When most people think of sustainability, they think of things like renewable power, energy and water conservation, or recycling. But sustainability is all about recognizing the interconnectedness of things. That means taking care of the things that take care of the things that take care of us: like our air. And though we often think of the environment as what’s outdoors, there is also an environment indoors, and we need to take care of that, too.
Why should we care about indoor air quality (IAQ)?
Well, the first reason is our health. Consider the following facts: First of all, most people spend roughly 90 percent of their time indoors these days.
Secondly, indoor air pollution is two to five times higher than what is generally found outdoors. With help from the American Lung Association of Minnesota, here is a list of pollutants that can often be found lurking within our indoor air. These generally fall into several categories including:
- Products of combustion (e.g. ash, soot, carbon monoxide, polycyclic aromatic compounds)
- Biological agents such as molds, pet dander, and pollen
- Volatile organic compounds
- Metal dust such as mercury or lead
- Radioactive particles such as radon, and
- Cooking effluents including nanoparticles
The Environmental Protection Agency lists poor indoor air quality as the fourth largest environmental threat to our country. Quite often the health impacts of poor indoor air show up as allergies and asthma. There are an estimated 40 million individuals in the United States who are affected by allergies, and the prevalence rate of pediatric asthma has increased by 72.3 percent. Asthma is now the sixth ranking chronic condition in our nation and the leading serious chronic illness of children in the U.S.
Poor indoor air quality can also be detrimental to the long-term health of buildings and structures, primarily due to excessive moisture and mold which can accumulate and weaken structural materials.
Recent studies have found that indoor air quality can have a significant impact on workplace productivity as well.
Sources of indoor pollution include combustion processes, such as cooking, fireplaces and furnaces in the home, or any number of manufacturing processes in the workplace, even printers and copiers. A second source, which has received a great deal of attention lately, is that of synthetic materials ranging from paint and carpeting to industrial adhesives, cleaning supplies, plastics, furniture finishes and numerous other things that all have been found to emit a class of indoor pollutants known as volatile organic compounds (VOC). VOCs are chemicals that off-gas easily from products and mix with the indoor air that building inhabitants breathe in thousands of times a day. According to UL Environment, the vast majority of these compounds, as much as 96 percent, are introduced in the construction of buildings.
That is why so much attention is now being given, through programs like LEED and GREENGUARD, to certify those materials being used in buildings, so as to minimize or eliminate VOC exposure from these sources.
According to the American Lung Association, the primary line of defense against indoor air pollution is prevention. Keeping those materials that emit dangerous VOCs out of the building in the first place is the simplest and most effective way to deal with the problem. If it’s too late for that, if the building is completed and can’t be remediated, the next best thing is adequate ventilation. That assumes that bringing in outdoor air will improve air quality, which is generally, though not always, true — since, in some cases, the outdoor air could be even more polluted depending on location.
Finally, air cleaners or purifiers — which circulate air through filters that can remove some of the contaminants — can also be helpful, though as Ben Franklin famously said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Image courtesy of UL Environment