Can my workplace have poor air quality?

The below article talks about indoor air quality, what you could be possibly breathing in, the credible threats to air quality in your workspace, what could be done to address these concerns, and some frequently asked questions about mitigating poor indoor air quality. 

Can my workplace have poor air quality?

By law, workspaces are supposed to be safe and healthy areas and are not supposed to pose a threat to any employee’s physical, mental, emotional, or holistic health. But, it is not uncommon for workspaces to have poor air quality, the impacts on your health could appear as flu symptoms and are thus usually ignored for the same reasons. However, long-term exposure to such poor conditions could have devastating impacts including inducing cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorders, asthma, etc. Therefore, it is crucial to continuously evaluate the indoor air quality of your workspace, to ensure that you’re not exposed to any toxic airborne contaminants, and if there are higher concentrations of these pollutants, it is important that your employer take the necessary mitigatory steps to address these concerns. 

Indoor Air quality

Good levels of indoor air quality, a key element to ensuring good physical and mental health; are quite often overlooked because of the assumption that there are no “pollutants” inside your house, office space, basement, etc. However, this is wrong as there are varying sources of airborne pollutants and these can have short-term to chronic health impacts on people depending on their age, health history, sex, duration of exposure, etc. Indoor air quality can be improved by several methods from installing an air purifier. dehumidifier/ humidifier, removing sources of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), having proper ventilation systems, cleaning your upholsteries, getting rid of mold and mildew indoors, etc. 

What could you be breathing indoors?

Mildew, mold, and mold spores 

Mold thrives and grows in damp environments leading to infestations that could have dire effects on health. 80% of Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) is contributed to mold infestations, the most common form being the black mold. Mildew and mold grow in environments that are damp, therefore, it is best to get rid of excess moisture in the room or basement by sealing any pipe leaks, getting a dehumidifier, etc. 

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) 

Various old buildings have been found to use unsafe paint and asbestos, while this is being rectified in the larger common areas; they are usually ignored in the lesser-visited spaces like a basement. Therefore, particles like lead dust, radon, other carcinogens, etc. would be present along with other particles originating from old upholstery, adhesives, paints, carpeting, varnishes, old furniture, pesticides, cleaning products, gym machines, gardening equipment, etc. 

Fiberglass particles

Fiberglass insulation is commonly used in basements and is one of the major contributors to poor basement air quality. Since fiberglass is present all across ceilings and walls, there is very little effort made to reduce the impact caused by breathing in small glass particles. It is also used in the manufacture of piping, sports equipment, fire protection equipment, drum sets, etc. So, breathing in fiberglass doesn’t necessarily originate from insulation, it could be a breakdown of particles from items stored in a basement. 

Allergens

The dust, mites, pollen, vermin, and its droppings, mold spores, bacteria build-ups, mildew particles, pet dander, etc. are some particles that can trigger allergic reactions. If there is equipment like washing machines and dryers, chances are lint is being inhaled as well. Not cleaning long-time stored equipment could trigger infestations that spread rapidly across stored items in a basement, room, office space, etc. leading to increased breakdowns of toxic particles. 

Toxic air pollutants 

With increasing quantities of air pollution globally from varying sources, the air around us is contaminated with various chemical fumes, vehicular emissions, chemical particles, toxic pollutants, particulate matters, etc. that can cause irritation with respiratory systems and thus cause respiratory issues, these pollutants can travel indoors through your ventilation systems and settle indoors thus increasing your exposure to these pollutants. 

Chemical fumes

Fumes from paints, pesticides, cleaning products, bleach, varnishes, gas, solvents, etc. emanate strong chemical fumes. These fumes could cause inflammation to the outer skin as well as to lung tissue and can contribute to poisoning or cancer due to long-term exposure. A radioactive chemical that is often present in basements is radon. Radon has been found to be the 2nd largest contributor to lung cancer in the US, with an average of 21,000 deaths every year (EPA, n.d.). Since radon is odorless and colorless, poisoning from radon is usually identified quite late. 

Workplace air quality concerns and solutions

The below table suggests a few activities or elements that could reduce air quality levels in your workspace, and also provide solutions as to what could be done to improve the air quality in the area and reduce its impact on your overall health. 

