for building managers, tenants, business owners and employees alike.
Many of us spend up to 90% of the day indoors, so it should come as no surprise that the quality of a building’s air directly affects its occupants’ health and ability to function at their highest capacity. But the extent to which IAQ can impact health may be a bit of a shock — the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that some indoor environments can have levels of pollutants even higher than the pollutant levels outside.
Many people believe staying indoors is an effective way to avoid breathing polluted air, but inside air contains pollutants from outside, plus added contaminants from indoor activities, such as smoke from cooking or fumes from cleaning products and building materials. The EPA has said indoor air pollution is typically between two and five times greater than outdoor air pollution, with the potential of being up to 100 times worse than the outside air.
This poor quality of air is partly due to keeping office windows closed to shield employees from outside pollutants. Despite good intentions, closing windows cuts down on a building’s ventilation and means every breath an employee takes in a cubicle or conference room raises the carbon dioxide level. This high concentration of CO2 can lead to headaches and drowsiness.
Indoor air pollutants can also lead to more severe illnesses. Because of the potential health problems posed by poor indoor air quality, the EPA has consistently ranked indoor air pollution among the top five environmental risks to public health. Even carefully run buildings can unknowingly experience excess air pollutants indoors, so it’s essential to recognize the symptoms of poor indoor air quality.
Why is indoor air quality important? Here are three signs that poor indoor air quality is affecting your health.
1. Sick Building Syndrome
Sick building syndrome (SBS) is just as it sounds: a sickness that stems from spending too much time in a building with poor air quality. Because of their similar symptoms, SBS is easy to mistake for a bad cold or the flu. Pay attention to whether your symptoms improve after leaving a specific building and return when you go back, which is a significant indication that SBS is to blame.
SBS usually includes skin, respiratory or neurological symptoms like these:
- Dizziness and nausea
- Difficulty concentrating or forgetfulness
- Throat irritation
- Chest tightness and respiratory illness
- Runny nose
2. Lower Productivity
According to the EPA, poor indoor air quality may cost the nation tens of billions of dollars every year in lost productivity and medical care coverage. That’s because conference rooms with constantly closed windows create increased levels of carbon dioxide in the room, resulting in drowsiness, headaches and trouble concentrating. The source of this productivity loss is a large number of pollutants in the air which reduces the amount of oxygen available to the brain, resulting in declined cognitive abilities.
On the flip side, the EPA has reported a direct connection between improved indoor and higher productivity and fewer lost workdays. Research also found that employees who worked in an environment with high-quality indoor air performed 60% better in cognitive tasks than those in a traditional office space. Because better air quality improves oxygen flow to the brain and cognitive performance, investing in better air quality will pay off for organizations in the long run.
3. Respiratory Problems
Severe indoor air pollution can contribute to more serious health issues, especially for those with underlying conditions. High levels or concentrations of air contaminants like dust, mold and secondhand smoke can exacerbate existing respiratory problems or cause new ones. More toxic pollutants, such as asbestos, formaldehyde or carbon monoxide, may result in severe health conditions.
Extremely poor indoor air quality can lead to these long-term illnesses:
- Lung cancer
- Respiratory infections
- Rapid heartbeat and heart disease
- Chronic lung disease
What Causes Poor Indoor Air Quality?
Indoor air quality is a complex concept. Many variables play a role in making up the air’s composition, such as a building’s design, maintenance and surrounding outside air, and they are always changing. Although the exact quality of indoor air at a specific point can be hard to pin down, the EPA has been able to identify which pollutants affect it the most.
These are the three primary indoor air pollutant categories to be aware of.
- Chemical pollutants: Chemical pollutants are often products of combustion, such as tobacco smoke and nitrogen dioxide, but can also include accidental chemical spills and emissions from products like cleaning products or office equipment.
- Particles: A particle is a solid or liquid substance light enough to hang in the air, such as dust and dirt. These tiny particles usually come from outside and can be harmful to human health.
- Biological contaminants: Contaminants like large concentrations of bacteria, viruses, dander, pollen and molds typically come from inadequate building maintenance or moisture from spills, humidity and condensation. This kind of pollutant is especially hazardous for those with allergies or asthma.
Within these categories, there are many different forms of toxins and pollutant possibilities. Depending on a building’s structure, upkeep, ventilation and location, its indoor air could have a variety of particles and pollutants. Not all offices will have the same variables, but there are some standard sources of air pollution for every building manager to watch out for.
Here are some specific factors that contribute to indoor air quality.
- Smoke: Regardless of a no-indoor-smoking rule, smoke can still cling to someone’s skin or clothing and accompany them inside the building. Containing more than 400 chemical compounds, cigarette smoke is particularly dangerous to have inside a poorly ventilated space.
- Dust: Dust and mites may seem tiny enough to ignore, but these minuscule particles can circulate around a building and set off a string of allergy symptoms.
- Mildew and mold: A change in temperature can quickly lead to condensation and moisture, which serves as a breeding ground for mold and mildew. Buildings with water damage are especially susceptible to mildew and mold problems.
