The air we breathe

By Sheri Lucas
April 4th, 2012

I am very pleased to present a guest post from my friend, Anthony Bernheim, who I consider to be a force in the world of air quality and the built environment.

In his over 25 years of work on integrated building practices—as a planner, architect, and consultant—Anthony, FAIA, LEED Fellow, and Director of Sustainability, Architecture for AECOM Architecture, has been a pioneer in expanding the definition of sustainability. One of the first built environment practitioners to recognize the connection between health and air quality, Mr. Bernheim has long championed the cause for good indoor air quality practices and has offered significant work in the field of practice.

This topic is of particular interest because we spend most of our time indoors, and sometimes indoor air is more polluted than outdoor air. Please read on to learn more about the link between health and indoor air quality, and if you have any questions or tips on ensuring good indoor air, please leave a comment! (—SL)

Anthony BernheimTake a deep breath. Exhale. Do you know what was in the air that you just inhaled?

The Food and Drug Administration requires nutrition fact labels on food products to help us decide whether to eat or not eat a particular food.

We are not, however, provided with similar help in understanding what’s in the air we’re breathing—or what impact those chemicals in the air might have on our health.

The air in buildings comes from the outside, yet it is not necessarily always “fresh” and may in fact be contaminated with numerous chemicals, formaldehyde and ozone. That not-so-fresh “outside” air is then brought into our buildings where more chemicals are added to the mix.

The result is indoor air that is a complex chemical soup whose ingredients include:

  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted from building materials, contents and cleaning products
  • Semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs) from fire retardants, pesticides, and plasticizers
  • Microbial organisms and microbial volatile organic compounds (MVOCs) from mold
  • Inorganic chemicals such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and ozone
  • Particulate matter from generated fuel combustion, occupant activities and equipment

Health Impacts

Human bodies were not designed to accommodate many of the chemicals to which we are exposed, and the subsequent health impacts of this exposure are becoming more widely understood. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines these impacts as:

  • Sick Building Syndrome (SBS): “Term that refers to a set of symptoms that affect some number of building occupants during the time they spend in the building and diminish or go away during periods when they leave the building; cannot be traced to specific pollutants or sources within the building.”
  • Building Related Illnesses (BRI): “Diagnosable illness whose symptoms can be identified and whose cause can be directly attributed to airborne building pollutants (e.g., Legionanaire’s disease, hypersensitivity pneumonitis), Also: A discrete, identifiable disease or illness that can be traced to a specific pollutant or source within a building.”
  • Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS): “A condition in which a person reports sensitivity or intolerance (as distinct from ‘allergic’) to a number of chemicals and other irritants at the very low concentrations. There are different views among medical professionals about the existence, causes, diagnosis, and treatment of this condition.”

Providing a healthy indoor environment

Good air is healthy airWhile providing good indoor air quality (IAQ) seems a complicated endeavor, there are four different solutions that can go a long way toward providing healthier indoor environments:

  • Source Control: This is generally the most effective way to improve indoor air quality by out-rightly eliminating the individual sources of pollution or reducing their emissions.
  • Ventilation (PDF*): If natural ventilation is used, pay particular attention to the quality of the outside air but overall a properly designed, installed, operated and maintained HVAC system can promote indoor air quality.
  • Building and IAQ commissioning: Originally intended to ensure energy efficiency, commissioning also ensures improved air quality and occupant comfort. Regular re-commissioning provides opportunity for continual fine-tuning and catching air quality deficiencies before they become pronounced.
  • Building maintenance: Maintaining mechanical systems (filter changes) and cleaning with environmentally friendly cleaning products can significantly improve the air quality and occupant health over the long term.

Sheri’s note: Think about how you might incorporate these solutions into your own home or office. For instance, when you purchase new flooring, furniture, or built-ins consider letting them “air out” in their new home by opening up the windows, blowing the air out with a fan, and flushing out the bad stuff. Here are some more tips for reducing VOC exposure in the home. Build It Green offers some great info and tips, as well.

Connecting air and health

Imagine being able to test the indoor air at your workspace or home to identify individual chemicals there, then connecting those chemicals to potential short- and long-term health effects.Imagine if we could test the indoor air surrounding your workspace or home to identify the individual chemicals within. We could then begin to connect those chemicals to potential short- and long-term health effects based on exposure to chemicals of concern. Such testing may happen sooner than we think.

In the early 2000s, a Special Environmental Requirement for buildings was developed, requiring building material manufacturers to identify VOCs that are listed as chemicals of concern by the California EPA. Many building product manufacturers are now submitting their materials for this testing and are using third-party certifiers for verification purposes.

Sheri’s note: Build It Green also offers a nice product directory that can aid you in selecting the right maintenance and remodeling products and includes the distinct practices that each product meets. For instance, the kitchen and bath caulking I selected is designated low-VOC by three different rating systems. While the site is local to the San Francisco Bay Area, many of the products listed are available throughout the U.S.

More than anything, everyone from building designers to occupants should ask questions about building materials and to request information from manufacturers. There are no easy answers – yet. The more questions we ask, and the more frequently we ask them, will result in the information we need to ensure good indoor air quality.


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