Possible sources of air pollutants in your workspaceSolutions 
Cigarette smoke Contains several toxic airborne contaminants Can have devastating impacts on physical and environmental healthEnsure that there is a strict policy on smoking and that all employees comply with the same guidelines to avoid smoking indoors.It is not uncommon for smoke particles to stick to individuals, even when they smoke in the designated areas; therefore, it is possible that individuals act as carriers of pollutants into your workspace. Using an air purifier could help remove these pollutants and improve air quality. Opening windows or using ventilation systems could significantly improve indoor air quality and remove stagnant air from enclosed spaces while bringing in the clean and fresh air. 
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)From air fresheners, fragrances, aerosol cans, etc.Burning of certain substancesFrom paints, varnishes, lacquers, fertilizers, preservatives, cleaning agents, disinfectants, insecticides, fuel sources, and its combustion, etc. Ensure that what products you are able to control the usage of within your workspace are organic and do not thus release any toxic contaminants.Ensure that if any activity requires burning of any substance or fuel, it is done so in a well-ventilated area, and not in enclosed spaces. Ensure that employees use a mask in instances where the space may need to be fumigated or disinfected, or even ensure that they are removed from the area if possible. Use an air purifier to clean out the air in your enclosed space. Opening windows or using ventilation systems could significantly improve indoor air quality and remove stagnant air from enclosed spaces while bringing in the clean and fresh air. 
RadonToxic, odorless, colorless, and radioactive gas that can have devastating impacts on physical and environmental health.One of the leading causes of lung cancer in the US. Released from the soil, water, or air, during the decay of uranium.Ensure that your workspace is periodically evaluated for pollutants and its concentrations, especially radon.Ensure that your workplace has the necessary mitigatory frameworks set in place for radon protection and control. Ensure that any mitigation systems would match the capacities for your workspace and that it is periodically maintained. Do not ignore any physical symptoms of radon poisoning, and ensure that you and your workmates are protected from radon exposure. Ensure that any cracks you may observe in foundations or walls are sealed immediately.Ensure that the building materials used in your workspace do not emit toxic contaminants, including but not limited to radon.  
Other common measures you could take would include the following:Ensure that you do not block grails and vents with any office furniture Coordinate with the appropriate department to ensure that there are periodical checkups of air quality in your workspace and that necessary mitigation frameworks are enforced, should the need arise. Ensure that any contractor hired by your employer has the right credentials and is authorized to conduct air quality testing and suggest required steps to address any concerns. Encourage plants with the capability of cleaning the air in your office, and ensure they are placed in strategic locations which could immensely improve air quality. Dispose of waste in accordance with your country’s waste management guidelines to ensure that you’re not exposed to any hazardous contaminants. Avoid using products or bringing in agents that could potentially reduce air quality in your workspace.Ensure that all employees are aware of elements that could reduce air quality in the workspace, what they could do to keep healthy levels of air quality, etc. Using an air purifier in accordance with your workspace’s area could drastically improve indoor air quality. Ensure that any such system implemented in the area is maintained and evaluated periodically.Immediately notify the respective authorities if you observe symptoms of pollutant poisoning, especially if there are a larger number of people experiencing similar symptoms. Do not forget that most symptoms could appear like the flu with other additional symptoms, therefore, it is always best to ensure that air quality in your workspace is healthy. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs): What are credible threats to air quality in my workspace?

Can smoking cause air pollution or reduce air quality?

Yes, cigarette smoking can cause air pollution and significantly reduce air quality, as it emits toxic air-born pollutants on usage. But the impacts of cigarette smoking are not limited to air pollution, it causes or triggers other forms of environmental degradation by [romoting deforestation, increasing toxic wastes, soil pollution, water pollution, wildfires, contamination of water sources, destruction of marine and land ecosystems, etc. In enclosed spaces, cigarette smoke could linger, and significantly reduce the mitigation efficiency of any air purifying strategy,.  

Can air conditioners filter out smoke from a room?

The truth about filtering smoke from a room is that air conditioners are not capable of doing so. AC filters can remove dust, soot, and other finer particles from an enclosed space, however, most AC filters do not have the capability to filter out heavy smoke from a room in hopes to improve indoor air quality. Heavy smoke compromises a large concentration of fine particles, which could easily travel through an AC’s filter, thus, essentially it would move through the filters and be pumped back into the room.

Other FAQs about Air quality that you may be interested in.

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How is the air quality in Yosemite?

Can Air Pollution Make You Sick?

References

British Lung Foundation. (2021, August). What are the risks of indoor air pollution in my workplace? Viewed on 02-18-2022. https://www.blf.org.uk/support-for-you/indoor-air-pollution/indoor-air-pollution-at-work 

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). (n.d.). An office building occupants guide to indoor air quality. Viewed on 02-18-2022. https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/office-building-occupants-guide-indoor-air-quality  

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). (n.d.). Health Risk of Radon. United States EPA. Viewed on 02-18-2022.  https://www.epa.gov/radon/health-risk-radon    

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