- Chemicals: Chemicals can come from building materials, furniture, upholstery and practically every manufactured item, making proper office ventilation essential.
With all these microscopic causes of poor indoor air quality, it can be overwhelming to know when your building’s air quality needs a boost. In particular, it can be challenging to detect potential air quality issues within large commercial facilities. Often, health symptoms are the most reliable signs of air quality issues, but it’s always preferable to clear out air pollutants before sickness strikes.
If you notice your building occupants starting to show SBS symptoms, follow these three steps to addressing indoor air quality.
- Investigate: Before deciding there’s something wrong with your building’s airflow, look into whether other environmental factors like noise, poor lighting and thermal comfort could be affecting employees. Once you’ve eliminated these possibilities, it’s time to examine the quality of your indoor air.
- Inspect: Check out the building’s ventilation system to make sure it’s taking in the right amount of air from outside and distributing it throughout the building well. Also, make sure the filtration systems are functioning correctly.
- Test: Air testing kits are a great way to detect air pollutants within a space. You can submit samples to a lab for analysis of whether your building has high levels of mold, asbestos, carbon monoxide, toxic gases and other chemicals.
How to Improve Air Quality Inside Your Office
Now that you’ve seen the dangers and causes of poor indoor air quality, you may be wondering how you can improve your workplace indoor air quality. Luckily, there are many ways to purify your workplace’s indoor air and make sure your employees are comfortable. Putting a little extra effort into keeping your building well-maintained will go a long way toward eliminating air pollutants and increasing productivity.
Take a look at these top 10 ways to improve office air quality and protect employee health.
1. Test Regularly
Routinely testing your workplace’s levels of indoor pollutants, regardless of any SBS symptoms, will allow you to stay on top of your building’s air quality and detect any abnormalities before they become a problem. Air quality tests should include checking for mold, airflow, ventilation, odd odors, humidity levels and water damage. A professional air quality test will tell you exactly what you need to fix within your building to improve its indoor air.
2. Unblock Vents
Make sure your building’s air vents are fully opened and unblocked. Cabinets, storage boxes, chairs or other furniture in front of an air vent could disrupt the circulation throughout the building and negatively affect the quality of air, resulting in health issues.
3. Change HVAC Filters
To see the benefits of indoor air filtration, try to clean your HVAC system regularly as well as change its filters. A clogged HVAC filter can put a stop to your building’s airflow and speed up the rate at which pollutants collect in your enclosed space. Letting dust and debris build up within a clogged air filter will cause allergens to settle inside your air ducts and risk your employees’ health.
4. Check Air Ducts
You’ll need to inspect and clean your air ducts regularly, especially if you recently had a clogged air filter. To prevent any major health concerns, call in an expert to assess and fix your air ducts if you notice any signs that they may be interfering with your building’s circulation or air quality and in need of professional cleaning.
5. Freshen the Air
Use commercial-grade equipment, such as dehumidifiers, air purifiers and air scrubbers, to clean your building’s air. Investing in top-of-the-line air-cleaning devices will keep your indoor air quality at an appropriate level and save you from having to hire professionals to fix problems later.
6. Go Natural
Thanks to photosynthesis, indoor plants are a workplace’s secret weapon for pure air. Adding an office plant will decrease the amount of carbon dioxide in the air and increase the levels of oxygen released into the air to make breathing easier. As a bonus, the greenery will give your office space a more peaceful and pleasing aesthetic.
7. Open Up
Let fresh air in through an open window whenever possible. Windows are a great way to promote natural airflow and circulation throughout a building. If your office has windows, open them whenever the weather permits so that stale air has an outlet and fresh air can come in.
8. Monitor Humidity
A healthy level of humidity is crucial to indoor air quality. Make sure your building’s humidity level hovers somewhere between 30 and 50% to prevent dust mites, mold and other allergens from thriving. Air conditioners and a dehumidifier can be your allies in maintaining your workplace’s proper humidity.
9. Mop up Spills
To avoid mildew and mold from excess moisture, clean up any workplace spills immediately. Water damage and residual dampness support the growth of mold and mildew, which is detrimental to human health. Prevent this problem before it arises by taking care of leaks and spills as soon as someone brings it to your attention.
10. Keep Your Building Clean
Scheduling regular professional deep cleans for your workplace is the easiest way to maintain its indoor air quality. Thorough cleanings will keep contaminants and allergens from spreading through the air, get rid of dust and reduce the chance of mold growth.
Between cleaning appointments, keep a clean workspace by clearing away clutter and disposing of garbage before it has time to build up. Look for a cleaning service that uses eco-friendly cleaning products instead of harsh chemicals that could harm your building occupants’ health.
Contact Shine Facility Services to Improve Your Air Quality
If you need a one-stop-shop to sanitize your building and raise standards of cleanliness, contact Shine Facility Services. At Shine, we use green cleaning products and disinfectants to protect and preserve the health of your office. Our goal is to deliver top-quality commercial cleanings that are sustainable and effectively reduce air pollutants.
To get started on making your office a safer and more productive place to work, request a quote from Shine Facility Services today.